Text and photos by Bill Burke
Bill Burke, Frutia, CO, is one of America’s foremost off-road instructors through his Four-Wheeling America program. For more information, contact Bill at 970-858-3468 or at www.bb4wa.com –ed.
The red Moab dust blew into my eyes as I squinted to get a clear look at the worn U-joint on my Defender 90’s driveshaft. Changing a U-joint in the wind and sand will be a hassle, but that’s nothing compared to repairing it once it’s failed. I pulled into a less windblown wash and dug out my tools. I chocked the tires, unlocked the center diff and shifted into neutral in both gear boxes. Rummaging through the wrenches I wondered why I have to change this particular U-joint so often.
When I installed the suspension and spacer plates to lift the D90 almost 4” over stock, I installed custom trailing arms that allowed me to correct the pinion angle of the rear diff. However, that causes the rearmost U-joint to bind when I really flex the suspension. One solution would involve purchasing a custom driveline with a double Cardan Joint and increasing driveshaft flexibility to almost 35 degrees; another would be the shaved unit with up to 42 degrees. Yet my stock OE drivelines have provided faithful service for over 15 years such that I don’t mind changing a U-joint once a year. [Rovers North lift kits for the Defender, Discovery I/II and Range Rover Classic allow for the maximum 2” lift as recommended by Land Rover engineers. Lifting higher significantly changes suspension geometry necessitating a host of additional modifications to avoid subsequent driveline & suspension issues –ed.]
I grabbed the 14mm and the 9/16 wrenches to start the removal process. I know improper wrench selection like this can round off these critical nuts and bolts, but in the field, I must use what I have on hand. I used the 14mm box end to hold the head of the drive flange fastener and the 9/16” to spin off the nut. With SAE fasteners it made sense to keep the flats of the nut from rounding off with the proper wrench end. Since I put them on, I knew the torque required to loosen them. I got the two facing me on the bottom loose, released the hand brake to allow the shaft to turn over and accessed the other two. I cut a water bottle apart and used the bottom of it to hold the hardware. A chunk of slickrock kept the plastic from getting blown away in the wind.
With the rear-most flange loose, I tied it up with a short piece of rope to help me get at the front flange mounting nuts at the hand brake housing. I used a 1/4” drive ratchet with a 6” wobbly extension and a 9/16” 6-point socket to loosen the nuts. Once loosened, I released the hand brake and removed them all easily, rotating the shaft and turning the ratchet in sequence. The shaft came off and I dragged my sandy, windblown butt out from underneath the D90, keeping all the bits and pieces sand free—yeah right!
Now I wished I had a bench vise, but instead I had a 4.5” C-clamp that performed just fine when used with the correct terms, language and in the right tone of voice. I found that if I held my tongue just right and grimaced with my left cheek the job went quicker.
I grabbed the pre-packed and pre-lubed Genuine U-joint out of my spares kit. This one came from Rovers North. The OE needle bearings are bigger and the U-joint seems beefier than the ones I’ve picked up in a pinch from NAPA. I stick with Genuine Parts because the manufacturer has clearly designed them for strength and durability. When I get a new part for my trail repair kit, I always prepare it by cleaning off the shipping grease and pre-lubing it with Lucas Red Grease or similar high temperature, water resistant grease. Small critical parts like wheel bearing and U-joints tuck away easily into my kit. I have not broken a Genuine Land Rover U-joint; the only U-joint I have ever broken was a fancy Spicer unit I got from some driveshaft company.
After I cleaned out the circlip journals I grabbed the circlip tool and removed those pesky clips from the four journal openings of the shaft and flange. I saved them in case I dropped one of the new ones. Although I am only changing one U-joint I have marked the flanges and shaft as to the position and direction of the grease Zerks so I didn’t lose the shaft balance, or phasing. The rear step bumper and the receiver shackle bracket served as my work bench and I used a rubber mallet (you could use a soft faced hammer or dead blow) to whack the old U-joint end caps out of the flange. Two of the U-joint journals were in great shape. The other two were elliptical and scalded, with cracked or missing needle bearings. Now I am glad I replaced it!
Now came the tricky, sensitive part of this trail fix—installing the new U-joint. Since this exposed the delicate bearing surfaces I kept close watch for blown sand. Working on the floor board of the leeward side of the vehicle, I laid out a couple of clean shop towels. Disassembling the new U-joint, I removed the grease Zerk and placed the pieces on the towel in the positions of removal. I kept the bearing end caps with the U-joint journals aligned with the Zerk’s positioning on the towel. I wanted the caps and journals to match the original seating of their maching.
I held the shaft and inserted the bare journals. I aligned a corresponding cap into the flange hole on the outside and used the C-clamp to squeeze the cap into the flange hole and onto the U-joint journal. I made absolutely certain to keep the needles from falling, dirt from entering and the cap from jamming while I screwed the clamp onto the U-joint journal. I repeated the procedure for the other side. [If the cap starts to go in crooked it is best to stop early and reset it. Be gentle when “persuading” the caps into place –ed.] I used a socket that fit just inside the flange journal to press the caps further into the flange and seat both caps tightly. Not too tight mind you—there should be an ever so slight movement from the U-joint. I’ll adjust this once it is all finally assembled.
I grabbed the loose flange, made sure of my Zerk and alignment marks and repeated the installation procedure. The hard part came when I attempted to hold the stupid shaft from flopping around with my leg, arm, foot and a winch bag. I swear they were all diabolically in cahoots. I finessed or wrestled both ends in and got the caps to line up and the journals in place. I installed the circlips and with the rubber mallet whacked the shaft so that each of the four caps got pushed outward against the clips. This ensured that the U-joint had enough flex and space for the grease to coat the needles properly.
I shot a bit of grease into both U-joints on the shaft and made sure some came out of each cap. That way I knew that grease is making its way into the needles.
I put on my ancient Sears coveralls over my nice camping clothes and crawled back under the Defender. Like all Land Rover workshop manuals state: “To assemble, reverse the order.” So I installed the handbrake end of the shaft first and then the differential end. I used the hand brake to help secure the shaft so I could get the correct torque on the U-joint fasteners—yep, good ‘n tight and grease the U-joints and the slip yoke one more time to settle it all in.
I cleaned up the tools, repacked the gear, wiped my hands with some extra butt-wipes, checked for any loose trash or parts, removed my wheel chocks and engaged the drive boxes and gears to move the D90 forward a bit. I walk back to recheck the area and smile a big happy face for a job well done! Hey this gives me an idea for a Burke’s Corner article in Rovers Magazine!
Now I just need to find a camping spot for the night, preferably one that is out of the wind… maybe with a fire pit and a nice view of the sunset too.
See you on the trail.