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Writer Without a Clause: Death Wobble in my Jeep Cherokee XJ

In his "Writer Without a Clause" articles, Chris writes about whatever is on his mind at the moment without research and without editing.

Clinton Market, Clinton, MT, Good Fried Chicken


Jeep "Death Wobble" I

I was driving down a freeway in western Montana with mountains rising on every side and the Blackfoot River to my left. Clinton Market was in my rearview mirror. That's where I had just stopped to pick up a box of the most delicious fried chicken I have ever tasted. My mouth is watering as I write about it. I can smell it. I can feel the oil running down into my beard.

One of the bridges over the Blackfoot was coming up. When the tires of my Jeep Cherokee (A different vehicle than the Grand Cherokee) hit the rough, uneven surface, my world changed completely. A chicken leg bounced on the rubber floormat. I thought my Jeep was going to fly apart in every direction. The shaking and vibrating spread into my own body. The world around me, including traffic, became a blur. Instinctively, my foot went to the brake, and I slowed down as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the driver behind me was watching and also braked.

When I reached about 30 mph, the shaking stopped, but I was still shaken up. What had just happened? Was that the end of my Jeep? Was it the transmission? a wheel hub? A seized up engine?

But I was able to drive on as if nothing had happened.

Wobbling My Way to Dallas


Jeep "Death Wobble"

It's called, Death Wobble, and it happens to other jeeps, not just the Cherokee. In my personal view, the dependent suspension solid axle is the root cause of the wobble. Jeep responded with a plethora of bars, braces, and stabilizers to absorb or disseminate the wobble.

Because there are so many parts involved, it can be very difficult to isolate which one is allowing the wobble to surface. Usually, it has to do with worn bushings or joints. After my initial encounter with the wobble, I switched out my sway bar which solved the problem—until just a couple of weeks ago.

Snow and Slush on Highway 3 through New England

Death Wobble II

More than a year had passed, and I was driving along highway 3 that runs through Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Out of nowhere, the Death Wobble returned. When I got back to where I was living at the time, I crawled under the front of my Jeep and checked the sway bar. It was still solid and the bushings looked good.

So why was my Jeep behaving like it had been hooked to a cherry tree shaker? I was preparing to leave New England to begin a new contract in Dallas, Texas, a drive of nearly 1,900 miles. I examined every bar, joint, and bushing. Finally, I read that the front end alignment might be the cause. I checked, and sure enough, I could see that the passenger side wheel was toed out slightly. I knew that if I could see it with the naked eye, it must be way out of adjustment.

I took it to a tire shop where they aligned the front end, and I drove happily away or as happy as I could be after spending $100 when I didn't want to. But there was no more wobble—until I was near the New Hampshire/New York border on my way to Dallas. The wobble shook me and my vehicle until I wanted to scream, stop! And finally, it did stop. So did tire shop in Keene, New Hampshire for the second alignment that day.

The young man that worked on my vehicle came out and said that someone who had previously worked on the steering had damaged one of the bars and the adjustment sleeve. That is why it kept going out of alignment. He said that the damaged bar had affected all the other steering components. Apparently, he was referring to bushings and joints. So I walked over to the parts store, bought all new steering components and took them back to the shop. An hour later, I drove away with totally rebuilt steering, and with three hundred thirty-six fewer dollars in my bank account.

The next morning, in eastern Ohio, the wobble returned. How could this happen after I replaced nearly every involved part?


Wobble Comes, Wobble Goes, Wobble Comes Again

I pulled up to a tire shop of the same chain as the first place where I had the front end aligned. The mechanic pulled the jeep in and looked it over. He said he couldn't find anything that would cause the wobble, so he aligned it and sent me on my way. Before I left, I told them that I had no question that the wobble would return withing a few miles. They refused to charge me since one of their shops had previously worked on it with no success. I drove away with little hope.

Fifteen minutes later, I was shaking and wobbling along the entrance ramp to Interstate 90 in Ohio.

Who Poisoned My Jeep?

I decided to just slow down whenever the wobble began and make a beeline for my mom's place in Indiana. After arriving, I did more research. and found that a new steering stabilizer might mask or compensate for the wobble. I bought the part and put it on myself. It worked. At least I wasn't feeling the full Death Wobble. It was more like an occasional death shimmer.

Then my brakes went.

I was on one of the interstates in Missouri or possibly Arkansas. My brakes got very soft. The pedal nearly reached the floor. The vehicle would still stop, so I kept going. I felt that as long as I was on the freeways, I didn't need the brakes that often. I kept creeping toward Dallas.

When I got to Texarkana, I was less than 200 miles from my destination. I stopped and found a locally owned automotive shop. It was closed, so I also found a motel not far away. At 7:30 am, I was in the parking lot waiting for the first employee to arrive. Soon, I had a mechanic hard at work on my Jeep's brakes.

Not long after he started, the mechanic came and got me. We went into the shop where he showed me the rubber seal on the lid of the brake fluid container. It was swollen and misshapen. The mechanic said that someone had put something into the chamber other than brake fluid, something that contained petroleum. This was not good. He said it could completely ruin my brake system.

The mechanic proceeded to drain all the contaminated brake fluid, flush the entire system, and refill it with new fluid. After that, he went for a test drive.

Now What?

I was outside walking my dog, Darby when he returned. I went back into the waiting and front desk area. The mechanic was speaking to the owner who was running his hand over his bald head ending with a facepalm. I approached.

"Well," he said, "he took it for a test drive. Everything worked great...until the master brake cylinder went out."

"Can you get one?" I asked.

"I can get one, and we'll have it on today."

"We've got to do it," I said.

"Yes, we've got to do it," he replied.

I left Texarkana $992 later. After they fixed the brakes, the mechanic took me back into the shop. He had me hold onto one of the new bars the young mechanic in New Hampshire had put on. While I held the bar, the mechanic moved the wheel back and forth. The vehicle was up in the air on the lift. I could feel some play between where the bar was connected to the wheel.

The mechanic felt it might be the source of the wobble. The bar had not been properly adjusted and tightened. In other words, the mechanic in New Hampshire had probably done the right thing by replacing all the steering components, but he failed to tighten that one part.

The Ohio mechanic adjusted and tightened it.

I paid up and drove off for Dallas. The brakes work fine, and the wobble, for now, is gone.

Up! Up! and Away! Costs Out of Control


Still a Fan

Excellent people, institutions, ideas, and plans have serious flaws. Nature, as beautiful and impressive as it can be, has flaws. It's no surprise, that the Jeep Cherokee XJ has a serious flaw. But, in my opinion, once the Death Wobble has been solved, the Cherokee, along with its 4.0 liter, 6 cylinder engine, is still one of the best vehicles ever made.

I've had two of these vehicles and though I did have some trouble this trip, I won't think twice about moving on to my next destination following Dallas, even considering the 198,000 miles on the odometer.


Questions & Answers

Question: How old is your jeep?

Answer: My Jeep was built in 2000, so it is nineteen years old.

© 2019 Chris Mills

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