Welcome back to another segment of Keeping A Beater Alive. Or, Explorer Entropy. Or, Ford Fixes. Something along those lines. Whatever I wind up calling this recurring series of repairs to my 2001 Ford Explorer, it’ll be catchy, that’s for sure.
In my last entry, I shared the good news of catalytic converters with MagnaFlow. Those of you here in California with aging rigs that double as your off-road vehicles, I’m sure you found that information useful. Well, now I’m about to share another aspect of vehicle maintenance that’ll make all of you groan – ball joints! (as well as shock absorbers and A-arms)
These pesky suspension parts have a way of falling apart at the least opportune times, and usually once the vehicle is nearing the 150-200,000 mile mark. Having seen pictures of what a lower ball joint failure looks like (looking at you, 3rd gen Toyota 4Runners), I knew that as soon as I heard a little squeaking noise from going over a bump, it was only going to get worse. First are the squeals from moderate jolts, then they show up from light jolts like speed bumps or small potholes, and then they’re constantly creaking and screeching, and that tends to make the driving experience awful.
So what’s a man to do? Well, he gets the right parts and sets about fixing his rig. So that’s what I did – I ordered a new set of ball joints, and while I was at it, opted for some new shocks, as I had the feeling the old ones were on their way out.
I paid for the parts with my own money and set up the shop time to get the install done. I ordered a set of Moog upper (PN K80012) and lower (PN K8695T) ball joints, as well as Bilstein 4600 shocks for the front (PN 24-021333) and rear (PN 24-021340). My thought process was that having these parts go together would extend the life of the control arms.
We began at the front, opting to get the hardest part out of the way first. Off went the wheel and tire, and then the brake components, exposing the spindle. We used a hammer to pop out the tie rod, and then wrenched off the nut holding the sway bar’s end link to the A-arm. We undid the speed sensor and hit the upper ball joint with penetrant to help ease it off of the spindle.
Up on the frame rail, we removed the hardware holding the upper A-arm to the frame and took out the upper A-arm. Then, we removed the bolts on the Rancho shock absorber and pulled it out of its mounts. Finally, we went under the Explorer and removed the torsion bar, first by disassembling its protective plate and then using a puller tool to knock it out of place. Doing this allowed us to unbolt the lower A-arm and remove it from the Explorer.
A Farewell To A-Arms
However, I was in for a rude awakening when it came time to install the new ball joints. After hitting the old mounts with penetrant and going through the painstaking task of extracting the old ball joints, I found out that the new ball joints would not fit the control arms snugly. I was totally flummoxed to hear this. I was sure I did everything right in the search for the right parts, specifying as much as possible in the search engine, and then cross-checking with other online retailers to make sure the part numbers lined up.
But it turned out the problem was deeper than the ball joints. After so many years of jolts and jostling on and off the road, the ball joint mounts on the A-arms had bored out ever so slightly. The takeaway was that my ball joints, designed for the stock A-arm tolerances, would be too loose and break apart in a short amount of time. Installing the Moog ball joints would essentially be a waste of time, so I had to go with Option B – buying new control arms. After reviewing a lot of choices, I opted to go for a set of O’Reilly control arms with pre-installed ball joints.
The new rubber bushings and ball joints would breathe new life into the suspension and handling on the Explorer, so it wasn’t a total loss. We sallied forth and installed the old spindle onto the new lower A-arm, and carried out the disassembly in reverse to get everything buttoned up on the front end. The rear was a simple swap, just raising the vehicle, removing the old shocks, and installing the new Bilstein ones.
Renewed Suspension, Renewed Dimension
With new control arms, ball joints, and shock absorbers, the difference is quite obvious to me. On-road, I noticed the Bilsteins gave a stiffer response to jolts than the worn-out Ranchos, and with the amount of decay here on SoCal streets, I’m never far from a thrilling experience. But that stiffness on-road translated to a mild change off-road.
Out in the dirt, I noticed the shocks did a fine job of dealing with mild terrain deformities like washboards and medium-sized rocks. I wasn’t under any delusions that the Explorer was now a prerunner, but I felt that the new shocks were doing a better job than the old shocks. The floaty-ness and slowness to return to neutral position was gone, and in its place was a responsive, hardcore unit that put up with abuse and kept going strong.
Oh, and did I mention the squeaking went away? That was probably the biggest and best result of all this. It was worth every penny to have my sanity back while going to and from work or the trail. The suspension is now a lot more robust and gives me the extra confidence I want to go the extra mile.
If I can give anyone a piece of advice when it comes to inspecting and replacing ball joints, it’s this – penetrant is your friend, and make sure you get the right parts the first time!