The baja front end is plenty strong enough for the job, but wear & tear on the parts is a major issue! First, itís probably a 28-year-old vehicle and has had very few problems in its lifetime. Most of the parts are original, then consider that the added stresses of baja running are not kind (albeit fun).
Lucky for us, VW parts are cheap! Much of the labor can be done without a shop & specialized tools. Most of the adjustments are non-critical, meaning that a minor flaw in adjustments is still drivable and wonít cause a wreck. Hereís several of the major issues (in order of repair priority) regarding baja front ends.
Tie rod ends
King & Link
Something is bent
Wheel bearings are about the easiest thing in the front end to adjust, yet they cause the most trouble! Symptoms are "wandering" and constant steering corrections, or strange jerky-feeling steering & braking.
To adjust wheel bearings, jack up one side of the front end. Remove the grease cap from the hub (CAUTION: the speedo cable used to have a little circlip holding it stationary in the center of the grease cap, but itís probably gone already anyway). Loosen the lock nut (king & link) or allen bolt locking the spindle nut (ball joint). Spin the wheel, and tighten the spindle nut until the wheel stops. A single Oomph is all it takes. Loosen the spindle nut a quarter turn (maybe a little bit less). Repeat this a few times to be sure all the wheel bearings are tucked in nice and tight, then lock it down and reassemble.
Keep a little bit of wheel grease inside the grease cap! Itíll come in handy someday.
Look out for that left-hand-thread on one axle...
Shocks are less likely to ruin your life, as long as they are attached. Truly busted front shocks make every braking maneuver an adventure (read Pogo-stick), and good shocks are a pleasure.
I recommend KYB Gas-A-Just. A parts place tried telling me to buy wimpy shocks since shocks are not supposed to support & lift the front end, theyíre just supposed to absorb shock. I tried it, and they were wrong - get KYB Gas-A-Just.
If you have to ask, REPLACE. Durn things wear out all the time. Thereís some formula for how much play is allowed, but like I said, if you have to ask.... Theyíre $10 apiece. Thereís 4 of Ďem. They come in two sizes: small and large. You may consider a new tie rod while youíre at it, since itís $20 for tie rod ends and $25 for a replacement tie rod, ends included, and you needed a spare anyway. My preference has always been to bend the old tie rod while baja running (not recommended, but it sure is fun just before...!)
Tie rod end removal requires a pickle fork. Pickle forks come in two sizes: one for tie rod ends, one for ball joints. My opinion is, the lowly pickle fork is the most wonderful tool! I cussed up a storm when I bought this specialized tool Iíd only use once - then I used it for a drift, torsion arm tool, pittman arm remover, spacer, chisel, wedge, club and tuning fork. It was well worth the money.
Two varieties of pittman arm use the small tie rod end - one has a small shaft aperture, the other a large. Donít be surprised if your pittman arm changed along the way, since itís nearly impossible to buy a new steering box with the small shaft and everybody with old bajas is buying the newer steering box and pittman arm in combination. Ball joint front ends come with a steering damper - it attaches to the inside tie rod end of the long side, and also to the front end. This keeps things interesting - get the right parts!
Alignment is an evil beast on most cars, but not the baja! Thereís three adjustments: toe-in, camber and caster. Toe-in is the most critical, and you can adjust yourself by doing the following:
Get two 3-foot dowels from your favorite hardware store (60 cents each). Acquire two rubber bands and maybe a piece of sandpaper. Roll the car down a nice straight stretch, and let it roll to a stop with no steering & no brake input. Tie the dowels together with rubber bands, and adjust the dowels to measure the distance between the wide parts of the front tires in the front. Make a mark on the dowel. Measure the distance between the wide part of the tires in the rear. There should be ľ" difference - meaning, the back of the tires should be 1/4" wider than the front, that's why it's called toe-in. If thereís not, loosen the lock nuts on one of the tie rods, and twist the rod to make the adjustment longer or shorter - one end of the tie rod is right-hand-thread and the other is left-hand-thread. Sand your marks off of the dowel. Roll the car again... repeat the process until satisfied!
CAUTION: bent rims or lopsided tires screw this routine all up. Measure several times.
Donít forget to lock down the nuts on the tie rod.
Camber is controlled by 1) the number of shims in the king & link assembly, 2) an eccentric adjuster under the top ball joint. How to measure is another question - Iíve always adjusted my ball joint front end with camber all the way out. Better in the sand. The alignment shop verified that this is in-bounds for my car.
Caster is described as the twist in the front end. Itís adjustable by buying a shim kit & long bolts for the front endís attachment to the pan. Caster is what got me to the alignment shop - my front end has been nailed more than Madonna, and I have +1/2 degree on one side, -5 degrees on the other. The car pulls a little bit.
I wonder what these things are really called? Some say steering coupler, others say rag joint, since on the old chevys & fords it was made out of this rag-like material. Itís maybe 4 inches in diameter, round, black rubber, 4 bolt holes. Itís a donut. It connects your steering shaft from the steering wheel to the bracket on the splined end of the steering box. These suckers get dry and cracked - sometimes they get bad enough to fall to pieces, causing loss of steering (crash).
Cost is less than $10. Itís not a big deal to replace, just a knuckle-buster. See steering box (below) for details.
Ball joint front ends were built with a steering damper. Itís nice to absorb some of the shock, and keep the steering wheel from being jerked from your hands. The problem is, after 20-some years, the oil in your steering damper is the consistency of salad dressing.
New steering dampers are oversized when compared to stock (this is good). You can spend $60 or more on a White Power model, or do like I did and pick up a Brazilian Cofap for $10 new at the swap meet. Two bolts hold it on, but the one on the front end has locking tabs and can be a pain. The other end has a nut to attach to the inner passenger-side tie rod end. See tie rod ends (above) - werenít you gonna replace Ďem anyway?
Broken ball joints suck. They tend to leave you stranded in the wilderness. Worn ball joints make this horrible clanking sound over washboard roads, the grease seals are shot, and closer investigation under the shot grease seal shows how the metal cap holding the ball in has been worn to a larger size. Cracks appear in said metal cap - the end is near. Passenger side ball joints are usually the first to go - you too take all the bigger bumps on the passenger side, donít you?
Replacing ball joints is hard, but the good news is theyíre $25 apiece. They take a lot of abuse, so one set ought to last you well past the year 2000. Impacts with trees and large rocks changes the time scale a bit.
Thanks to Wayne, baja fanatic, for the following info: The main problem with ball joint front ends is that there is no facory stops! This is what blows ball joints (aside from trees). While the front beam is out for the addition of front-end adjusters, install "clackers" to limit travel. Every class nine racer has them.
To install clackers, remove front beam, and suspend beam in your BIG vise. The clackers come with two 1" thick steel rod, about five inches in length, and four hooks. Drill two holes, one on each side of the uprights on the beam, through both sides (all the way through) and exactly between each beam. Then weld the 1" rods so that each is flush toward the middle of the beam and sticks out on the out board side. Just tack for now, and finish welding later. Then, with the springs out but the trailing arms in, and with the ball joints hooked up (all outboard items in running order, only the springs are missing at this point) find the point at which your (new?) ball joints bottom out. These are the supension travel limits, both top and bottom, that blow ball joints, and it will seem at this point so very obvious why you are going to all of this trouble. Tack the hooks on the trailing arms so that the hook part contacts the 1" rod slightly before the ball joints bottom out, both top and bottom (one hook on each of the four traling arms.) The hooks should each rotate front to back, and point to the back of the car. With hard use, the 1" rod will fail first, so finish by spreading the stress on the rod by welding a piece of 1/4" thich plate, approx. 2" by 2", drilled with a 1/2" hole in the center to the flush side of the rod/upright. Use the hole drilled in the plate to tie directly in to the rod, and then weld completly around the plate to the upright. Your clackers will be a little noisy, but at least when you hear them, you know that they are working.
There are two methods for replacing ball joints, but both require the following:
Remove the shocks and tie rod ends. Chances are youíre gonna mess up the tie rod ends, but werenít you gonna replace Ďem anyway?
Remove the nuts and use a large pickle fork to get the spindle assembly away from the trailing arm. Some will tell you that you can hammer here & there and make the ball joints pop loose without a pickle fork. I tried for an hour. It wasnít easy. And then, the last ball joint proved itself impossible! I bought a $10 pickle fork, was done in 60 seconds, and found the pickle fork to be a most versatile tool.
Now, for the two methods of ball joint removal / replacement:
Method 1) Pray that you can find and rent/borrow this cool C-clamp looking ball joint press. It comes with a fitting to first press out the ball joint, then press a new one in. Impact wrenches are your friend here - it may be possible to do this without air tools, but Iím glad I didnít have to find out.
Method 2) Remove the trailing arms and take Ďem to a shop that will press out the old ball joints and press in the new ones. Removing trailing arms is a pain, since any bend in the front tubes makes it horrible to reinstall. On the other hand, hereís your opportunity to replace the bushings in the front end with urethane bushings! 6 more bolts and the front end is stripped and off the car - whaddya know, you can install front end adjusters! Consider going the extra mile!!!!
Iíve replaced king pins, but I canít remember much of the details. Thereís brass bushings in the spindle assembly. You have to press them out then press in new ones, you must hone the brass bushings so that the new link pin rotates easily. Thereís some hocus-pocus in the idiot book about how to set up shims. Thereís this eccentric adjuster to pull everything tight when reassembled.
The steering became so stiff, I could crank the wheel and drive in circles forever if I didnít straighten it back out. It was cool!
Shot steering boxes usually have one of the following: a spot where steering is very slack, or a hard spot that feels like a ratchet when turning the wheel. Steering is all over the place - if you hit grooves in the road the wheels like to track the grooves.
Steering boxes have an adjustment on top: Loosen the lock nut, turn the adjustment screw Ĺ turn, lock it down & try it out. Proper slack in steering is ~1 inch. Too tight and you feel every road shock. Too loose and itís rough making minor steering corrections.
New steering boxes are a beauty! Youíll love it. Youíll love it $110 worth, Ďcuz thatís what they cost. The job is fairly easy, too.
Remove that metal access plate from the front of the body, over the steering box. Youíll need the room. Pull the bolt holding on the pittman arm (not loosen, pull) - Beware the lock tabs. Pull the 4 bolts holding the bottom bracket against the top tube of the front end, threading into the steering box. More lock tabs - theyíre a pain. Pull the 4 bolts holding the steering shaft to the steering donut, and the donut to the steering box. If you have a horn in your steering column, thereís a flat-male wire connector bolted on - take note, itís your horn circuit. Use a large pickle fork to pry off the pittman arm, and donít let the steering box hit you in the head when it falls out.
Donít be a fool. Replace the steering donut.
Reassembly is straight-forward except: 1) the top tube of the front end has this little "nub" sticking out, and the bottom bracket of the steering box has a cutout for this. Thatís your alignment. 2) Donít forget to move the bracket from the splined end of the old steering box to the new. And, donít tighten it down until the last thing - let it slide a bit to find the proper position.
New bushings in the front end are a very nice thing. The symptoms of shot bushings are... well, youíve tried everything else and the front end is still strange. Squeaky, scraping noises during wheel travel are also a sure sign (assuming youíve greased the front end adequately).
Urethane bushings are the way to go - theyíre durable yet pliant, they donít create grooves in your trailing arms, and they even come in various colors. The biggest complaint is squeaks - Itís quite common to have squeaky front ends due to urethane bushings. It seems that some makers provide a little tube of superlube to prevent this.
Itís a major chore to replace the bushings. See ball joints (above), and add in the fact that the old bushings must be removed. With the front end disassembled (trailing arms out), use a slide hammer with a hook end to pull the old bushings from inside the front tubes. If you choose to do the front end adjusters at the same time, you can cut out the stock adjuster, then use a long metal rod to drift the bushings out from the other end. This takes some time, but beats the slide hammer method by an hour!
Expect your baja to ride like a skateboard for some months as you beat the urethane bushings in to shape. If all of the above is done, and the front end is still bad - something is bent!
And remember, if itís bent you might as well beat the living *&^$%#$% out of it so that you have a real good excuse to spend the cash to replace it. If you plan on straightening, use a 1-ton truck to wedge the front end while you jack on it - a 3/4 ton truck will not do!
(See next edition of the Baja Page for info on long shock towers, widened front beam, four adjusters, Sway-A-Way springs, and 16 inches of travel!!)