There is no one best way to tow; however, understanding the various types of towing systems will help motorhomers select the method that best suits their needs.
By Jim Brightly
You’re ready to buy a new car and are excited about the many possibilities. After researching on the Internet and visiting dealerships, you come up with a list of vehicles that you like. Then you remember that you also will be towing this vehicle behind your motorhome. How will this affect your choice? The answer largely depends on the type of towed vehicle you choose, the towing system you intend to use, and which consideration is more important to you.
When selecting a car, first you must decide whether you want a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a two-wheel-drive vehicle, and whether front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive meets your needs. You also must determine whether you, your spouse, or other drivers prefer driving a vehicle with an automatic or a manual transmission. Each of these decisions will affect your choice of a towing system.
For guidance, you pull out the January 2003 issue of Family Motor Coaching magazine (or visit www.fmca.com and check the “Towables For 2003” article. This article provides a list of 2003-model vehicles that the manufacturers have indicated can be towed four wheels down. (Articles listing 2001 and 2002 vehicles also are available on the Web site.) By comparing your “wish list” with the list of vehicles that can be flat towed, you can get a better idea of which towing system to consider.
Towed vehicles (also called towables, dinghies, or even toads by some) vary in size from compact cars to large sport utility vehicles. Some folks even tow full-size pickups. Regardless, they serve as a convenient form of transportation after one arrives at a destination in a motorhome. Let’s face it; after finding a campsite, leveling the motorhome, and hooking up the shore connections, who wants to break camp just to make a quick trip to the store or visit a museum a few miles away? Sight-seeing on mountain roads, narrow byways, and restricted back roads is more relaxing and enjoyable in a towed vehicle.
PREPARING TO TOW
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much effort or equipment to turn a motorhome into an efficient towing vehicle. (Most coaches come equipped with a receiver hitch and a taillight connector “” for this reason we didn’t include those items on the accessory list.) Some towed vehicles can be pulled with all four wheels on the ground, while others must be towed with the drive wheels off the ground. When flat towing with a tow bar and all four wheels on the ground, a supplemental braking system needs to be considered. (Look for a supplemental braking system story in an upcoming issue FMC.)
When preparing to tow a vehicle behind your motorhome, you’ll need to keep several things in mind. Two very important safety considerations should be at the top of your list: 1. do not exceed the motorhome’s gross combination weight rating (GCWR) with the combined weights of the motorhome and the towed vehicle (including trailer, tow dolly, etc.); and 2. do not use the GCWR when considering the need for a supplemental braking system.
The GCWR is used only to determine whether your motorhome’s chassis (engine, transmission, suspension) can pull the total weight of the motorhome and towed vehicle, not whether it can stop the combination. Braking capacity is set by the chassis or coach manufacturer.
Many chassis and motorhome manufacturers now advise that supplemental braking should be used when towing with their motorhomes. Fleetwood, for instance, includes this advice in its literature: “The chassis manufacturer recommends the installation of a supplemental brake control system to activate the brakes on the vehicle or trailer you are towing.” Some manufacturers indicate that if you are towing anything that exceeds a certain weight limit “” 1,000 or 1,500 pounds, for instance “” supplemental braking is required. So, check your owners manual or contact the manufacturer and ask for this information.
As has been mentioned many times in this magazine, the physics of weight in motion enter the picture when you’re flat towing, and you need the additional comfort and safety zones that supplemental braking provides.
On the subject of stopping, a tow dolly or trailer used to transport another vehicle behind your motorhome also should have some type of independent brakes. Most tow dollies are equipped with surge brakes, which are activated by the weight of the towed vehicle “pushing” against the motorhome when the coach’s brakes are applied. The surge brake activates a hydraulic cylinder in much the same fashion as the brake pedal in your car activates the master cylinder. This “supply” cylinder forces hydraulic fluid through lines to the dolly’s wheel cylinders, which in turn force the brake shoes against the brake drums, slowing the dolly/towed vehicle combination.
Electric brakes, on the other hand “” used on the majority of car-hauling trailers “” are activated by an electrical signal sent by a brake controller mounted on the motorhome’s dashboard.
The controller receives its input through momentum via an internal pendulum or by an electronic circuit that simulates a pendulum. As the driver puts more pressure on the brake pedal, increasing the motorhome’s rate of deceleration, more “juice” is applied to the trailer’s magnetic brakes, thus working in tandem with the towing vehicle’s brake system.
The trailer brakes also can be helpful should your motorhome blow a tire. The driver can bring the combination to a safe stop using just the trailer brakes, on a trailer equipped with electric brakes, or by employing them in conjunction with light use of the service brakes on the motorhome when pulling a trailer equipped with electric or surge brakes. This can be a safety feature and, for this reason, motorhome owners may want to consider using electric brakes on a tow dolly rather than the more typical surge brakes, since the surge design doesn’t have a control that can be used separately from the coach’s service brakes. In either case it is very important to slow the combination down as quickly as possible, and not make any abrupt steering maneuvers. When the motorhome is slowed down to a safe speed, pull off to the side of the road, and stop. Be careful when exiting your motorhome, and watch for other vehicles on the road.
When connecting the towed vehicle to the motorhome “” regardless of whether it’s by tow bar, tow dolly, or trailer “” always cross the safety chains (or cables) under the coupler. This method is better than attaching the chains in parallel, for two reasons. First, should the coupler become disconnected from the hitch, the crossed chains will support the coupler and hold the towed vehicle in a straight line behind the motorhome. In contrast, parallel safety chains not only allow the coupler to fall down and hit the pavement (with possibly disastrous results), but they also can allow the towed vehicle to wander back and forth to the limit of the chains (which could cause severe damage to both vehicles, and potentially other vehicles on the road). A second reason to cross the chains is to allow the towed car to turn without putting undo stress on the safety chains.
The chains should be hooked up “chassis to chassis” “” attached to the chassis of the motorhome on one end and the chassis of the towed vehicle on the other.
Should you decide to tow a vehicle behind your motorhome, get into a daily (or departure) routine. You may feel more comfortable using a checklist to assure all steps are taken. By hooking up the towed vehicle, including coupler, safety chains/cables, lights, etc., the same way each time, it can become second nature.
Although motorhomers have their preferences, there is no consensus as to the best way or best vehicle to tow. Three basic methods exist for towing a vehicle behind a motorhome: tow bar, tow dolly, and trailer. Here’s a brief explanation of each method.
The tow bar assembly transports vehicles with all four wheels touching the ground. In general, tow bars are the easiest to use and the least expensive of the towing systems. Most tow bars are rated in classes from 3,500 pounds to 6,000 pounds, sufficient to handle nearly any towed vehicle. Exceptions include the BlackHawk from RoadMaster and the Excali-Bar from Demco, both of which are rated at 8,000 pounds. The Blue Ox Aventa II has recently been upgraded to a 10,000-pound rating. Of course, your motorhome and hitch, and all other towing-related components, need to be rated to handle the weight involved.
The system usually consists of two elements: the tow bar (or wishbone portion) and the base plate, which attaches to the chassis of the towed vehicle. Base plates are designed and made for particular vehicles, or for chassis that are used on a number of models, and provide a safe point of attachment for the tow bar.
Many tow bar manufacturers offer motorhome-mounted tow bars that remain attached to the motorhome and connect to the towed vehicle’s base plate only when the car is being pulled. This type offers the advantage of a built-in storage location (on the back of the coach) and a cleaner-looking towed vehicle. It also keeps the additional weight of the tow bar off the front of the towed vehicle. In addition, there are folding models that can be flipped and stowed horizontally or vertically on the base plate of the towed vehicle.
There are some disadvantages to using a tow bar. First, base plates are unique to a particular towed vehicle model. And if a base plate does not already exist for your vehicle, custom-made installations can be expensive. Mileage accumulates on vehicles towed four wheels down unless they are equipped with an electronic odometer (in most cases). Some vehicles cannot be towed four wheels down without drivetrain modifications. And drivetrain components (tires, wheel bearings, driveshaft, etc.) receive wear and tear just as if the car were being driven.
With virtually all tow bar systems, the motorhome should not be backed up when the towed vehicle is attached. Almost every time a flat-towed vehicle is backed up, its front wheels will try to crank to their stops on one side or the other. Attempting to have an assistant driver control the steering wheel of the towed vehicle isn’t advisable, as it could result in injury to the person holding the steering wheel if the tires whip to one side and the steering wheel turns suddenly.
Mark Penlerick of Blue Ox Towing Products explained why this occurs: “The reason this happens is not the tow bar but rather the caster angle in the front end of the towed vehicle. Caster is the forward tilt of the steering axis versus vertical. It provides steering stability, steering returnability, and cornering ease. In reverse, the caster angle makes the wheels want to turn around the other direction like casters on your office chair or shopping cart. We all know they can’t turn all the way around on a car, but they will turn off to the side as far as the steering mechanism will let them. This is virtually undetectable from the driver’s seat in the motorhome, making this a very scary situation. If you continue to back up after the wheels have turned, the tires ‘scrub’ or slide sideways, causing damage to the tires. Other things caused by this are severe stress to the steering components, suspension, and towing system components …. To be on the safe side, heed the warnings; don’t back up with any tow bar.”
While tow dollies (usually) and trailers come with lights and can be equipped with brakes, motorhomers who use a tow bar must use a tow light kit attached to the rear of the towed vehicle or wire directly into the towed vehicle’s lighting system. And as mentioned earlier, a supplemental braking system is recommended.
A tow dolly is a short, two-wheeled trailer that transports the towed vehicle with two of its wheels off the ground. The dolly is first coupled to the motorhome. Then the towed vehicle is driven up the dolly’s ramps so that the two drive wheels rest on the dolly and the other two wheels are on the ground. The towed vehicle is then secured to the dolly using straps over the tires and also safety chains. Tow dollies are not applicable to front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vehicles, because such vehicles should not be towed backward. In some cases, a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive vehicle can be towed backward if its steering wheel can be secured; however, this is not a safe practice and dolly manufacturers do not recommend towing any vehicle backward. In all cases, the set of wheels over which the greater weight is located should be on the dolly to keep the towed vehicle from wandering back and forth.
The advantage of using a tow dolly system is its universality. The same dolly can be used to tow a variety of vehicles, including those that cannot be towed four wheels down, and it reduces wear to front-wheel-drive components. Also, tow dollies can be equipped with surge brakes or electrically controlled brakes.
Disadvantages: The hookup procedure can be elaborate; as with tow bars, vehicles on tow dollies cannot be backed up easily, and the motorhomer must find a place for the dolly once at a destination (usually it fits beneath the rear overhang).
Some states require that tow dollies be registered, so check with your state’s bureau of motor vehicles to see if this is necessary.
A trailer or car hauler makes it possible to tow a vehicle with all four wheels off the ground, eliminating concerns about driveline damage. The towed vehicle’s odometer does not accumulate mileage; there is no additional wear and tear on its drivetrain; and trailer tires are less expensive to replace than the tires for the towed vehicle. If your preferred vehicle cannot be flat towed without modification, if a tow bar base plate is not available for it, or if you want to trade off and tow more than one vehicle, a trailer might be the best option. A trailer offers backup capability, additional storage, and usually is equipped with brakes (and a breakaway safety device that locks the brakes should it disconnect from the motorhome).
Among the disadvantages of using a trailer is the fact that the trailer itself can be expensive; loading and unloading it can be cumbersome and time-consuming; and the coach owner must find a place to store the trailer while in a campground. Also, the trailer itself is added weight that must be considered.
Finally, all trailers must be registered with your state bureau of motor vehicles just like your motorhome and automobile.
Remco Inc. manufactures several products for the protection of your towed vehicle’s drivetrain. These products include automatic transmission lube pumps, front-wheel-drive axle disconnects, and driveshaft disconnects. The company can tell you whether the vehicle you plan to tow “” which may or may not be factory-approved for flat towing “” needs to be modified with one of its products for safe and reliable towing.
Tow Bars And Base Plates
Blue Ox offers four different tow bars: the Ambassador, the Acclaim, the Aladdin, and the Aventa II. The Ambassador is a class III solid A-frame bar with a 5,000-pound weight rating. It can be carried in a vertical position on the towable or stored in a large cargo bin. The Acclaim is a class III self-aligning tow bar with a weight rating of 5,000 pounds that, like the Ambassador, mounts to the towable’s base plate and can be detached and stored in the vehicle’s trunk or in one of the motorhome’s cargo bays. The Aladdin aluminum tow bar, which weighs 18 pounds, is a class III tow bar that is used for vehicles up to 5,000 pounds. This self-aligning bar mounts to the back of the motorhome and is stored there when not in use. The Aventa II is a class IV bar rated at 10,000 pounds (most motorhome hitches are not rated this high) that is self-aligning and mounts on the back of a motorhome. Contact Blue Ox for base plate availability.
Demco offers three tow bars: the Aluminator, the Excali-Bar, and the Kwik-Tow. The Aluminator is a lightweight, 25-pound tow bar that is rated at 5,000 pounds and is built primarily from marine- and aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, with steel used in critical areas to enhance durability. When the towed car is disconnected, the Aluminator remains on the coach’s rear. The Excali-Bar, which also is stored on the rear of the coach when not in use, is the heftiest of the three, capable of towing up to 8,000 pounds. It is constructed with solid stainless-steel connecting arms, and includes new sealed locking collars that prevent dirt, grime, and moisture from getting into the connecting arms. The Kwik-Tow rigid A-frame tow bar is rated at 5,000 pounds and has legs that can be folded together for easy storage in the coach’s storage compartment when not in use. Contact Demco for base plate availability.
Reese Products, well-known for its multitude of hitches, also markets two basic tow bars. The adjustable tow bar, rated at 5,000 pounds, can be folded for easy storage, while the solid tow bar has a fixed width of 24 inches and is rated at 3,500 pounds.
Remco offers a new class IV tow bar that has a 10,000-pound rating. It is said to fold away easily, and it stores on the motorhome’s hitch. It is self-aligning, includes quick-disconnect hookup pins, and weighs 40 pounds. The tow bar fits all Blue Ox base plates and all Demco and RoadMaster base plates with the help of an adapter.
RoadMaster offers five tow bar models with mounting brackets to match. The 22-pound Tracker, RoadMaster’s basic tow bar, is a rigid A-frame tow bar that is rated at 5,000 pounds and comes with an adapter bar to fit RoadMaster mounting brackets. Although the length of the tow bar’s arms cannot be adjusted, the A-frame can be folded so that both legs of the tow bar move together for easier storage.
The Falcon 2 is now rated at 6,000 pounds, and the StowMaster is rated at 5,000 pounds. Both utilize RoadMaster’s trademarked Autowlok system, which allows the arms to adjust for an easy, one-person hookup. The Falcon 2 is stored on the back of the motorhome; the StowMaster is stored on the front of the towable or can be removed completely.
The Sterling, which RoadMaster touts as the world’s strongest aluminum tow bar, offers a 6,000-pound capacity. It incorporates shock-absorbing arms that cushion jolts and jars, which, according to RoadMaster, greatly reduces wear and tear on the mounting brackets and the towable’s frame. When not in use, it stows on the back of the motorhome. The BlackHawk is RoadMaster’s strongest tow bar, rated at 8,000 pounds, making it one of the highest rated folding tow bars on the market. Contact RoadMaster for base plate availability.
Demco offers a wide variety of tow dollies with a maximum towed vehicle weight of 4,400 pounds, depending on the model. The Kar Kaddy utilizes automotive-type sealed hub units that never require repacking. The 80- to 120-pound loaded tongue weight is designed for towing with small motorhomes, or units with long rear overhangs. It comes with attached low-profile loading ramps, polyethylene fenders, and a tilt-bed frame for easy loading. The Tow-It has a heavy-duty frame, with a center pivot design for steering. Surge brakes, deflectors, and other options are available on all models.
Master Tow offers three tow dolly models, all with tilt beds, lights, and optional surge or electric brakes (disc or drum). All models feature an acrylic enamel paint finish, Accu-Lube hubs, rubber-mounted taillights, 10,000-pound-rated ratchets and straps (that fit most 13-inch through 16-inch tires), detachable steel fenders, and a 3,500-pound GVWR. Model 77T (450 pounds) is for towed vehicles with a tread width of 40 to 77 inches; model 80T (483 pounds) accepts a tread width up to 80 inches, and model 80THD (551 pounds) is built slightly heavier than the 80T for a longer service life.
The RoadMaster Tow Dolly includes ratchets and tie-down straps, and hydraulic or electric brakes as an option. It also is equipped with adjustable-width axles; patented TrueGrip ramps; locking storage trays; a conveniently located tilt bed release; a coupler handle; a dual-pin bed latch; a steering stabilizer; Accu-Lube hubs; and self-steering ST215/75X14 radial tires. Its adjustable tie-downs fit tires from 12 inches to 16 inches in diameter. The dolly has a maximum carrying capacity of 4,380 pounds.
Many types of trailers are available to the discriminating motorhomer: heavy-duty trailers, light-duty trailers, enclosed trailers, and even those with a nose piece to protect the front of the towed vehicle. A 16-foot flat-bed design is pretty much the standard, as it will carry the majority of cars and SUVs. When not hauling cars, these trailers can be used to transport everything from drywall sheets and firewood to furniture and household appliances. We include the trailers below simply as examples of what is available. Trailers from other manufacturers are available, perhaps even locally. Check FMCA’s “Business Directory” under Towing Equipment or check the local Yellow Pages under “Trailers “” Utility.”
The classic steel-tube/wood-plank car hauler from Carson Trailer Inc. has a 7,000-pound GVWR, two axles (the front axle is equipped with electric brakes), four steel fold-up tie-down rings imbedded and bolted to the floor, and a battery for the breakaway safety feature that activates the brakes should a disconnect occur. It also has a screw-jack so that it can be disconnected from the tow vehicle for storage even while a car is onboard. It weighs approximately 1,620 pounds.
Another possibility is a lightweight alloy trailer from Hindsight Designs Inc. that weighs slightly more than 1,000 pounds. Also equipped with dual axles, the Hindsight behaves like a custom-made trailer, because it can be “dialed” in to exactly what the customer needs; i.e., a load capacity of 2,500 to 6,500 pounds; one axle with electric brakes, the other with surge brakes; a tilt-bed for cars with reduced ground clearance, etc. Even the tie-downs can be custom-located for a specific car. Its torsion-bar suspension (rather than leaf springs) is designed for long use and many years of trouble-free transportation.
Master Tow makes available a number of utility trailers and car haulers. Among them, the 7,000-pound-capacity tubular steel car hauler is equipped with electric brakes, 24-inch-wide steel diamond plate runners, four heavy-duty tie-down rings, a wraparound tongue, ramps and ramp holders, and tandem teardrop fenders. A similar model, also featuring a 7,000-pound GVWR, is equipped with a full steel floor.
Tommy’s Trailers specializes in myriad types of trailers for everything from conventional car hauling to motorsports towing. Its one-car “production class” open aluminum trailers feature four-wheel electric brakes, 6-foot aluminum ramps that store in a lockable rear compartment, aluminum tongue-and-groove flooring, and a 7,000-pound GVWR. Available accessories include a vehicle cover.
Triton Power Lifts offers the Legend trailer, which is available with a custom-built, hydraulic-powered lift system to carry personal watercraft, all-terrain vehicles, or small boats above the towed vehicle. The Power Lifts are operated by remote control. Trailers are available with a gross vehicle weight capacity of 10,000 or 15,000 pounds.
Blue Ox lists among its accessories a rock shield called the RV Underskirt. It mounts horizontally from the back of the motorhome to the front of the towed vehicle and protects the towable from debris, mud, rocks, and sand kicked up by the motorhome. The company also has a more traditional deflector called the KarGard. This polyethylene shield mounts to the tow bar to protect the front of the towed vehicle from road debris, and it folds in half for easy storage.
The Tow Car Shield from Coastline Cover Company not only covers the towed vehicle’s grille, but also the bumper, hood, front fenders, and windshield. The cover attaches via a series of straps and/or spring-loaded hooks. Weighing in at only 11 pounds, the shield is said to cover up to 80 percent of the front of the towable, and it can be installed or removed in minutes. Made from heavy-duty, flame- and mildew-resistant vinyl, it protects the towable from road debris, exhaust, and weather. Call Coastline for available models. Side mirror covers are also available.
The Sentry Tow Bar Deflector from Demco is constructed of resilient, high-density polyethylene and attaches to the connecting ears of any Demco tow bar. The position and angle of the shield deflects rocks and other road debris down and away from the towed vehicle. The lightweight deflector is made of three pieces that lock together for easy installation and removal, and comes with its own storage bag.
Progressive Creations offers three models of its Towcar Deflectors that are said to be adaptable to just about any tow bar/vehicle combination. The 24-inch Standard (for midsized cars) and the 30-inch Freedom (for larger vehicles) flat models are made of 1/4-inch clear polycarbonate material. The 30-inch Frontier (for larger vehicles), which is slightly curved, is made of 3/16-inch polycarbonate material. Each deflector can be mounted and dismounted in seconds, folds in half for storage, and is large enough to protect the towed vehicle’s grille and windshield.
The SkirtGuard and the Guardian are both front-end protection devices for towed vehicles from RoadMaster. SkirtGuard is a powder-coated steel product used to stabilize the splash guards and mud flaps mounted on the rear of motorhomes. The device, which is suspended by chains, keeps the skirting or mud flaps in place to protect the towed vehicle from rocks, gravel, and road debris. The Guardian is crafted from molded, hollow, high-impact polyethylene and attaches to the tow bar mounting bracket. Connecting rods attach the two side panels.
The Dinghy Gard and Splash Gard from Southern RV Products are used to protect the towed vehicle from damage, but in different ways. The Dinghy Gard mounts to the tow bar connectors at the front of the towed vehicle (adapters are available for most tow bars) and comes in three pieces for easy storage. It measures 22 inches by 69.5 inches and is made from shatterproof Lexan and anodized aluminum. The Splash Gard is a skirt that mounts on the motorhome and is said to deflect rocks and other road debris and to reduce road spray by 75 percent. According to the company, its 21-inch-by-94-inch size fits most motorhomes, or it can be cut to fit.
Following is contact information for companies listed in this article.
One Mill Road
P.O. Box P
Pender, NE 68047
Tow bars, debris shields, accessories.
Carson Trailer Inc.
18001 S. Figueroa Blvd.
Gardena, CA 90248
Coastline Cover Company
2807-A E. Guasti Road
Ontario, CA 91743
Demco-Dethmers Manufacturing Co.
P.O. Box 189
4010 320th St.
Boyden, IA 51234
Tow dollies, tow bars, base plates, debris shields, accessories.
Hindsight Designs Inc.
201 West D St.
Wilmington, CA 90744
783 Slocomb Road
Fayetteville, NC 28311
Tow dollies, trailers, magnetic light kits.
Progressive Creations Inc.
6040 E. Main St. #168
Mesa, AZ 85205
Reese Products Inc.
51671 State Road 19 N
Elkhart, IN 46514
4138 S. 89th Street
P.O. Box 27998
Omaha, NE 68127
Transmission lube pumps, axle locks, driveshaft couplings.
5602 N.E. Skyport Way
Portland, OR 97218
Tow dollies, base plates, tow bars, debris shields, wiring kits, miscellaneous accessories.
Southern RV Products Inc.
3713 Pompano Dr.
Pensacola, FL 32514
1828 Latta Road
Ada, OK 74820
Triton Power Lifts
701 N. Rice Ave.
Oxnard, CA 93030
Following is contact information for other FMCA commercial member companies that supply towing-related equipment or services.
5580 Cheviot Road
Cincinnati, OH 45247
Commercial Truck & Trailer Inc.
313 N. State St.
Girard, OH 44420
Dan’s Service Center Inc.
111 Alt Dr.
Elkhart, IN 46514
Ebling & Son Inc.
4500 Roger B. Chaffee S.E.
Kentwood, MI 49548
Sierra Auto Products
239 Oakdale Drive
Berea, OH 44017
16901 N. Cleveland Ave.
North Fort Myers, FL 33903-1415