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Homepage. This page: Hints on safely towing car trailers.

Towing guide.

Sooner or later you could find yourself needing to tow a car. Perhaps your classic has broken down and you need to go and collect it, or else you've bought a new one at the other end of the country, and need to get it home. You could perhaps choose a collection company to retrieve it for you with a recovery lorry, and it may even work out cheaper than doing it yourself, or else you could hitch up a trailer to the back of your car, and set sail to collect it in person - this option is handy if you've agreed to buy a car without seeing it - if it has been mis-described, you can beat a hasty retreat and leave it behind. If you get a collection company to drag your new purchase home before you see it for the first time, and it isn't as described, then you're probably stuck with it.

I've towed a few cars over the years, and what follows is just some advice and hints based on experiences I've had - it isn't meant to be a comprehensive guide to towing, and I'd urge anyone who hasn't towed before to get some proper instruction before hitting the roads with a car trailer. If you're at all unsure about your abilities in towing, get someone to do the collection for you.

Merc towing an A40 Devon

Choosing the right towcar.

First off, is your vehicle, whether it be a car, 4x4 or van, really suitable for towing a loaded car trailer? Advice given by the Caravan Club some years ago was that the combined weight of the trailer and load mustn't exceed 75% of the tow vehicle's own weight. Get this balance majorly wrong and it could lead to some very 'exciting' moments once rolling along the road. Pulling a loaded car trailer is significantly more risky than a short hop to the local tip with garden rubbish in your little box trailer, and using an inappropriate towing vehicle can make life tricky. Generally speaking, the larger the engine, the more grunt you'll have to tow with. Top speed isn't important, as you're restricted to 60 mph on motorways anyway (UK regulations), but a good torquey engine means you'll be able to pull away from traffic lights, and change lanes, with more confidence than if you were relying on a wheezy revvy little engine to do the work. Torque rules.

The choice of automatic or manual gearbox car will have been made for you when you bought the car. Neither is particularly better than the other for towing. I prefer an auto box on my tow car, although I tend to run large-engined cars with which an auto box works well. Small (eg 1300cc or 1600cc) cars with an auto box may well struggle pulling a loaded car trailer, plus their modest weight may rule out being able to tow another car on a trailer anyway - the car's handbook should have details on what can and can't be towed. A manual gearbox will give you some more control over engine braking however, but if you are doing a lot of stop-start towing in traffic, an auto makes for a much easier life. Just check that your automatic car has sufficient cooling in place for the gearbox oil, many larger cars have separate oil coolers for the transmission to keep temperatures in check.

Picking the right trailer to use.

Assuming you've got a suitable car, with a securely fitted towbar and fully functioning electrics (have you checked them recently??), it's time to locate a trailer. Best bet are established hire shops, from where good quality four-wheeled trailers can be hired. Four wheel trailers are best, and offer good stability on the road. At one time people made their own trailers, using chopped-up caravan chassis and other such delights, but these were never designed to transport vehicles so are best avoided. The reasonable cost of hiring a trailer means it just isn't worth trying to do it on the cheap. Just make sure it has a winch, otherwise getting the car onto the trailer (if it's a non-runner) will be a real headache.

Although it probably will be, don't assume that a hired trailer is automatically in A1 condition - have a good look at all the tyres, and check for splits, cuts and other damage. Also make sure the spare is present and pumped up, and that you have a suitable jack and wheelbrace with you. Tyre types should match on all four corners of the trailer, and be wary of any trailer sat on ancient crossply tyres - radials offer better stability and directional control. Before setting off, connect up the trailer lights and check that they work. Most faults are due to corroded connections in the electrical socket. Occasionally a car is wired differently to the trailer, so allow some time to check and rectify any issues like this before hitting the road.

Ever towed before? if not, get some practice.

With the trailer hitched up, but before actually going to collect the new car, it's worth practicing some of the niceties of trailer control out of harm's way, perhaps on an industrial estate 'after hours', if you're new to the art. You might not need to do any reversing with a trailer, but it can't harm to have a go in a quiet location somewhere. Longer trailers are in many ways easier to reverse than the small, box, variety, the longer length being less reactive to small direction changes with the car. The trick is to keep the speed down, only make small steering inputs until you know how the trailer will react. Don't rush. Trying to reverse at the pace you would use when driving the car solo will probably get you tied up in knots. Reverse back slowly and make gentle adjustments to the direction at the steering wheel. If you're negotiating a tricky bend, with walls and easily damaged street furniture present, get a passenger to hop out and watch you round. If you block the road temporarily, then other drivers will have to be patient .. although restrict any road blocking to quiet roads with good visibility both ways, and not busy thoroughfares. Again, get a passenger or two to keep an eye on things (passing cars, obstructions, dogs, cyclists, children) while you're manouevring into place.

When negotiating tight turns, such as getting into position in a petrol station, remember the length of the car+trailer, and watch your mirrors like a hawk while pulling into position, adjusting steering as required to get both car and trailer into position. Trailers have quite a long overhang behind their trailing axle, so bear this in mind when negotiating tight spaces. I had to do this recently when driving down a very tight suburban road, with parked cars on both sides of the road. Every turn to miss a car on the left, swings the tail of the trailer out, so again keep a close eye on your mirrors. Trailers are usually wider than the car towing them, so remember this and drive accordingly.

Loading and securing the car to the trailer.

Assuming you've made it to your destination ok, it's time to load the car onto the trailer. Some have drop-down ramps, that during transit stand upright at the rear of the trailer. Others have removable ramps that are stored beneath the load area, usually held in place by pins of some type. Pricier trailers come fitted with a hydraulic tilting bed, which is very handy indeed. Regardless of how the car gets loaded, first off you'll need to attach the car being collected to the winch. Line the car up square on to the trailer, and wind out the winch cable. Only attach the winch to something substantial under the car (sounds obvious, but...). Suspension pickup points on the car's chassis or a sturdy front crossmember are usually the best options, or a spring hanger if the car has leaf springs. If you attach the winch clip to a steering arm or bumper bar, watch it bend as you wind the car up onto the trailer - not recommended. If the car is seriously corroded, don't assume that a particular section of chassis is as strong as it once was either! The front crossmember on, say, a GT6 might have been a tough section at one time, but one suffering from heavy corrosion or accident damage, may no longer be quite so sturdy...

Vehicle loaded onto a car trailer
Positioning the car on the trailer is critical. Get the position wrong and you will regret it. If the car is too far to the back of the trailer, you'll get the effect of the 'tail wagging the dog', upsetting the stability of the ensemble. Equally if you go too far forwards, it can increase the noseweight of the trailer significantly, caused the rear of the towing vehicle to be forced down on its suspension, having a knock-on effect on steering at the front. Ideally the car should be slightly ahead of the forward axle of the trailer, assuming that the car being towed has an engine in it, and has been loaded front-first.

What I tend to do is wind the car on with the winch, until it is a few inches from its ideal position. I then strap the car securely using quality ratchet straps. The 2 cheapies designed to secure a suitcase onto a roof rack will not do the job. Have at least one ratchet strap pulling the car from the rear, ie in opposition to the pull from the winch up front. Extra straps around the wheels or axles, pulling downwards, are also a good idea. With the straps in place, then tweak up the winch to pull the car tight against the straps and into its final position, and re-check all straps once again. A strap running forwards that offers backup should the winch cable snap, is a good idea too. The end result should be that the car is being pulled downwards, from either end of the trailer. Applying the car's handbrake and leaving it in gear will help, but never ever just rely on the winch or a handbrake. Don't cut corners on securing the car to the trailer, it's better to go over the top rather than scrimp on things.

Before setting off for home, re-check the lights once more, and also go around the car being collected, and check for loose fittings (mirrors, badges, bumpers and overriders etc) and ensure all the doors are securely latched. Last thing you want is doors flying open or bits of car disappearing down the road behind you. Set off and keep an eagle eye on your mirrors, look for any potential problems before they develop into real ones. After a couple of miles or so, pull over and re-check all the straps and the winch. The car usually settles on the trailer a little, so it pays to tighten up all the ratchets before continuing any distance.

Controlling a loaded trailer.

It's about now that you'll know whether the car has been loaded correctly. If your steering is overly light, it may be that the car on the trailer is positioned too far forwards. More likely you'll have problems as a result of the load being too far rearward - symptoms are that the combination will begin to weave once a certain speed is reached. If this is the case, pull over as soon as possible, slacken off the straps, re-position the vehicle a few inches further forward, and re-tighten all the securing devices as outlined before. Do not be tempted to continue if persistent weaving is present - once on the run, perhaps on a motorway, it will only get worse, and it will be even more susceptible to buffeting from passing lorries and the like. If the weaving gets out of control, you're cruising towards an accident. Opinions vary on how to get a car that is weaving back under control - personally, I gently back off on the power and lightly keep control of the steering all the while, until the speed drops sufficiently to cancel out the pendulum effect. The trick is to not do anything violent with the brakes or steering, which might further upset the balance. Gently-gently is the way, as with all things related to towing.

Towing with a car on the trailer requires more concentration than with the trailer empty. The trailer's centre of gravity will have changed significantly, so bear this in mind when negotiating corners with strong camber, and those domed mini-roundabouts - if in doubt, take it slow. Buffeting from passing lorries will be more of an issue now that there is a load in place, so be prepared by watching out for large lorries coming up to pass you. Braking distances with a loaded trailer will be increased when compared to driving solo, so leave longer gaps between your ensemble and traffic ahead. Most trailers come with their own braking systems, but don't rely on them. Small-engined towcars often struggle with pulling a loaded trailer, so again if you can beg/borrow a car with a torquey engine, you'll find that towing is a much less stressful proposition, and you'll annoy far fewer other motorists, especially in hilly areas!

Hopefully these pointers will be of some use - nothing can take the place of adequate practice, and if you don't think you're cut out for towing, or your car isn't really suitable for the job, get a collection agency to do it for you. All the advice on this page is just that, advice - none of it is gospel and different people approach the towing of cars in different ways, but hopefully the above will at least shed some light on possible issues you might need to consider. Other ways of collecting a car are discussed in this 'How to Move a Car' article.

Collecting an old Ford

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