If you spend any amount of time traveling the highways and byways in your motorhome, two things will soon become apparent. One, the variety of RVs out there is amazing, and, two, the vehicles being towed behind motorhomes are just as varied.
Exploring the options that are available to motorhome owners who want to take along a tagalong.
By Peter D. duPre
If you spend any amount of time traveling the highways and byways in your motorhome, two things will soon become apparent. One, the variety of RVs out there is amazing, and, two, the vehicles being towed behind motorhomes are just as varied. I have seen everything from vintage cars to Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Whatever is being towed, the usual reason for doing so is to provide some secondary form of transport to the coach owners once they reach their destination. We all know that while the motorhome certainly delivers on comfort, convenience, and homelike environment, it is not the most practical vehicle for touring on tight back roads or running into town on a quick errand. And who wants to put everything away and break camp just for a quart of milk? That’s why most of us pull a towable.
While most motorhome owners already have a particular towable in mind (see January 2007 issue “” “Towables for 2007,” page 60) or on hand, deciding what type of equipment is going to haul said towable can be a bit disconcerting. Should you use a tow bar, a tow dolly, or a trailer? The answer to that question will depend mainly upon what you are towing. For example, a front-wheel-drive subcompact with an automatic transmission will require a different towing setup than will a four-wheel-drive pickup with a manual transmission. But other factors, such as overall towability of a particular piece of towing equipment, personal taste, and storage of the equipment will also come into play.
Let’s look at the various types of towing equipment and some pros and cons of each. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on tow bars and tow dollies, since those seem to be the most popular choices among motorhome owners. We should note that using a trailer to tow is an option, and has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but we won’t go into those here. We also won’t discuss hitches, as most motorhomes come equipped with a Class III or Class IV receiver straight from the factory.
Tow bars generally are inexpensive and simple to hook up and use. They are designed for pulling vehicles that weigh between 1,500 pounds and 6,500 pounds, though a couple of companies, such as Blue Ox, manufacture heavy-duty units that will handle vehicles weighing as much as 10,000 pounds. A note of warning: Never back up a motorhome with a flat-towed vehicle attached.
In order to connect a tow bar to the towed vehicle, a mounting kit or base plate must be attached to the chassis of the vehicle. The tow bar’s “feet” then attach to the base plate, making for a secure and safe towing setup. Base plates are not universal, and each towed vehicle must have a base plate specifically designed for attaching a particular tow bar to that particular vehicle. You can’t mix and match. The bar and the base plate must complement each other and be fitted to your specific towed vehicle. Because of this, it is imperative that a buyer make sure the tow bar under consideration comes with a base plate for the vehicle being towed. If the correct base plate is not available for your towed vehicle, you’ll either have to consider purchasing a different tow bar or having the base plate custom made for your towed vehicle, which can be costly and time-consuming, particularly if you tow more than one vehicle.
Although pulling a towed vehicle with a tow bar is pretty much a hook-up-and-go affair, it is not without drawbacks. To begin with, not every vehicle can be towed on four wheels without driveline modifications. On many rear-wheel-drive vehicles and those with automatic transmissions, a driveshaft coupling that disconnects the driveshaft at the rear U-joint must be installed before the vehicle can be towed flat.
In addition, on older vehicles with mechanical odometers, vehicle mileage accumulates as the vehicle is towed, and on all towed vehicles, drivetrain components (driveshaft, axles, wheel bearings, tires, etc.) will wear when towed just as they do when the vehicle is driven.
Finally, when using a tow bar, it is necessary to use a lighting kit (auxiliary lighting wired into the motorhome’s lighting system) that attaches to the rear of the towed vehicle, usually by magnets, or to wire the towed vehicle directly into the motorhome’s lighting system.
The tow dolly is basically a short two-wheeled trailer designed to carry the towed vehicle with its front wheels up on the dolly and the rear wheels on the pavement. This eliminates the wear on the towed vehicle’s front tires and drivetrain components. Tow dollies can be used to tow most vehicles that are towable using a tow bar, and because dollies are designed to lift the front wheels of a vehicle off the ground, they are especially well-suited for towing front-wheel-drive vehicles without the need for modifications. Rear-wheel-drive vehicles can be towed on a dolly if the towed vehicle’s rear driveline is disconnected or if the towed vehicle manufacturer states that it is suitable for being towed with the transmission in neutral. If this is not possible, installation of a rear-axle disconnect product or towing on a trailer are options.
When using a tow dolly, it is recommended that the towed vehicle always be towed facing forward. Since most vehicles have the engine in front, this ensures that the wheels carrying the greatest weight will rest on the dolly. Also, the front wheels of a car are aligned with toe-in geometry that allows them to track straight when going down the highway. By pulling a car rearward, this alignment will be backward and may cause the towed vehicle to sway back and forth, which could result in an accident.
To use a tow dolly, you first hook it up to the hitch ball, then lower or extend the drive-up ramps, and drive the vehicle onto the dolly. The vehicle is secured via tie-down harnesses that fit over the front wheels. Safety chains add security.
Like trailers, tow dollies can be equipped with electric or surge brakes and are fully wired with running/tail/brake lights as standard equipment. In some states, the dolly must be registered as a trailer and must carry a license plate (check with your local department of motor vehicles).
One of the main advantages of using a tow dolly is one-stop shopping. You buy one dolly, and with it you can tow a variety of vehicles. Another advantage is easy towing. Once your tow dolly is properly loaded, you can haul your towed vehicle with nary a thought of problems. However, life is not perfect and neither are tow dollies.
Loading and securing your vehicle on a tow dolly can be time-consuming. Furthermore, even though most dollies come with running lights and stoplights, it is still necessary to hook up a tow light kit for safety. Usually, all or part of the dolly will park nicely under the motorhome’s rear overhang, but in tight parking spaces this may not be easily done. If you have to leave the tow dolly behind for any reason, it will have to be secured to prevent it from being stolen.
It is possible that your towed vehicle will have to be modified in order to be safely towed. Check the owners manual for your towed vehicle and talk with the dealer to find out whether your vehicle can be safely towed on all fours or with a tow dolly. If it can’t, contacting a company that specializes in towing modifications may be necessary. One such company, Remco Mfg., has been in business since 1978 and offers a variety of products designed to protect the towed vehicle’s drivetrain from damage during towing. These products include automatic transmission lube pumps, front-wheel-drive axle disconnects, and driveshaft disconnects. In addition, Remco officials 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 six different tow bars: the Ambassador, Adventurer, Acclaim, Aladdin, and two heavy-duty Aventa models. Contact Blue Ox for base plate availability on the following models.
- The entry-level Ambassador is a Class III, solid A-frame tow bar with a 5,000-pound weight rating. It weighs 24 pounds and can be carried in a vertical position on the towed vehicle or stored in a large cargo bin.
- The Adventurer is the newest model in the lineup. This universal Class III tow bar is designed for use with towed vehicles up to 5,000 pounds and can be adapted to almost any vehicle thanks to an A-frame design that is adjustable to a maximum width of 41 inches. Fold-together legs and a weight less than 36 pounds make the Ambassador easy to disconnect and store.
- The foldable, self-aligning, and self-storing Acclaim is a Class III bar rated for up to 5,000 pounds. It automatically locks into towing position and weighs 35 pounds.
- The lightest tow bar in the Blue Ox lineup is the Aladdin, which weighs less than 23 pounds, features aluminum construction, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. This foldaway unit mounts and stores on the back of the RV, is self-aligning, has a three-axis swivel design, and is rated for vehicles up to 5,000 pounds.
- The heavy-duty Aventa line is available in Aventa II and Aventa LX models. Both of these Class IV tow bars are rated for use with towed vehicles up to 10,000 pounds. The self-aligning Aventa II features telescoping foldaway arms and stores on the motorhome. Solid steel construction and direct connection to a 2-inch receiver provide extra towing security, and rubber boots protect this 41-pound tow bar from dirt and grime. The LX model weighs 42 pounds. It features a ball-in-socket design that incorporates a spherical joint rather than a bolted-together flex joint to reduce wear points and allow for a strong, durable attachment between the coach and the towed vehicle. Other features include offset triple lugs to better align towing forces, collapsible legs that extend for easy hookup, and a self-tightening picot connection.
Demco offers three tow bars: the Aluminator, the Excali-Bar, and the Kwik-Tow (all three models come with coiled safety cables). Contact Demco for base plate availability on the following models.
- The lightweight 25-pound Aluminator is made primarily from marine- and aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, with steel used in critical areas to enhance durability. It stores on the coach and is rated for 6,5000 pounds.
- The heavy-duty Excali-Bar also stores on the rear of the coach when not in use and is rated to tow vehicles weighing up to 10,5000 pounds (when used with a 2-inch receiver). 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 adjusts from 20 to 36.5 inches in width, is rated at 5,000 pounds, and has legs that can be folded together for easy storage when not in use.
Reese, a division of Cequent Towing Products, offers a variety of hitches and two standard tow bars. Contact a Reese professional installer (www.reeseprod.com) to ask about base plate availability on the following models.
- The company offers a tow bar (part number 74950) that has an adjustable width ranging from 26 inches to 41 inches and is rated at 5,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW). It folds closed for ease of storage. The unit includes a 2-inch coupler and one set of universal mounting bumper brackets. It comes with a limited lifetime warranty.
- The solid, 24-inch-wide economy model, part number 83450, is rated at 3,500 pounds GVW. It also features a 2-inch coupler but a fixed width of 24 inches. It includes one set of universal mounting bumper brackets. The removal of four pins collapses the bar so it can be stored in the trunk. It is backed by a limited lifetime warranty.
- Reese also markets a heavy-duty safety chain kit (part number 40604) especially designed for tow bars that comes complete with quick links. The company also offers a heavy-duty bracket kit (part number 40602). Both are rated at 5,000 pounds GVW and designed to function with Reese equipment.
Remco now offers a Class IV tow bar for use with towed vehicles up to 10,000 pounds. It is self-aligning with quick-disconnect hookup pins, has durable steel construction, weighs 40 pounds, and features a foldaway design that allows it to be stored on the back of the coach. The tow bar comes with safety cables, fits all Blue Ox base plates, and also will fit Roadmaster and Demco base plates with an available adapter.
Roadmaster’s All Terrain tow bars are designed for easy release under all conditions “” even if the tow bar is at a hard angle or when the towed vehicle is out of level with the coach. The company currently offers four models suitable for use with a motorhome: Sterling, Falcon, StowMaster, and BlackHawk 2. Contact Roadmaster for base plate availability, or click on “Vehicle Specific Information” at www.roadmasterinc.com.
- The aluminum Sterling All Terrain weighs just 35 pounds, is rated at 6,000 pounds, and features steel and stainless steel at critical points to ensure superior strength and structural integrity. It is easy to connect. Its stainless-steel inner arms telescope, center, and automatically lock as you pull away. Once at your destination, a patented lock secures the Sterling All Terrain in its stored position on the motorhome. It comes complete with safety cables and an electrical wiring cord. Both are routed through center channel guides for added safety, convenience, and a clean, uncluttered appearance.
- The BlackHawk 2 All Terrain, Roadmaster’s strongest tow bar, is now rated at 10,000 pounds. It stores on the motorhome when not in use. Other popular Roadmaster tow bars include the Falcon 2 motorhome-mounted tow bar and the StowMaster car-mounted tow bar.
- The Falcon 2 motorhome-mounted tow bar is rated for 6,000 pounds. It features stainless steel in moving parts and includes the Autowlok towing mechanism, which allows both tow bar arms to extend or retract for a quick connection. The arms self-center and automatically lock as you begin to tow. Other features include one-person hookup and a powder-coated finish.
- The StowMaster is now rated at 6,000 pounds and offers such features as stainless steel in moving parts, Autowlok (which allows the arms to adjust for one-person hookup), a full-length safety crossbar, self-lubricating nylon bushings between the inner and outer arms to reduce friction, a built-in safety strap, and a powder-coated finish. The tow bar stores on the towed vehicle when not in use.
Carson Trailer’s light-duty EVO Tow Dolly is designed for hauling subcompacts. It has a GVWR of 3,500 pounds, an overall width of 78 inches, and accepts tow vehicle tread width from 40 to 80 inches.
Demco offers a line of three tow dollies: the Kar Kaddy 3, the Kar Kaddy-SS, and the Tow-It 2.
- The Kar Kaddy 3 will accommodate most front-wheel-drive vehicles with either a manual or an automatic transmission and comes with a hydraulic surge brake system. Features include attached loading ramps, a tilt-bed frame for easy loading, auto-steer cornering, and a tongue weight of less than 100 pounds.
- The larger Kar Kaddy SS will accommodate full-size vehicles. When fully deployed, it has a length of 133 inches, but when folded for storage, it measures just 67 inches, so it easily fits in RV parking spaces behind the coach. Other features include a galvanized finish, diamond-plate slide-out loading ramps, hydraulic surge brakes, LED running lights/stoplights, a 100-pound tongue weight, sealed wheel hubs that never need lubing or repacking, a tilt-bed loading system, safety chains, and auto-steer cornering.
- Tow-It 2 models are similar to the Kar Kaddy SS. They include a durable painted finish, are available with or without surge brakes, and come in an 8-foot configuration only.
Master Tow manufactures two tow dolly models: Model 77T and Model 80THD.
- Model 77T, for towing small to midsize cars, has a maximum towed vehicle weight of 4,500 pounds, with a towed vehicle tread width of 40 to 77 inches.
- The heavy-duty Model 80THD accommodates small to full-size cars, vans, and trucks and has a maximum towed vehicle weight of 4,750 pounds, with a towed vehicle tread width of 40 to 80 inches.
Features on both models include easy-lube hubs, tilt-bed loading, 1/4-inch-thick polyethylene fenders, safety chains with an S-hook safety enclosure, a powder-coated finish, lighting, and 10,000-pound-rated ratchets and adjustable straps that securely fasten most 13-inch-through-17-inch tires and wheels. Options include a surge or electric braking system, radial tires, an LED lighting package, security chains, a winch kit, and a magnetic light kit.
The RoadMaster adjustable tow dolly features ST215/75 R14 radial tires mounted to self-steering wheels with a steering stabilizer that allows the dolly to track the motorhome without cutting corners. Its axles can be adjusted from 93 1/2 to 101 1/2 inches, and its ramps can be adjusted from 40 to 76 inches. Overall length of the dolly is 136 inches with a maximum width of 101 1/2 inches. Standard features include ratchets and tie-down straps, patented TrueGrip ramps, locking storage trays, a conveniently located tilt bed release, a coupler handle, a dual-pin bed latch, and Accu-Lube hubs. Its adjustable tie-downs fit tires from 12 to 16 inches in diameter. The dolly weighs 620 pounds, has a maximum carrying capacity of 4,380 pounds, and is balanced over its axle for easy handling. Electric brakes are standard. Available accessories include a spare wheel mounting bracket for the dolly, plus a mounting bracket for the Guardian tow shield, magnetic tow lights, and a tie-down ratchet.
Short of using an enclosed trailer, there is no way to completely protect a towed vehicle from damage caused by stone chips, bugs, road grime, and other debris. Debris shields were developed to provide protection for the exposed towable without increasing towed weight. A number of these products are on the market, ranging from padded vinyl covers to plastic/fiberglass trailer shields that mount to the front of the trailer.
Blue Ox offers three different debris shield products: the KarGard, the Sport Guard, and the RV Underskirt.
- The KarGard is an adjustable polyethylene shield that mounts to the tow bar with aluminum brackets and folds for storage.
- The Sport Guard is a debris shield/mud flap that mounts on the motorhome behind the wheels and over the receiver hitch to keep debris from being thrown onto the towable. It is lightweight, installs quickly, and is easily removed.
- The RV Underskirt mounts under the tow bar and runs from the rear of the motorhome to the front of the towed vehicle to protect the tow bar and towed vehicle from road debris. It is available with an optional Kevlar exhaust shield.
Coastline Cover Company offers a one-piece Tow Car Shield that is manufactured from felt-backed vinyl. Each Tow Car Shield is made to order and custom-fit to the year, make, and model of towed car. More than 300 patterns currently are available, including several for classic cars. The Tow Car Shield reportedly can be installed in as little as two minutes and is held in place by self-tensioning fasteners. It is covered by a 30-day trial period warranty and a lifetime free repair or replacement warranty, regardless of the cause of damage. The Tow Car Shield is machine-washable and comes in black. Coastline also offers mirror covers for towed vehicles.
Demco provides towed vehicle protection with its Sentry Tow Bar Deflector. This portable and flexible debris shield is constructed of resilient, high-density polyethylene and attaches to the connecting ears of any Demco tow bar. It sits at a forward-facing 45-degree angle to deflect 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. A fringed bottom edge minimizes damage to the deflector caused by curbs and extreme dips and bumps.
Roadmaster offers the Guardian and the Tow Defender.
- The Guardian rock guard is crafted from rotationally molded high-impact polyethylene and attaches to the tow bar mounting bracket. It can be mounted and removed in seconds and fits all Roadmaster tow bars equipped with quick-disconnects. It also can be used with the RoadMaster tow dolly (an optional bracket is required).
- The Tow Defender is a 45-inch-by-72-inch overskirt made from heavy-duty, vinyl-coated mesh that mounts on top of the tow bar and runs from the rear of the coach to the front of the towed vehicle. It is held in place with shock-absorbing hydraulic struts, which allow for cornering without causing damage to the Tow Defender, coach, or towed vehicle. It is tension-adjustable by sliding a collar up or down the tow bar stinger or ball mount, weighs 14 1/2 pounds, has powder-coated support struts, and rolls up to a 4-inch-diameter package for storage on the motorhome. The Tow Defender fits all Roadmaster tow bars equipped with the company’s quick-disconnect release system.
Blue Ox Products
One Mill Road, Industrial Park
Pender, NE 68047
Tow bars, debris shields, accessories.
14831 S. Maple Ave.
Gardena, CA 90248
Tow dolly and trailers.
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 bars, tow dollies, base plates, debris shields, and accessories.
783 Slocomb Road
Fayetteville, NC 28311
Tow dollies, trailers, magnetic light kits.
Reese Towing Products
47774 Anchor Court W.
Plymouth, MI 48170
4138 S. 89th St.
P.O. Box 27998
Omaha, NE 68127
Transmission lube pumps, axle locks, driveshaft couplings, tow bar.
5602 N.E. Skyport Way
Portland, OR 97218
Tow dollies, base plates, tow bars, debris shields, wiring kits, miscellaneous accessories.