Join Date: Jan 2015
98-03 Dodge? Check your frame (front Axle to Bumper)!
Itís a well-known weakness of the last variant (98-03) of the venerable Dodge Vans that the frames can really rust badly. Really badly. Specifically, the forward section between the front axle and the bumper. The ultimate failure scenario involves components of your steering breaking off (typically but not limited to the steering box) the severely corroded forward frame section. Just google ďdodge ram van frame rustĒ.
This rust seems to manifest even in vans that in other aspects donít have any serious signs of corrosion, and it seems that the final design variant (98-03) of these vans have this problem in particular.
If you have a 98-03 Dodge chassis Van, do yourself a favor, and remove your bumper/brackets and check out the INSIDES of these forward frame sections. They are super easily accessible, and you might be surprised what you find. These guys most definitely are rusting inside out, and it can look good on the outside but be pretty badly corroded on the inside, and if your start seeing trouble on the outside itís too late for sure.
My story goes like this:
When I bought my 1999 Van 5 years ago, I had a pretty good look at it before I purchased it. I didnít purchase it from the original owner, so have only 2nd hand information on its entire history, but in general the condition van with respect to rust was not Nevada desert perfectly clean but certainly very good. I had it on a lift and had a good look underneath. Apparently the story of the original owner was it spent winters in Florida and summers in the Nova Scotia, where the van was originally purchased. So no guarantees it never saw any winter weather, but it wasnít likely seeing a whole lot. In either case it could have seen a bit of salty ocean air possibly too.
Now, by far the worse looking part of the whole vehicle was the front frame sectionÖ It definitely was showing signs of rust where the rest of the van looked really clean. Not really bad, but some noticeable rust nonetheless. I bought it anyway, as I didnít find the rust condemning. The rust appeared only along the seams of the forward unibody frame extension. I whacked at the frame with a hammer, and it was solid.
To compound significantly the rust problem, the van seemed to have suffered a much worse problem with respect to the chassis battery boiling over. Now this is not a good thing, and especially not a good thing on these 98-03 Dodges. If your chassis battery boils, acid will can very easily find its way to the weakest part of the van, namely the front frame section right where the steering box attaches.
I immediately addressed the battery issue when I bought the van (once I discovered that it was happening on my trip home). It was simply a bad house battery causing the chassis battery to overcharge, causing it boil over. I replaced all the batteries, and Iíve not had any more battery boiling issues, as Iíve monitored it very carefully. No doubt in RV applications, this would not be an entirely rare circumstance, so always pay attention to your battery condition and monitor for this problem, because if your chassis battery boils over and you donít catch it right away, the damage could be significant in the weakest part of the vehicle.
Iíve had the van for 5 years, never winter driving it and storing it inside 6 months of the year for the winter (being in Ontario). Since Iíve owned the van, the rust really hasnít appreciably gotten worse. But that said, itís certainly doing nothing less than getting worse, albeit slowly, because thatís just the nature of rust. The chassis battery boil over damaged components of the brake system, which are immediately below the battery. The brake line between the proportioning valve and the RWAL valve was particularly crusty looking. So rather then tempt fate, I got finally into fixing everything up these past few weeks. I knew it was going to be a project, but I didnít appreciate exactly what I was going to find.
These front frame sections WITHOUT A DOUBT RUST INSIDE-OUT. Mine looked okay on the outside. They outward manifestation of the rust is was only on the seamsÖ The frames are made from two U stamped sections that are joined together to form a box and then welded at points, with a seam on the top and the bottom. The top seam showed a little rust, the bottom seam showed more. Just on the seam edges and the welds basically. My frame looked nothing like the numerous bad examples you can find just by searching ďRam van frame rustĒ. No outward manifestation of holes, or missing support sections, or alike.
Now it turns out you can actually very easily access the inside of the forward frame section from the front of the van. All you need to do is to remove the front bumper, and then bumper brackets. Its 6 bolts for the bumper, and another 8 bolts for the brackets. I HIGHLY recommend anyone with a 98-03 Dodge van to remove their front bumper and inspect the inside of the front frame sections. It takes minutes to get it off and itís a very worthwhile exercise for anyone with one of these vans. I wanted to remove my bumper not for any other reason than to paint the plastic section on the top, which was looking awfully nasty after 20 years of sun. Boy am I glad I did!
What I found was pretty shockingÖ The inside of the frame section was definitely showing significant signs of corrosion, especially on the drivers side. Iím assuming in my case the driverís side was made worse because of the battery damage, but the passenger side wasnít exactly pretty either. Seems that moisture makes its way into the forward part of the frame, and it sits there, as there really isnít any easy way for it to escape. And it RUSTS. Presumably the moisture makes its way into the frame via the front end behind the bumper. My bumper had collected lots of rocks and crud in the bottom of it, and it was also showing signs of a fair bit of rust too. You canít easily see this, as there is a plastic baffle that sits in that section between the bumper and the crossmember behind it.
The first thing I did was literally vacuum out the crap out of the inside of the frame. Lots of flakey rust chunks combined with the original factory primer sort of coating. And whatever other crud had managed to make its way inside the frame, but it was lots of crap. Mostly flakey remnants of frame to be honest. All really good at holding moisture, enviably speeding up the rusting. But itís easy to clean out, access is good and you can get the crap out of the front frame section easily.
I then took a new wooden handled wire brush, screwed a length of dowel to it so I could wire brush out the entire inside of the front frame section, and wire brushed the inside of the frame, getting any loose chunks of frame coating and rusty metal out. Re-vacuumed it again, repeated until I was satisfied the thing was as clean as I could get it. I then took note if the driverís side frame extension needed some welding or not, as it was deeply pitted in spots, and in the very front it had developed a few pinholes right through the metal on the bottom (there is a dip that likely collects water) After some good hammering, it seemed to be solid enoughÖ No need to weld, no imminent steering component failure. However if it had gotten much worse it probably would have needed surgery.
I then coated in the inside of the frame with por-15 (silver). This was done with screwing a paint brush to the same dowel I used for the wire brush. I was then able to adequately coat the entire inside of the front frame. There are numerous options of products for rust treatment, pick your favorite, but I wanted to take a two-prong approach, namely coat and then put some sort of rust-preventative oil product on. Obviously the first step is to paint itÖ So I went through the degrease/prep/coat approach with por-15, as itís a product Iíve used in the past and had good luck with.
Once I coated the inside of the frame I also coated the outside of the frame extensions, which is quite a bit more work than the inside to be honest. I inspected the inside of the frame extension behind the front axle with an inspection camera, and its condition inside was nothing at all like the front, so clearly something is happening that introduces a LOT of moisture to the forward part of the frame ahead of the axle that doesnít spread past it. Its significantly harder to reach this section of the frame to coat it internally, but itís easy enough to oil.
Then top-coated the outside as the Por-15 stuff is UV sensitive. Once I was done with the paint, I treated the whole thing with Krown, which is a rust proofing oil type product. It is super easy to get it in the exposed front frame section with the bumper off.
So now my front frame section is as rust resistant as I can make it. Iíll monitor is closely, but Iím confident that itís as fixed as it can be at this point. Between the Por15/and Krown, itís much better protected now then it ever has been. That said, Iíll be taking the bumper off again every season to confirm that my repairs are holding up.
98-03 Dodge owners, pull your bumpers off and check, you might be thankful you did. At the very least, you can clean out the frame sections and be confident that all is good. Or, you can clean out the moisture holding corrosion damage and determine if you need to do more to protect things.