New Front Shocks

I have been pretty happy with the way my '85 Crew Cab rides, with the exception of a few streches of roadway on my daily commute. Two of the spots are up and down slight hills that have intersecting streets running across it. Kinda like that new Passat commercial or those car chase scenes in San Francisco where cars get airborne (with a cop right behind them), but on a much smaller scale. I don't smoke, so my ashtray is full of change. If I forget to close the ashtray cover and run across these intersections at more than 20 MPH, the front suspension bottoms out and then unloads so violently that the floor gets covered with coins. The other section of road has a series of high spots and dips that must have been made by some paving contractor with a wry sense of humor. While crossing it, annoying up-and-down oscillations build up and continue for several seconds once back on smooth pavement. These issues put me in the mood to install some new shock absorbers.

I did a little bit of price shopping and research using the Vanagon Archives about which shocks were recommended. Three brands were mentioned most often: Bilstein, Boge and KYB. Bilstein is considered a premier brand and is expensive, at approx $90 per shock. The Boge shocks came stock from the factory, and cost about $50 each. The KYB's were the least expensive, at just under $27 each at the Bus Depot. I had recently put a full set of KYB's from the Shock Warehouse on my family station wagon with outstanding results, so the choice of getting another set of KYB's was a no-brainer. The Vanagon shocks specified by KYB were GR-2 low pressure gas for the front, and Gas-A-Just high pressure gas for the rear.

Follow along as I go through the steps for replacement!

Tools & Supplies Needed:
  • 15mm combination wrench
  • 7/8" combination wrench
  • 1/2" drive ratchet
  • 23mm socket
  • 19mm lug wrench
  • Sturdy jack and jack stands

    Note: Click on thumbnails for expanded images!

    Step 1 - Preparation:
    I started by replacing the front shocks first, since that end was closer to the garage. The repair procedure starts just like many others. Engage the parking brake, or place blocks of wood around the tires. Loosen the front lug bolts, then jack up the front of the van. Place jack stands under the frame so that the van won't fall on top of you. Remove the lug bolts, pull off the front wheels and place them out of your way. Once all the prep work is done, it's time to get busy!

    Step 2 - Remove The Upper Shock Mounting Nuts:
    Top of shock with cover The shaft of the shock extends up through a mounting hole in the frame and is held in place with a nut Corroded top nut on the shaft's threaded end. A protective plastic cover, seen here to the left, is placed over the nut to keep it from corroding. Use a screwdriver to pry the cover off the top. Once removed, you should be able to see the nut that holds the shock in place. On the passenger side shock, the Canadian road salt had gotten under the cover, and corroded the nut so badly that I could not use a wrench or even vise-grips to get the nut loose. To get the shock off, I ended up using a reciprocating saw (Sawzall) Preserved nut with a 8" metal cutting blade and slicing through the rubber bushing just below the large washer. As the blade went through the rubber, it made plenty of smoke! On the driver's side, life was much easier. I was expecting to have to cut the top of this shock off as well, but was pleasantly suprised to find that the installer had put grease all over the top mounting nut before installing the protective cover. The result was that I was able to easily remove the top nut with a 15mm combination wrench.

    Step 3 - Remove The Lower Shock Mounting Nuts/Bolts:
    Lower shock bolt The bottom mounting point for the front shock is a bolt that passes through the lower control arm. I was not able to get the 23mm nut off at first, so I squirted some penetrating oil on the nut and heated it with a propane torch. I'm not sure if this is normal, or another result of my Crew having spent it's first 13 years in Canada. After about a minute of heating, I was able to remove the nut with no damage to any of the threads.

    side-by-side comparison Once the lower bolt is removed, the shock literally falls out of the van. I played with the shocks for a few minutes once they were out, extending and compressing them by hand. They offered almost no resistance in either direction and I could hear the air gurgling inside of them. They were obviously worn out. Not only that, they were just plain old grungy as well! In contrast, the KYB's had a smooth, consistent resistance to either compression or extension. Here's a picture of one of the old shocks next to one of the new KYB's.

    Step 4 - Transfer Rock/Dust Shields:
    Shaft to protect Looking at the picture above, you can see that the new shocks do not come with replacement rock/dust shields. The shields extend the life of the shock absorber by preventing small stones from hitting and pitting the finely polished shaft, seen here to the right. If the shaft gets pitted, the seals will wear out prematurely. The rock/dust shields are no longer available from the dealer, so the old ones need to be installed on the new shocks.
    The rock shield is held captive by a small metal sleeve that slides over the shaft of the shock absorber. I had to use a hacksaw and chisel to remove it from the corroded shock, while it simply slid off the other shock. Learn from this-Be sure to grease those sleeves when you do the install! The sleeve is only about $3.00 at the dealer, but they had to special order (of course) it. Once the sleeve is off, the rock shield slides off as well.

    Rock Shield Sleeve Re-assembly is pretty easy. First, slide the dust shield down the shaft, as seen to the left. It can only go so far due to the stepped-down shape of the shaft (see picture above). Then slide the metal sleeve down to retain the rock shield, as seen to the right. You did remember to grease the sleeve before installing, right?

    Step 5 - Installation:
    Installing new shock To install the shocks, get back under the front of the van and slide the shock up through the hole in the lower control arm, as seen here on the left. If the shock is too long to make the angle into the lower control arm, manually compress the shock fully and then quickly stick it up the hole before it expands. You will be able to do it...these are low pressure gas shocks, so they expand slowly. Another alternative is to raise the van even higher in the air. I went for the "compress and stuff" method myself. I was doing the work at night to avoid the heat, and you can see where the light caught the front license plate of one of my other toys. :)

    desc Once you have the shock inside the lower control arm, re-install the lower mounting bolt and nut. The nut gets torqued to xx ft-lbs. With the lower mount secure, place a floor jack under the lower control arm.

    See the sleeve? Slowly jack up the lower control arm to slightly compress the spring. Keep jacking until you see both the shaft and sleeve of the shock sticking up through the upper mount, as seen on the left.

    Squished bushing Place the supplied rubber bushing over the shaft, followed by the washer. Next comes the nut to secure the top of the shock. I normally tighten the nut until the rubber bushing is compressed to just over the diameter of the washer that retains it. In this case, the nut bottomed out just as I was about to stop turning. Gotta love that! Smear some grease on the nut and stud, and re-install those plastic protective caps.

    Step 6 - Test Drive:
    With the new shocks mounted, re-install the front wheels and re-torque the lug bolts. Then take that test drive. At first, I installed only the front shocks due to time contraints. My impressions immediately after the install:
    The ride is slightly harsher. I wasn't really interested in obtaining a firmer ride, and now I can really feel bumps in the seat of my pants. I'm wondering if the KYB was the right choice, or if I should have gotten the Boge shocks. I have crossed those coin-spilling intersections several times now, and I am amazed at the difference. The suspension no longer "unloads" like before, which makes crossing *much nicer*. That stretch of road near my home that used to make the Crew oscillate so much has been tamed...very nice.

    After 2 weeks of driving on the new front and old rear shocks, I am satisfied with the results. I must have already become accustomed to the firmer ride, since I don't notice the bumps like just after I first installed the new fronts. I hope to get the rear shocks installed within the next 2 weeks, so stay tuned!

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    Tom Carrington