TECHNICAL TOPIC: THE DREADED DEATH WOBBLE
APPLICATION: 1994-2008 DODGE RAM
If you’re the owner of any Dodge HD truck and haven’t had any issues related to the front end suspension and/or steering, you’re either oblivious to it, or you’ve managed to find a one in a million truck. Since the release of the EXTREMELY popular 1994 Dodge Ram through the current generation of Rams, there have always been woes on the integrity, and many times the safety of these trucks in regards to the front end. Typically, the 1994-2002 (called the 2nd Generation Rams) mostly had issues stemming from premature failure of the steering gear boxes, causing an extremely loose feeling that would work its way down through all of the tie rods and ball joints. Most drivers would explain this looseness as “driving Miss Daisy” in which you’re driving down the road and constantly correcting the steering because of having to over steer the truck. On top of this, most notice an extreme harshness when hitting pot holes, speed bumps, etc. that can be felt through the steering wheel. In extreme cases of these trucks, many will experience an occurrence commonly known as Death Wobble (we’ll talk about this later in the write up).
Next came the release of the 2003 Dodge Rams (called the 3rd Generation Rams) that were in production through 2009. With the design of these trucks came different suppliers of axles and axle housings in which Dodge got away from Dana axles and switched to American Axles that were larger in diameter, as well as slightly larger gear box, and a host of other “smaller” changes. These trucks do not have as big of an issue with gearbox failure, just overall the gearbox is relatively weak, and unable to do its job as effectively as it should (which Dodge finally upgraded on the 2009 models). The biggest complaint of these trucks are premature ball joint failure, which largely stems from looseness in the tie rods, similar to the 2nd Generation Rams, and this looseness many times leads to the previously mentioned Death Wobble.
Now, WHAT IS DEATH WOBBLE? From the driver’s seat, Death Wobble is a situation in which an absolutely violent shaking of the front end occurs and transfers through to the steering wheel causing an abrupt side to side movement and this occurrence can only be stopped by literally slowing the vehicle down to a stop. The most frequent situation in which Death Wobble occurs is driving at freeway speeds, going around a corner, and hitting a bump, or especially an expansion joint on a bridge…..then IT happens!
But what is the actual cause, or what is really happening during this event? Basically, the suspension decompresses, releasing load on the front end, allowing everything to “loosen up” a bit. Now, the wheels are able to toe-in and toe-out from each other (basically the front of the tires will point towards each other and then away from each other) in rapid succession, shaking the front end.
One of the biggest reasons that this toe-in/toe-out is even physically able to happen is due to a poor steering geometry from Dodge, there is literally a pivot point between the wheels that obviously should be connected. Basically, if you were to follow the steering geometry starting at the gearbox, you will find the drag link connecting to the pitman arm and then to the passenger side knuckle. Then, the center link connects at the drag link and goes to the drivers side knuckle. The point at which the drag link and center link connect is the pivot point.
Now, this pivot point isn’t necessarily the worst idea in the world, but especially as surrounding tie rods wear out and give some slop, it will DEFINITELY lead to Death Wobble.
In mid-model year 2008, Dodge finally made some corrective action to this whole scenario and released a revised steering geometry for the trucks. Now, the center link goes knuckle to knuckle, and the drag link ties into the center link, thus eliminating the pivot point between the wheels.
This new geometry was released “under the radar” some could say. To this day, Dodge will never admit to Death Wobble or anything of the sort. For instance, if you take your truck to the dealer and say you have Death Wobble, you will typically be looked at with unbeknownst eyes and will be forced to explain what the truck is doing….because they’ve never heard of such a thing. At that time, they will go through the front end and look for signs of wear, and will typically find that the…….(wait for it, wait for it) tie rods are worn and need to be replaced. But guess what, they won’t just change the tie rods, you will get an entirely new drag link and center link, which also features a MUCH larger diameter than the old stock system. You can’t even purchase replacement tie rods from the dealer for the old system, its been completely discontinued, wonder why?
So, now how do you fix or prevent Death Wobble? Obviously, the first and most obvious is to change out the steering linkage to the newer style. At this point, you must also change the steering damper (shock) because the new geometry does not allow fitment of the older shock. For this, the best stabilizer shock on the market is manufactured by Carli Suspension and it utilizes a Bilstein 7100 series nitrogen charged shock. This damper has a built-in valve stem that allows the end user to actually alter the pressure in the shock. The advantage to this is that you can get just the right amount of pressure to apply a constant pressure against the steering, actually helping the truck to track straighter and almost keep everything in a constant bind, helping in the longevity of the steering components.
And what else can be done to improve the front end….the list is almost endless for the Dodges! However, there are MANY items that are great upgrades for when the factory components begin to show signs of wear, as well. For instance, the ball joints. As mentioned previously, the factory ball joints on especially the 3rd Generation Rams are a high wear item, and there are replacements available that will LITERALLY last a lifetime (and guaranteed to do so), and they’re actually also made by Carli Suspension. Also, upgraded track bars by both BD and Carli Suspension are built out of much stronger materials than the factory units and are even adjustable for those with lift kits to get proper front end triangulation. Another popular item are steering box braces, like those by BD again. A steering box brace ties the sector shaft coming out of the gear box to the frame rail. The reason for this is that with Dodge’s subpar boxes, they will get flex and movement coming out of the sector shaft, which then transfers down through the steering. This movement many times goes along with the “driving Miss Daisy” effect we discussed earlier. This will also help with the longevity of the box, by eliminating this movement. And since we’re talking about gearboxes, this is the last “major” piece to the puzzle. Through trial and error, we found the best boxes on the market come from Red-Head Steering Gears coupled with a Borgeson steering shaft.