10.2 Differentials

Another important unit in the power train is the differential, which is driven by the final drive. The differential is located between the axles and permits one axle to turn at a different speed from that of the other. The variations in axle speed are necessary when a vehicle rounds a corner or travels over uneven ground. At the same time, the differential transmits engine torque to the drive axles. The drive axles are on a rotational axis that is 90 degrees different than the rotational axis of the drive shaft.

Differential Construction

A differential assembly uses drive shaft rotation to transfer power to the axle shafts. The term differential can be remembered by thinking of the words different and axle. The differential must be capable of providing torque to both axles, even when they are turning at different speeds. The differential assembly is constructed from the following: the differential carrier, the differential case, the pinion gear, the ring gear, and the spider gears (Figure 10-10).

Figure 10-10 — Differential.

Differential Carrier

The differential carrier provides a mounting place for the pinion gear, the differential case, and other differential components. There are two types of differential carriers: the removable type and the integral (unitized) type.

Removable type—a carrier that bolts to the front of the axle housing. Stud bolts are installed in the housing to provide proper carrier alignment. A gasket is installed between the carrier and the housing to prevent leakage.

Integral type—a carrier that is constructed as part of the axle housing. A stamped metal or cast aluminum cover bolts to the rear of the carrier for inspection of the gears.

Differential Case

The differential case holds the ring gear, the spider gears, and the inner ends of the axles. It mounts and rotates in the carrier. Case bearings fit between the outer ends of the differential case and the carrier.

Pinion Gear

The pinion gear turns the ring gear when the drive shaft is rotating. The outer end of the pinion gear is splined to the rear U-joint companion flange or yoke. The inner end of the pinion gear meshes with the teeth on the ring gear.

The pinion gear is mounted on tapered roller bearings that allow the pinion gear to move freely on the carrier. Either a crushable sleeve or shims are used to preload the pinion gear bearings. Some differentials use a pinion pilot bearing that supports the extreme inner end of the pinion gear. The pinion pilot bearing assists the tapered roller bearings in supporting the pinion gear during periods of heavy loads.

Ring Gear

The pinion gear drives the ring gear. It is bolted securely to the differential case and has more teeth than the pinion gear. The ring gear transfers rotating power through an angle change or 90 degrees.

The ring and pinion gears are a matched set. They are lapped at the factory. Then one tooth on each gear is marked to show the correct teeth engagement. Lapping produces quieter operation and assures longer gear life.

Spider Gears

The spider gears are a set of small bevel gears that include two axle gears (differential side gears) and two pinion gears (differential idler gears). The spider gears mount inside the differential case. A pinion shaft passes through the two pinion gears and case. The two side gears are splined to the inner ends of the axles.

Final Drive

A final drive is that part of a power transmission system between the drive shaft and the differential. Its function is to change the direction of the power transmitted by the drive shaft through 90 degrees to the driving axles. At the same time, it provides a fixed reduction between the speed of the drive shaft and the axle driving the wheels.

The reduction or gear ratio of the final drive is determined by dividing the number of teeth on the ring gear by the number of teeth on the pinion gear. In passenger vehicles, this speed reduction varies from about 3:1 to 5:1. In trucks it varies from about 5:1 to 11:1. To calculate rear axle ratio, count the number of teeth on each gear. Then divide the number of pinion teeth into the number of ring gear teeth. For example, if the pinion gear has 10 teeth and the ring gear has 30 (30 divided by 10), the rear axle ratio would be 3:1. Manufacturers install a rear axle ratio that provides a compromise between performance and economy. The average passenger car ratio is 3.50:1.

The higher axle ratio, 4.11:1 for instance, would increase acceleration and pulling power but would decrease fuel economy. The engine would have to run at a higher rpm to maintain an equal cruising speed.

The lower axle ratio, 3:1, would reduce acceleration and pulling power but would increase fuel mileage. The engine would run at a lower rpm while maintaining the same speed.

The major components of the final drive include the pinion gear, connected to the drive shaft, and a bevel gear or ring gear that is bolted or riveted to the differential carrier. To maintain accurate and proper alignment and tooth contact, the ring gear and differential assembly are mounted in bearings. The bevel drive pinion is supported by two tapered roller bearings mounted in the differential carrier. This pinion shaft is straddle mounted, meaning that a bearing is located on each side of the pinion shaft teeth. Oil seals prevent the loss of lubricant from the housing where the pinion shaft and axle shafts protrude. As a mechanic, you will encounter the final drive gears in the spiral bevel and hypoid design, as shown in Figure 10-11.

Figure 10-11 — Types of final drives.

Spiral Bevel Gear

Spiral bevel gears have curved gear teeth with the pinion and ring gear on the same center line. This type of final drive is used extensively in trucks and occasionally in older automobiles. This design allows for constant contact between the ring gear and pinion. It also necessitates the use of heavy grade lubricants.

Hypoid Gear

The hypoid gear final drive is an improvement or variation of the spiral bevel design and is commonly used in light and medium trucks and all domestic rear wheel drive automobiles. Hypoid gears have replaced spiral bevel gears because they lower the hump in the floor of the vehicle and improve gear-meshing action. As you can see in Figure 10-11, the pinion meshes with the ring gear below the center line and is at a slight angle (less than 90 degrees). This angle and the use of heavier (larger) teeth permit an increased amount of power to be transmitted while the size of the ring gear and housing remain constant.

The tooth design is similar to the spiral bevel but includes some of the characteristics of the worm gear. This permits the reduced drive angle. The hypoid gear teeth have a more pronounced curve and steeper angle, resulting in larger tooth areas and more teeth to be in contact at the same time. With more than one gear tooth in contact, a hypoid design increases gear life and reduces gear noise. The wiping action of the teeth causes heavy tooth pressure that requires the use of heavy grade lubricants.

Double-Reduction Final Drive

In the final drives shown in Figure 11-11, there is a single fixed gear reduction. This is the only gear reduction in most automobiles and light- and some medium-duty trucks between the drive shaft and the wheels.

Double-reduction final drives are used for heavy-duty trucks (Figure 10-12). With this arrangement it is not necessary to have a large ring gear to get the necessary gear reduction. The first gear reduction is obtained through a pinion and ring gear as the single fixed gear reduction final drive. Notice that the secondary pinion is mounted on the primary ring gear shaft. The second gear reduction is the result of the secondary pinion which is rigidly attached to the primary ring gear, driving a large helical gear attached to the differential case. Double-reduction final drives may be found on military design vehicles such as the 5-ton truck. Many commercially designed vehicles of this size use a single- or double-reduction final drive with provisions for two speeds to be incorporated.

Figure 10-12 — Double-reduction final drive.

Two-Speed Final Drive

The two-speed or dual-ratio final drive is used to supplement the gearing of the other drive train components and is used in vehicles with a single drive axle (Figure 10-13). The operator can select the range or speed of this axle with a button on the shifting lever of the transmission or by a lever through linkage.

Figure 10-13 — Two-speed final drive.

The two-speed final drive doubles the number of gear ratios available for driving the vehicle under various load and road conditions. For example, for a vehicle with a two- speed unit and a five-speed transmission, ten different forward speeds are available. This unit provides a gear ratio high enough to permit pulling a heavy load up steep grades and a low ratio to permit the vehicle to run at high speeds with a light load or no load.

The conventional spiral bevel pinion and ring gear drives the two-speed unit, but a planetary gear train is placed between the differential drive ring gear and the differential case. The internal gear of the planetary gear train is bolted rigidly to the bevel drive gear. A ring on which the planetary gears are pivoted is bolted to the differential case. A member consisting of the sun gear and a dog clutch slides on one of the axle shafts and is controlled through a button or lever accessible to the operator.

When in high range, the sun gear meshes with the internal teeth on the ring carrying the planetary gears and disengages the dog clutch from the left bearing adjusting ring, which is rigidly held in the differential carrier. In this position, the planetary gear train is locked together. There is no relative motion between the differential case and the gears in the planetary drive train. The differential case is driven directly by the differential ring gear, the same as in the conventional single fixed gear final drive.

When shifted into low range, the sun gear is slid out of mesh with the ring carrying the planetary gears. The dog clutch makes a rigid connection with the left bearing adjusting ring. Because the sun gear is integral with the dog clutch, it is also locked to the bearing adjusting rings and remains stationary. The internal gear rotates the planetary gears around the stationary sun gear, and the differential case is driven by the ring on which the planetary gears are pivoted. This action produces the gear reduction, or low speed, of the axle.

Differential Action

The rear wheels of a vehicle do not always turn at the same speed. When the vehicle is turning or when tire diameters differ slightly, the rear wheels must rotate at different speeds.

If there were a solid connection between each axle and the differential case, the tires would tend to slide, squeal, and wear whenever the operator turned the steering wheel of the vehicle. A differential is designed to prevent this problem.

Drving Straight Ahead

When a vehicle is driving straight ahead, the ring gear, differential case, differential pinion gears, and differential side gears turn as a unit. The two differential pinion gears do NOT rotate on the pinion shaft, because they exert equal force on the side gears. As a result, the side gears turn at the same speed as the ring gear, causing both rear wheels to turn at the same speed.

Turning Corners

When the vehicle begins to round a curve, the differential pinion gears rotate on the pinion shaft. This occurs because the pinion gears must walk around the slower turning differential side gear. Therefore, the pinion gears carry additional rotary motion to the faster turning outer wheel on the turn.

Differential speed is considered to be 100 percent. The rotating action of the pinion gears carries 90 percent of this speed to the slowing mover inner wheel and sends 110 percent of the speed to the faster rotating outer wheel. This action allows the vehicle to make the turn without sliding or squealing the wheels.

Limited Slip Differentials

The conventional differential delivers the same amount of torque to each rear wheel when both wheels have equal traction. When one wheel has less traction than the other, for example, when one wheel slips on ice, the other wheel cannot deliver torque. All turning effort goes to the slipping wheel. To provide good, even traction even though

one wheel is slipping, a limited slip differential is used in many vehicles. It is very similar to the standard unit but has some means of preventing wheel spin and loss of traction. The standard differential delivers maximum torque to the wheel with minimum traction. The limited slip differential delivers maximum torque to the wheel with maximum traction. Other names for a limited slip differential are posi-traction, sure-grip, equal- lock, and no-spin.

Clutch Pack Limited Slip Differential

The clutch pack limited slip differential uses a set of friction discs and steel plates to lock the axles together whenever one drive wheel experiences uncontrolled slippage (Figure 10-14). The friction discs are sandwiched between the steel plates inside the differential case. The friction disc is splined and turns with the differential side gears. The steel plates turn with the differential case.

Figure 10-14 — Clutch pack limited slip differential.

Springs (bellville springs, coil springs, or leaf springs) force the friction disc and steel plates together. As a result, both rear axles try to turn with the differential case. Spring force and thrust action of the spider gears applies the clutch pack. Under high torque conditions, the rotation of the differential pinion gear will push out on the axle side gears. The axle side gears then push on the clutch discs. This action helps lock the disc and keeps both wheels turning.

However, when driving normally, the vehicle can turn a corner without both wheels rotating at the same speed. As the vehicle turns a corner, the inner drive wheel must slow down. The unequal speed between the side gears causes the side gear pinions to walk around the side gears. This walking will cause the outer axle shaft to rotate faster than the differential case, allowing the pinion shaft on the side to slide down a V-shaped ramp. This action releases the outer clutches, causing the clutch pack to slip when the vehicle is turning.

Cone Clutch Limited Slip Differential

A cone clutch limited slip differential uses the friction produced by cone-shaped axle gears to provide improved traction (Figure 11-15). These cones fit behind and are splined to the axle shafts. With the axles splined to the cones, the axles tend to rotate with the differential case. Coil springs are situated between the side gears to wedge the clutches into the differential case.

Figure 10-15 — Cone clutch limited slip differential.

Under rapid acceleration or when one wheel loses traction, the differential pinion gears, as they drive the cones, push outward on the cone gears. This action increases friction between the cones and case, driving the wheels with even greater torque.

When a vehicle goes around a corner, the inner drive wheel must slow down. The unequal speed between the side gears will cause the side gear pinions to walk around the side gears. This walking action causes the outer axle shaft to rotate faster than the differential case. Because the cones have spiral grooves cut into their clutch surfaces, the inner cone will draw itself into the case and lock tight and the outer cone clutch will back itself out of the case. This action allows the outer drive axle to free wheel. The end result is the majority of the engine torque is sent to the inner drive wheel.

Differential Service and Maintenance

Differentials in a properly operated vehicle seldom cause any maintenance problems. With the maintenance of the proper lubrication level and occasional changing of a seal or gasket, the assembly will normally last as long as the vehicle.

The first hint of existing trouble is generally an unusual noise in the axle housing. To diagnose the trouble properly, you must determine the source of the noise and under

what operating conditions the noise is most pronounced. Defective universal joints, rough wheel bearings, or tire noises may be improperly diagnosed by an inexperienced mechanic as differential trouble.

Some clue may be gained as to the cause of trouble by noting whether the noise is a growl, hum, or knock; whether it is heard when the vehicle is operating on a straight road, or on turns only; and whether the noise is most noticeable when the engine is driving the vehicle or when it is coasting with the vehicle driving the engine.

A humming noise in the differential generally means the ring gear or pinion needs an adjustment. An improperly adjusted ring gear or pinion prevents normal tooth contact between the gears and therefore produces rapid tooth wear. If the trouble is not corrected immediately, the humming noise will gradually take on a growling sound, and the ring and pinion will probably have to be replaced.

It is very easy to mistake tire noise for differential noise. Tire noise will vary according to the type of pavement the vehicle is being operated on, while differential noise will not.

To confirm a doubt as to whether the noise is caused by tire or differential, drive the vehicle over various pavement surfaces. If the noise is present in the differential only when the vehicle is rounding a comer, the trouble is likely to be in the differential case. If the backlash (clearance) between the ring and pinion is too great, a clunking sound is produced by the gears. For example, when an automatic transmission is shifted into drive, the abrupt rotation of the drive shaft can bring the gears together with a loud thump.

The ring and pinion gears can become worn, scored, out of adjustment, or damaged. The problems can result from prolonged service, fatigue, and lack of lubricant. You need to inspect the differential to determine whether adjustment or part replacement is required.

A differential identification (ID) number is provided to show the exact type of differential for ordering parts and looking up specifications. The number may be on a tag under one of the carrier or inspection cover bolts; it also may be stamped on the housing or carrier. Use the ID number to find the axle type, axle ratio, make of the unit, and other information located in the service manual.

Differential Lubricant Service

Many vehicle manufacturers recommend that the differential fluid be checked and replaced at specific intervals. To check the fluid level in a differential, remove the filler plug, which is located either in the front or rear of the assembly. The lubricant should be even with the fill hole when hot and slightly below the hole when cold.

When the manufacturer recommends that the differential fluid be replaced, remove the drain plug located on the bottom of the differential housing. Some differentials require the removal of the inspection cover to drain the lubricant. With all the fluid drained, replace the drain plug or inspection cover and refill with the proper lubricant.



Always install the correct type of differential lubricant. Limited slip differentials often require a special type of lubricant for the friction clutches.

Differential Gear Tooth Pattern

The ring and pinion tooth contact pattern is used to double check ring and pinion adjustment.

To check the accuracy of your adjustments, coat the ring gear teeth with a thin coat of red lead, white grease, hydrated ferric oxide (yellow oxide or iron), or Prussian blue.

Turn the ring gear one way and then the other to rub the teeth together, producing a contact pattern on the teeth. Carefully note the contact pattern that shows up on the teeth where the substance used has been wiped off.

A good contact pattern is one located in the center of the gear teeth. Figure 10-16 shows several ring and pinion gear contact patterns. Study each and note the suggested correction for the faulty contact. Note the names of the areas on the ring gear. These include the following:

Figure 10-16 — Differential gear tooth patterns.

When used gears are adjusted properly, the contact pattern will vary from that of new gears. The important thing to keep in mind with used gears is that the pattern should be closer to the toe than the heel of the tooth, as shown in Figure 10-16. Notice that the ideal tooth pattern on new teeth is uniform on both sides, whereas the used gear indicates considerably more contact on the coasting side.

Once you have obtained the proper adjustment on the ring and pinion, bolt the carrier housing in place. Make sure you use a new gasket. Tighten the bolts according to the manufacturer’s specifications to prevent them from working loose. Reinstall the axle shafts and new gaskets. Reconnect the drive shaft and fill the axle housing with the proper lubricant.

Test your Knowledge

2. What component of a differential is splined to the inner ends of the axles?

A. Integral gears
B. Idler gears
C. Pinion gears
D. Side gears