Based on Toyota’s advertising campaign, one would assume that the FJ Cruiser not only commutes well, but that it also performs quite well in light to medium off-road environments. But let’s face it, ads are designed to sell a product. Because of this, it can be difficult at times to separate fact from fiction. From my own experience, I can attest to the FJ’s on-road capabilities. As my primary mode of transport to and from work, I find it’s road performance to be quite mannerly, combining the functionality I require with all of the creature comforts I’ve come to expect from a Toyota vehicle.
As of early 2009, with the exception of the occasional snow storm or foray into the field behind the house, my FJ had not yet seen any real dedicated off-road use. But that all changed in April, 2009, at the FJ Northeasters Run at Rausch Creek Off-Road Park in Tremont, Pennsylvania. As both a driver and casual observer (watching all the other FJs on the trail), I witnessed the FJ’s off-road handling first hand and can now attest to the truth behind Toyota’s ads. In my case, I stuck with green- or blue-rated trails and despite a few more challenging obstacles, the FJ handled beautifully with absolutely no issues. Upon returning to the trail head, however, we discovered that others had not been so lucky. A few of the more courageous folks had ventured into some of the black- and purple-rated areas, in near-stock configuration, only to discover that large boulders when combined with a stock FJ is almost always a recipe for carnage.
Although not immediately obvious to the casual observer, the FJ does have its weaker areas in terms of mechanical components. The rear suspension on the FJ is a 4-link design using coil springs, mono-tube shocks and a panhard bar. The lower links or control arms, are comprised of a hollow, but fairly thin-walled, steel tube, while the upper arms are designed as a solid, but very thin, steel rod. Although both upper and lower links are in need of reinforcement, it’s primarily the lower links that will lead to trouble because they are much more prone to damage when attempting to clear larger obstacles such as rocks or stumps. And several of those folks returning from the black-rated trails were able to attest to this issue first hand, having bent their lower links at some point during the day’s activities.
After two-days of fun at Rausch, I returned home with some minor scratches and scuffs, but seemingly no worse for wear. But the experience did leave me thinking, pondering and prioritizing in my head, as I attempted to determine my next upgrades. The rear links were one of the first items on my list given their propensity for bending under pressure. I also discovered a leaky seal in one of the Icon coilovers as well as one of the rear shocks. The coilovers, being rebuildable, would need to be sent back to Icon headquarters whereas the shock would simply need to be replaced. Since I needed to remove the coilovers for rebuilding, I decided it might be a good time to upgrade the upper control arms (UCA) in the front suspension. Up to this point I had not experienced any of the rubbing or steering issues typically associated with the stock UCAs after lifting. But in anticipation of future wheel and tire upgrades I decided it might be beneficial to replace the stock setup with a beefier, aftermarket alternative. After much research, I selected replacement control arms from Man-A-Fre (MAF).
Man-A-Fre has been in the business of supplying aftermarket parts for Toyota Land Cruisers for more than forty years now and provides great quality products with an equal level of customer service to stand behind them. For the rear links I went with their 4+Plus High Angle Super HD control arms. To quote MAF directly from their web site:
The 4+Plus adjustable upper control arms are made from 1-1/4”, .250” wall DOM tubing, and on the frame end feature a QA1 Endura rod end with a Teflon/Kevlar, self lubricating, self sealing liner. Rod end body is heat treated Chrome Moly, and the ball is 52100 heat treated, hard chrome plated bearing steel. Increased cross sectional thickness help give this rod end a radial static load rating of 45,000 lbs. Stainless Steel misalignment bushings finish off the adjustable end of the upper control arm . At the axle end of the control arm is a large Old Man Emu, polyurethane bushing set with a custom sleeve to help absorb road shocks and vibration instead of transferring into the chassis .
Our lower 4+Plus control arms for the FJ are made from 1-5/8”, .250” wall DOM tubing, with a self-lubricating, stainless steel, Teflon lined spherical bearing at the chassis side with a radial static load rating of 82,200 lbs. Custom Stainless Steel misalignment bushings of course. At the axle end another Old Man Emu polyurethane bushing set with 4+Plus sleeve to isolate vibration and road shock. Our 4+Plus High Angle control arms allow for resistance free articulation, and adjustment of pinion angle without compromising ride quality in a configuration designed to take heavy punishment and still perform beyond our customers’ high expectations.
For the front I selected MAF’s chrome moly UCAs which provide improved strength and increased flexibility compared to the FJ’s stock front-end suspension system. Man-A-Fre describes these UCAs as follows:
Man-A-Fre’s upper control arms are dramatically stronger than the units they replace, and offer less resistance to motion than the OEM arms. Arms are manufactured from high strength 4130 Chrome Moly tubing, with a precision manufactured spherical ball cup that holds a heat treated, stainless steel, Teflon lined spherical bearing with a radial static load rating of 104,000 lbs. and an axial load rating of 19,300 lbs. Custom stainless steel misalignment bushings for a perfect fit. Arms are precision Tig welded to extremely tight tolerances to insure proper alignment . Greasable polyurethane bushings feature grease slots cut into the interior bore to keep them lubricated.
The folks at Man-A-Fre were very friendly and helpful, and less than a week later I was sitting in front of a complete set of replacement control arms. After a quick inventory of all the pieces I noticed that I was missing the washers required to install the front UCAs. But it only took a phone call to MAF and the remaining pieces were mailed out next-day delivery.
Removal of the Icon coilovers is a relatively painless process since they are mounted using a simple three-bolt pattern on top and a single large bolt on the bottom that attaches to a bracket on the lower control arm. With both front tires removed and the front of the FJ sitting securely on jack stands I began the process of unbolting the coilovers. Note that I still had the stock upper control arms in place during this process but decided to remove the front stabilizer bar for added convenience. For those who may not already know, the Icon coilovers can be safely installed and removed in their current condition and do not require any type of spring compression tool like some older coilover setups. But if you’re planning on doing a similar swap, make sure you use some heavy straps or cables to tie the the hub and spindle assembly to the UCA, prior to removing the coilovers. This prevents the hub from drooping too low and putting excessive pressure on the CV joints.
With the top three bolts of the coilover removed, as well as the nut on the lower bolt, I did have to put a slight amount of downward pressure on the lower control arm before the lower bolt would come loose. But once it did I was able to remove the coilover by wiggling and threading the spring portion downward between the tie rod and the front of the lower control arm. Looking back now, I realize it probably would have been easier to remove the UCA first but I still managed as is.
With the coilovers now out of the way, I began the job of replacing the front UCAs with the new MAF control arms. I had never replaced a set of UCAs before so it was a new challenge for me. The main difficulties I ran into were due to overly tight spots and not enough hands. For example, removal and re-installation of the main pivot bolt for the UCAs required me to disconnect and remove the stock battery in order to gain enough access with a wrench. Feeding this bolt through the new UCA and four separate washers simultaneously was also a bit tricky. A second pair of hands would have made this job a lot easier. Final assembly of the UCAs was actually not completed until after the coilovers were reinstalled, but when this did occur I found that tightening the main nylock nut that holds the UCA to the spindle required a tremendous amount of torque. I nearly broke my torque wrench in the process of getting it completely snug. In the end though, thanks to MAF’s online installation instructions and their assistance by phone, I finally managed to complete the installation with total success.
Despite my recent success with the front-end components, my new-found confidence was short-lived, as the rear link upgrade took a notable turn for the worse. Thanks to Toyota’s patented over-torquing policy and more than two years exposure to Maryland winters, my installation progress on the rear links came to a grinding halt in a hurry. The upper and lower links connect the frame of the FJ to the rear axle using two large bolts for each link, one in the front of the link and one in the back. The bolts in the lower links were easily removed by lifting the rear of the vehicle to relieve the pressure on the bolts. Because the vehicle shifts during this process, getting the bolt holes lined back up with the new links requires a cinch strap to pull the rear axle back inline. But eventually I managed to replace both lower links successfully. It was the front bolt on the driver’s side, upper link that proved to be my undoing.
The passenger-side upper link is more easily accessible once the rear of the FJ has been lifted and I had no problems removing the bolts in this one. But the driver’s side link sits directly above the FJ’s gas tank, making it much more difficult to reach. The position of the front bolt in this link makes it nearly impossible to get any kind of torque on the bolt head or the nut on the opposite side. In an effort to defeat my newly acquired enemy, I tried a variety of solutions ranging from an manual torque wrench, to an electric impact wrench, to an air-driven wrench that claimed to deliver nearly 600 ft/lbs of torque. None of these items did the trick. I tried repeated blasts with various de-rusting / lubricating chemicals in hopes of breaking the bolt’s hold. Nothing worked.
By the time the newly-rebuilt coilovers finally arrived almost two weeks later, I still had not succeeded in breaking this bolt loose. So I finally just gave up, reinstalled the coilovers, tightened the front UCA spindle bolts, reassembled the original stock upper links, and drove it down to my local dealership where they kindly managed to break the bolt loose in less than 3 seconds. To this day, I’m still not sure what the difference was between their tools and mine. All I cared about was that it was finally loose so I could complete what I started several weeks earlier. With the bolt removed I was finally able to replace the upper links successfully. Once again, a cinch strap and a well-applied pry bar was required to pull the rear axle inline with the mounting holes in the new links. Other than that though, it’s just a straight replacement of old link with new, two bolts a piece. I will mention that for the Man-A-Fre links specifically, they are designed so that the heim joints are to be placed towards the front of the vehicle, attached to the frame, while the end with the polyurethane bushings mounts to the brackets on the axle.
Looking back on the installation as a whole I wouldn’t rate it as being all that difficult to be honest. Labor intensive, frustrating and demoralizing? Yes. But not particularly challenging otherwise. With a set of basic instructions this type of upgrade is easily performed by any layman mechanic with some spare time and tools on their hands. My lack of familiarity with these components was the only inhibiting factor and I now realize that it’s pretty easy stuff (rear bolt aside). As I stated earlier, it did require some patience when threading the main bolt through the four washers and a tremendous amount of torque to tighten the nylock nut on the front UCAs. And the cinch strap procedure for the rear links was a bit cumbersome to deal with too. But in the end, I finished the entire job successfully. And the end result was a newly-improved FJ Cruiser and a new-found respect for mechanics that do this stuff on a daily basis.
To date, I have been very happy with the performance improvements of the Man-A-Fre upper control arm in the front suspension. And from a strength standpoint, the Man-A-Fre rear links also performed above expectation. I did, however, run into some unexpected noise issues related to the heim joints and polyurethane bushings in the MAF rear links. Again, I chalk this up to being new to off-roading and the components used therein. According to Man-A-Fre, some noise is to be expected from heim joints and polyurethane bushings as a result of binding that occurs during axle flex. I guess if you’re building a rock-crawling buggy, noise is of little concern. But since the FJ is primarily my daily driver, squeaks and clunks are something I’d prefer to avoid if possible.
If you have any doubts, I am here to assure you that the Man-A-Fre upper links are noisy. Every time the rear axle twisted I experienced a series of clunks, squeaks and groans. I verified the culprits to be the MAF rear upper links after troubleshooting the issue on and off for almost a month. The movement of the lower links was minimal enough that the polyurethane bushings didn’t make a lot of noise. But the short length and design characteristics of the upper links combined with the axle twist resulted in a cacophony of sounds, none of which were pleasant. Further attempts to resolve the issue through Man-A-Fre resulted in an explanation that the noises were all completely normal for links designed with heim joints and polyurethane bushings. In other words, there was nothing they could do as this behavior was to be expected. I guess Man-A-Fre and I have different levels of expectation.
After dealing with these noises for over two months I had finally had enough and decided to take a different approach. Chris Endres, owner of Digger Customs and the man behind Team Digger, made an outstanding offer to all forum members: rebuild the stock links by replacing the weak arms with considerably thicker 1/4″ wall DOM tubing, all at a cost that was considerably less than that of competing aftermarket link manufacturers. The only stipulation for getting them rebuilt was that he required you to send him the original links since he needed to re-use the original ends that contained the molded bushings. This offer met with resounding success as one member after another sent off their links requesting the stronger design.
In the forums these rebuilt control arms quickly became known as Digger Links. Chris’ design not only has the advantage of substantial savings in upgrade cost, but also avoids any chance of squeaks and creaks since it reuses Toyota’s stock molded bushings. Unlike polyurethane bushings which are pressed into the link ends as two separate pieces, Toyota’s bushings are molded into the link ends as one piece, eliminating the possibility of excess movement or noise. It was a no-brainer for me. Since I already had the stock links removed, it was as simple as packing them up and sending them off to Chris for the rebuild. Chris performed the upgrade in record time and thanks to some quick return shipping, I had the newly-upgraded links in my hand less than two days after I sent them. And THAT my friends, is called great customer service!
With less than a week to prepare for the 2009 Coal Mine Cruiser Classic run at Rausch Creek, I was a bit pressed for time. But having done the job once, I was now familiar with the process. It only took an hour or so to swap out all four MAF links and replace them with the new Digger links. And I’ve had the Digger links in place ever since with absolutely no problems. I’ve repeatedly beaten the Digger links on purple- and black-rated trails at Rausch Creek with zero issues, minus the scuffs and scrapes that come with any boulder field. There’s no doubt these links are strong. Bending 1/4″ tubing is going to require a lot more pressure than my FJ will ever see in its lifetime. If you have any doubts whatsoever, just take a look at the above pictures that compare Toyota’s stock links with the rebuilt Digger links. There’s simply no comparison. If you are looking for beefy replacement links for the rear of your FJ, I can’t say enough positive things about Digger links. I don’t honestly believe you can get better bang for your buck. If you have any questions about Digger Links, feel free to contact Chris or Charity using the information below:
Chris and Charity A.K.A. Digger
Professional Extreme Rock Crawling Team
Owners of CTR Automotive Service Center
Owners of Digger Customs
In summary, since upgrading the FJ’s control arms, I’ve been very happy with the enhanced performance and strength. The front end tracks much better than it used to before and knowing that the back links are structurally sound enough to take a serious beating gives me great peace of mind. Also, just for clarification, I don’t want anyone to think that Man-A-Fre makes bad products. Quite the opposite. Given what I know now, I suspect that any link designed with heim joints and polyurethane bushings will tend to suffer from noise-related issues. There is a saying among the modding crowd, “race truck parts make race truck noises.” I’ve been very happy with the front UCAs from Man-A-Fre and for anyone who isn’t all that concerned about excess noise, the MAF rear links are no doubt quite capable as well. But for my money, Digger links win this contest hands down as they are a less expensive solution that, in my opinion, produces far better results.