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Jeep Wrangler and Cherokee problems: the "Death Wobble" / severe shimmy

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Jeep Wrangler and Cherokee problems: the "Death Wobble" / severe shimmy

Norm Layton wrote that the "Jeep death wobble" is basically a shimmy, and can affect any suspension with a continuous tie rod (which nearly all solid axles have) to connect the front wheels. He noted, "Shimmy is normally cause by aftermarket application of larger tires, lifts that change the front axle setting for toe, or caster and camber, or worn or damaged parts. An out of balance tire, a broken tire cord, a bent wheel, or worn shocks can be the cause."


Shimmy can be caused by wear or damage to the tie-rod ends, steering box, steering arm ends, or steering stabilizer; even an improper alignment can do it. A major cause is improper toe-in or toe-out, with oversized tires.

Most shimmys come in certain speed ranges, and some are severe enough to require coming to a complete stop. They can be scary to the first timer who is not expecting such violent behavior after hitting a pot hole or railroad track, or just hitting a certain speed.

These shimmies have little to do with design flaws, until design parameters are tampered with, or damaged. It's been around since at least the 1950s, and is not limited to Jeeps.

"CherokeeVision" wrote, "Do not mistake an unbalanced tire or bump steer for death wobble. A steering stabilizer may help dampen the effects of an unbalanced tire or bump steer but does nothing to fix those conditions. With 'death wobble,' it's like the vehicle is hooked up to a paint-can shaker. If it ever happens to you, you will know it. ... aftermarket products such as suspension lifts are designed to flex at slow speeds off road. This is not the same as engineering a suspension to function properly on road."

Suspension engineer Bob Sheaves wrote,

"Death wobble" first showed up in vehicles in the 1960s with early aftermarket lift kits, primarily on Jeep CJs and Land Rover S1s. The steering linkage was a single rod from the pitman arm down to the tie rod, attached at both ends with a ball joint (tierod end) called the draglink; and a single rod from the left to right knuckle that was the tie rod.

Text Line Parallel Diagram Drawing

In the 1984 Jeep XJ, a Haltenberger linkage modified this arrangement somewhat. Now, it was a single rod from the pitman arm to the right hand knuckle with tie rod ends at both ends for the draglink; and a single rod from the left hand knuckle to the drag link with ball joints at both ends.

These parts are sized in compression strength and torsional strength for the original maximum size tires and no larger. In stock form, flexing out of plane for these pieces is minimized.

Once you change to a larger overall diameter tire, you do two things - both bad. You increase the rotating mass, increasing the gyroscopic effect of the tire on handling; and you change the theoretical length of the arm resisting the toe change from ground induced inputs.

This is the cause of the steering induced effects. Other issues arise from the changes in the geometry when a panhard rod is added to the system, which causes an over-constraint of the suspension geometry (which is why the proper name of the Jeep "Quadracoil" suspension is "5 link, over constrained, link-coil" suspension.)

In a properly designed XJ suspension, the motion of the draglink (of the Haltenberger type) and the panhard rod is supposed to be a parallelogram...but in stock form, it is not, so raising the vehicle even 1 inch worsens the "fight" between the track bar (panhard rod) and the draglink, causing the tires to steer instead of the driver.

In stock form, these effects are minimized. Lift it and you will have a problem, the only change is when and under what conditions. Idiots that simply bolt on a 4" lift kit will be selected by Darwin...the only question is when. In general, people designing these lift kits do not know what they are doing. There was one exception, Nth Degree, but they went out of business - from what I heard because their kits, which minimized these problems, were too expensive.

The Rubicon is at the ragged edge of acceptable street and offroad suspension geometry motion. Given the GD&T variance of the production design, it could (I am not saying "will") occur, but it will not be to the amount of a 36" tire equipped vehicle.
Norm added again,

A steering damper is not a fix, it's a band-aid used to mask issues with either worn components or poor design. Dampers did not start appearing on stock vehicles until the late 70s, mostly associated with the trend to larger (wider thus heavier) tires on older designs. Rather than redesign the entire front-end geometry, AMC found it less expensive to add the damper.

On a properly designed and well maintained system, a damper's purpose is to mitigate the effects of bump steer and the sudden encounter of unexpected objects, such as hitting a rock in a trail at 50 miles per hour. On an improperly designed and/or poorly maintained system, a damper is used as a crutch to mask issues with suspension and tire errors.

Jeeps and other vehicles experienced shimmy way before the 1960s, and before the advent of lifts and larger tires. Worn components are just as much at fault as jury-rigged suspensions.


... Any steering column movement is controlled by the direction of the associated linkage and arms, so side to side, or up and down is directed by that. Is it more prominent at certain speeds?

If you follow the steering column to the linkage you will see that "up and down" is really Push and Pull and indicates that the gear box is experiencing front to back forces. [If you have that movement], you need to investigate that immediately. It could be the steering gear mounting bolts, loose or worn control arm ends or bushings,or any number of associated components.

The best way to find them is to place the entire vehicle on jack stands so that the suspension does not have weight on it. That also makes moving and turning components, including the entire axle assembly, by hand much easier.
ImperialCrown added:

If the steering damper (stabilizer) itself is wet with oil and the oil is not dripping on it from above, the plunger rod seal has failed and the internal damping hydraulic fluid has leaked out or is low. This will cause "death-wobble," and yes, it can take the steering wheel right out of your hands.

It doesn't necessarily take aggressive driving for it to fail. Ford, GM and Dodge trucks do it as well. Rack and pinion steering set-ups seem to do it much less than parellelogram linkage steering configurations.

There is a TSB #19-003-07A that addresses a wrong damper orientation issue in LHD JKs (Wranglers) built before 4/4/07. This "mismounting"" made the damper prone to possible damage/leakage.
The official Chrysler response

In response to charges made by politicians over the so-called "Jeep Death Wobble," Chrysler issued a technical service bulletin to dealers, posting a summary on Jeep-related blogs.

Summary of Technical Service Bulletin 19-002-12 Steering System Maintenance

It is important that the steering system be kept in good working condition. Having your vehicle inspected regularly to ensure it meets proper factory specifications, and promptly repairing the steering system when it is out of factory specifications, helps ensure the vehicle maintains its intended ride, handling and steering characteristics.

Vehicles equipped with a solid front axle may exhibit steering system vibration if the steering system is damaged or not properly maintained. This condition is not unique to Chrysler Group vehicles; any manufacturer's vehicle equipped with a solid front axle has the potential to exhibit steering system vibration.

To ensure that Chrysler Group customers have the most relevant information to enhance their vehicle enjoyment -- and that customers receive the best service from repair facilities diagnosing and addressing steering system vibration -- the Company has issued Technical Service Bulletin 19-002-12 to assist dealers and repair facilities in the diagnosis and repair of this condition.

The following is a summary of the steering and suspension system elements that can potentially contribute to steering system vibration. Chrysler recommends having your authorized Chrysler dealer inspect these elements should you experience steering system vibration:

• Is the vehicle equipped with aftermarket components or other modifications (e.g. lift kits, wheels, suspension components or tires) that can affect the performance of or wear upon steering components?*

• Check the air pressure in the tires and ensure they are inflated to the recommended pressure. This value can be found on the tire placard located on the driver's front door enclosure.

• Inspect the tires for signs of unusual or uneven wear, cupping or other damage.

• Ensure that the tires/wheels are balanced within specification

• Inspect the steering damper for excessive wear or damage.**

• Inspect the track bar for excessive wear or damage.**

• Inspect the tie rods for excessive wear or damage.**

• Inspect the drag link for excessive wear or damage.**

• Inspect the ball joints for excessive wear or damage.**

* Installation of aftermarket steering and suspension components or wheel and tire assemblies that are either not compatible with your vehicle or not designed for on-road use is most often the cause of steering system vibration, in which case you may consult your aftermarket equipment manufacturer or vehicle modifier for repair suggestions

** If any of the steering or suspension components are replaced, a front end wheel alignment is required.

If you have questions regarding your vehicle, its ride and handling or steering characteristics as they may relate to steering system vibration, please consult with your authorized Chrysler Group dealer to have your vehicle inspected.

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