Towing a vehicle behind your motorhome
Our previous Cavalier and present Grand AM
Back to Advice and How to Many updates Nov 07)
One of the biggest decision facing John and I when we became new motorhomers was would we or would we not travel with a car in tow. Two years before we bought our ’83 Pace Arrow we conducted surveys en route to our Florida timeshare – counting how many motorhomes were and were not towing a car. Surprisingly we found many chose NOT to tow. During our fulltime planning stage we discussed how we would grocery shop and run errands without extra wheels. Our bikes could take care of short trips to the store and if we set up a special account it could pay for car rental and/or tour guides. In a nutshell we were petrified at the thought of towing a vehicle.
One advantage RVers who tow a fiver, or a trailer has over us motorized group is they always have a get-away vehicle close at hand. Once their unit is set up, they’re ready to roll. When we travelled without extra wheels, we missed seeing so much. This became extremely obvious to us during our first year of adventures when we checked into a huge state park in Oregon. The nearest store was miles away plus we had recently purchased and installed an add-a-room for our Kastle #1. So if we wanted to move, the motorhome required mega preparation. When our considerate neighbours asked us if we wanted to tour the Oregon caves with them we jumped at the opportunity. John and I were unaware the caves were within an easy drive but it was more surprising to see the road to this awesome attraction was not RV friendly. Without wheels we would have missed this memorable underground odyssey – it confirmed that we needed a car in tow. That was in March – on our return home in April we immediately added ‘R Go 4’ – a small Honda – to the mix. In the late 80’s Honda was one of the few cars that could be flat towed without engine modifications, although at that time Honda would did not warrantee their cars if they were towed on all fours. But thanks to several RV magazines we were aware we would not damage Honda’s transmission and flat towing seemed the simplest way to go.
When we purchased our first non-expanding towbar, the dealer sent us to the local soldering shop to have a baseplate manufactured and welded in place. Not really the safest solution with what we know today, but it was all that was available in the mid 80's. We also received very little instruction on the dos and don’ts of towing so we were unaware how important it was that the car and motorhome should be at level height before we connected. If not, the hitch could work off the ball if it was stressed on a steep incline such as at a gas station – as a matter of fact any unnatural abrupt slope can force the hitch off the ball.
These days, precise base plates are designed to fit the various models of towable vehicles, even those that require engine modifications to flat-tow. See your dealer or towing specialty shop for ordering and installation.
RV seminarists plus good friends Joe and Vickie Kieva of www.rvknowhow.com explain towing this way – “The good thing about towing a car is you don’t know its there and the bad thing about towing a car is you don’t know it is there.” Mark Polk of www.rveducation101.com has several DVD/E-Books discussing this subject.
In a word - towing a vehicle behind you is no big deal but be aware you cannot see the car from the drivers seat without a back-up camera. One partial solution if your unit has a back window is to place a magnifying plaque in view of the driver. This provides some idea of what the car is doing.
We installed this type of magnifier in our Pace Arrow, so when the 'nut' holding the tow-ball to our hitch worked off the connection on a winding road in Mexico it was through this magnifier that John noticed the car was tracking on the side bumper of the motorhome. Luckily a mechanic shop was across the street from where we stopped and the tech was able to get us going. At that point we were unaware tow chains should be crossed to form a cradle in case the hitch disconnected. Thankfully one hook of the chain kept us together. We were fortunate that when our hitch was travelling along the pavement for a number of miles that the car didn’t catapult and crash into the motorhome. By the time we discovered our towing problem the car was attached with only one hook of the tow chain. Our guardian angel definitely travelled with us that day. After our incident we heard of at least six more cases of disconnected cars. Two disappeared over a ravine and another caused a major accident. To prevent this from happening again we added a cotter pin below the washer and nut of the ball. A more safe solution is to purchase a hitch that fits into the square receptacle of the motorhome. Your connection is more secure and connecting perfectly level is not as critical.
RVers with a back-up camera are privileged to have a complex picture of the area behind your unit – however neither the magnifier nor the camera will advise you of flat tires or other tire problems. John and I keep our camera turned on while we are driving but not all RVers follow this practice.
Early in our travels we added a set of ‘Tow-riffics’ <www.tow-riffics.com> to our car and motorhome. Two wands are attached in an upright position to each of the rear bumpers of both the car and motorhome. While under-tow the wands on the tow vehicle drop down to a perpendicular position so the florescent bulb's) at the end of each wand present an image of a cross when observed through each side view mirror. If this cross changes position during your travels they alert you to a possible low tire or hitch problem. Driving with the Tow-riffics on our motorhome and car provided me, as a co-pilot, piece of mind because I could finally see what the car was doing. Plus when we were passing someone it was easier to tell when the rear of our car cleared other vehicles.
A new product has recently surfaced called a tire monitor. It informs the motorhome operator if a change occurs in the tire pressure of the tow vehicle. If one of the car tires develops a problem the driver may not be aware of the situation without this indicator. Ask your RV dealer for information about these monitors. Another new device records temperature of each tire to see if any are running hot. However the experts agree that the best way to test pressure is with a quality tire gauge when tires are cold.
In 2003 we upgraded our 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier to a 2002 Pontiac Grand Am. We fell in love with its sleek styling, roomier design with more power. Our Cavalier was a reliable car but it was five-years old and we wanted to avoid future problems. Our dealer ordered and installed the new baseplate – (cost for installation/wiring approximately $1200.00) – several hours later we were ready to roll. (We had hoped to remove the baseplate from the Cavalier but the labour cost would have exceeded any resale value.)
Family Motor Coaching Magazine for FMCA (Family Motor Coach Association) www.fmca.com features the towables for each year. Many models are highlighted - some may be four-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, permanent 4WD and all-wheel drive vehicles. Cars with both manual and automatic configurations are also featured. Most cars with manual transmissions can be towed without modifications but thanks to Remco – The Towing Experts at www.remcotowing.com relay that many vehicles can be flat towed without causing engine damage. Some may need Remco accessories include the Drive Shaft Coupling, Lube Pump and Axle-Lock. They also offer taillight wiring kits, supplemental braking system and a towbar. Note: Motorhome magazine www.motorhome.com also features an annual listing of towable cars.
Some motorhomers prefer to take classic cars on their adventures or change their tow vehicles on a whim so they prefer to use a tow dolly or an open trailer. This sounds like a good solution but on the down side you need a place to store it when you reach your destination, plus these units require licensing and maintenance including tires. On the plus side, tow dollies DO include built in braking devices.
Those who wish to take their boat/motor, motorbike and the car along may discover towing on a flat trailer is the way to go. Several fulltiming friends choose to tow a lightweight enclosed trailer behind their unit. This way the bicycles, motorbike and car are available plus these RVers have a place to work on their hobbies and store the crafts they sell. Most of this type of trailer also includes braking devices but on the down side, large trailers don’t fit into many RV sites. Occasionally these RVers may have to pay a portion for a second site to park their trailer. It could also limit the places you can visit. Don’t forget to consider the GCVR (Gross Combination Vehicle Rating) of your motorhome – for safe handling, be sure not to exceed this limit.
The choice of braking devices for your towed is also vast. It is necessary to shop around to find the one suited to you. These accessories are promoted for safe towing and shorter stopping distances especially during emergency or panic stops. At this point the only state or province that enforces cars in tow be equipped with a supplemental braking device is British Columbia and that is only if your car weighs more than 2000 kg (4400 lbs). However it is also being considered as law by some states and other provinces.
Just like in life, the choices of what you do cover a wide range of options. For John and I, towing provided a tremendous sense of freedom. As soon as we unhook and set-up, we jump into the car and tour our new neighbourhood to see what the area has to offer. Whether to tow or not to tow remains a personal decision, there is no right way to travel. Enjoy your journey, however and wherever it takes you. The name of the game is to have fun.