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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 I...at 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


Liz Westwood from UK on June 04, 2019:

This sounds like a very expensive story. I didn't like to add up the total, but I was wincing as you were billed each time. Cars are great when they work well, but once they start letting us down, one problem can lead to another.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on June 02, 2019:

Genna, Thanks for visiting and commenting. I want to ask you a favor. Let me know the make, model, and year of your vehicle. I love the challenge of troubleshooting issues like this with cars.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on June 02, 2019:

Sean, as I said to Ruby, Honda makes some very good vehicles. Thanks for the Cherokee blessing. Mine needs it, obviously.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on June 02, 2019:

Alicia, I have a lot of experience with these Jeeps. I have no doubt that it will perform marvelously from now on. The problem with this particular vehicle is that it had been abused by previous owners. Little things, like a missing bolt in a brake caliper, can have big consequences. This Jeep will last another 200,000 miles if it is well cared for.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on June 02, 2019:

Wow -- what a journey of inexhaustible patience, Chris, and expensive. I would have been flummoxed beyond recognition. Oddly enough, I have experience something similar lately -- a clanging noise underneath my car after I've been driving it for awhile. I've taken it to two mechanics, including the dealership. After installing new bushings, they can't seem to find or locate the problem. Thank goodness you arrived in Dallas safely.

Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on June 01, 2019:

May the spirit of the Cherokee --even if it is not the spirit of a chief-- keep the wobble away, for good, my brother! Thank you for the ride!

Blessings from a Honda lover!


Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 31, 2019:

What a horrible and expensive set of experiences! I hope your jeep behaves properly after all that's been done to it.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 30, 2019:

Dora, the death wobble is a constant barrier between where I am and where I want to be. 'Without it, I would have an unbearable family history. Right now, every person in my family who has passed floats in purgatory until I decide what is true.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 30, 2019:

Thanks, Pamela. I feel sometimes like I deserve more of these things, not less. Thank you for sharing.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 30, 2019:

Seems that the wobble only strengthened the bond between you and your jeep. After all, you increased your investment in it. Reading through the first incident made me scared, though. Please remain wise and careful on the road. (P.S. Please delete if this comment appears twice.)

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 30, 2019:

This series of mechanical failures is like the horror story of travel. I absolutely hate having mechanical problems, and I got stuck at the dentist briefly the other day when my battery died. My husband replaced the battery for $200, which is a drop in the bucket compared to your numerous expences. i am glad you did not experience any injuries when some of these mechanical fairlures happened.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 29, 2019:

Ruby, What? Get rid of a perfectly good jeep? Hondas are good cars as well. Well, my Jeep got me here finally, so I'll hang onto her for a few more months. Then I'll sell it to my son. I'm planning on buying another truck.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 29, 2019:

John, I get it. It feels even worse when I broke it and have to fix it. At least if someone else is responsible, I can curse them and feel better. These things really can spoil a very good day.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 29, 2019:

Becky, I will not complain about my $992 repair bill again.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on May 29, 2019:

The first move I would do is get rid of the Jeep, and purchase a new car. I drive a Honda and I love it. Please drive carefully. I for one, would miss your writing. I know from your writing that you love that Jeep, but geez, enough is enough. Thanks for sharing your journey

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 29, 2019:

Eric, yes, Dallas. Why? What am I missing? I miss back country trails all the time. Like right now. I miss them terribly. Maybe I'll find something around here.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 29, 2019:

Damn, that was one eventful trip, Chris. I dread car troubles more than any other. Especially when it is something that should have already been repaired. I am in no way mechanically minded so other than changing a tyre and very basics I am out of my depth.

My major problems concern my Toyota Coaster bus/motor home...but it is always my fault..not mechanical but not allowing enough room to turn and clipping a gate post or something. I have dislodged and broken rear awning arm four times.

This was a good read, safe, unshakable travels from now on.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 29, 2019:

I'm with you on that one, Bill. I look back and think maybe I could have stopped just a little sooner.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on May 29, 2019:

I have had problems like that. I needed to get new brakes. After all, I had been using them for about 2 years, with a trip of 200 miles twice a week. I took it in and had them check out the brakes and fix anything that needed fixing on them. I also got new front tires and front end alignment. It needed front pads, back shoes, and drums. They had gotten warped again, and apparently they had gotten warped enough times to leave them too thin to do again. Cost about $850 to get it out of there.

I took it back a week later, and they replaced the drums again. Then 3 weeks after that, same thing. A month after that, they upgraded the drums. I have been driving it with those drums for about 2 years now, no problems. My daughter is driving that old van now, because I got a newer Explorer with only 106,000 miles on it. The old van has 280,000 miles on it and it still runs great. I had a problem about 6 months after that alignment when the tie rod fell off the front passenger side. Luckily, I was going really slow on the dirt road and got it stopped with no problems. Apparently the nut holding it on, was not tightened up good and our dirt roads vibrated it loose. We try to take care of our vehicles, and sometimes they do not cooperate with us. Nothing worse than bad brakes.

A month after I bought the Explorer the transmission went completely out on it. When it went to the shop to get that rebuilt, the water pump on the van decided to go out too. Two vehicles and neither one of them working. My son managed to get a ride to Auto Zone, 15 miles away, to get the water pump and got it going that day. That was a $2500 week.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 29, 2019:

I am sorry for your troubles but I wish I was there with you. Road trips are the best. A new adventure after each turn. I know I am not being sensitive. But try sensitive when you paddle through a rapid or miss the back country trail.

Chris you always bring me back to the journey, bless you for it. "Dallas"? Really?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 29, 2019:

That was an annoying, frightening, and costly series of events,my friend. I'm glad you made it through unharmed.

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