Yesterday, as I drove down the highway at 75 mph in my 1992 Jeep Cherokee, my left tire hit a pothole and triggered the most violent, frightening, uncontrollable shaking I’ve ever experienced—in both me and the Jeep.
Death wobble, which occurs primarily in Jeeps and other solid axle vehicles, is a brutal and unmanageable oscillation of the front wheels, usually initiated by a bump or, in some cases, by a hard stomp on the brake pedal. It’s been around for a while, and apparently there was even a technical service bulletin from Chrysler about it not too long ago.
Here’s a video showing the horrors of this experience. Don’t let the happy music fool you, death wobble has been known to make even the burliest of folks soil their trousers:
Death wobble is a well-known phenomenon in the Jeep community because it’s been instilling fear into off-roaders since the very beginning. I know this because my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, the first civilian-model Jeep ever built, nearly bucked me right out of the tub during my road trip to Utah.
It all started as I was driving in my decrepit Willys all alone through rural Kansas at about midnight. As the surroundings all began looking the same, and the previous 11 hours behind the wheel started catching up with me, my eyelids became heavy.
Keen to avoid ending my long-awaited Willys journey by crashing into a cow or a barbed wire fence, I began searching for exits so I could catch a nap. As I struggled down the country road, with my eyelids battling to the death with gravity, and my brain’s frames-per-second dwindling, I finally—at the last moment—caught a glimpse of a rare intersecting road.
Instinctively, I stood on my Jeep’s abysmal brakes with all of my weight to make the turn. That’s when all that fatigue from 11 hours of rural driving disappeared, because death wobble reared its ugly head and woke me right up.
I had dealt with death wobble before, but not in a junker with 69 years worth of wear and tear, and without a roof or really anything structural to keep me from dying. The violence with which those front wheels moved back and forth, and the way that Jeep bucked up and down will forever be etched in my mind. It felt like the whole vehicle was falling apart below me.
I stayed on the brakes and just pushed through the fear until the vehicle slowed down to about 5 mph, and the shaking stopped. How the leaf springs, shackles, or shackle mounts didn’t break is something only the Jeep gods understand.
Yesterday’s death wobble in my 1992 Jeep Cherokee was, somehow, worse. The Jeep had never had this problem before, but it’s been sitting for about a year, so who knows what’s gone bad over time.
I was driving about 75 mph on the highway when the Jeep hit a bump, and death wobble sent the car jumping up and down. I did everything I could to stay between the lines, but I was helpless—the Jeep rocketed into the next lane, shrugging off my steering inputs almost entirely. I slowed the Jeep down to 15 mph before the violence finally ceased and I could stop crying; thank god there was nobody in the lane to my right.
The problem with death wobble is that it’s not always easy to fix. Though it’s usually caused by a worn out track bar or track bar bracket, bad tie rod ends, crusty control arm bushings, wrecked ball joints, sloppy steering boxes, and even bad tire alignment can all contribute to the horrible shake.
Sometimes people temper death wobble with a bigger steering damper (basically like a shock for your steering; you can see one in the image below)—it’s a solution that works, but it’s considered by most just a way of masking the play that exists somewhere in the steering or suspension.
In the case of my Jeep Cherokee, I suspect my crappy aftermarket track bar is the culprit, particularly the heim joint at the top right of the image below.
As for my Willys, which doesn’t have a track bar, the issue could be anything, as I have replaced only one steering component on this abused old Willys farm Jeep (a questionable move on my part, I’ll admit). I suspect the four tie rod ends and the steering bell-crank are all the villains:
Google “death wobble” and you’ll find a number of news reports, how-to guides, and hundreds of forum threads from Jeep owners who have tried everything to get their Jeep driving safely down the road, but to no avail.
Hopefully I have better luck, because I’m done driving both the Willys and the ’92 XJ on the highway until this is fixed. I’m running out of clean drawers.