Towing a car

Towing a carI have been thinking about towing a car, mainly because when driving last night, I saw many vehicles driving down the road towing trailers.  They weren’t towing a car, but it still got me thinking.  There are a lot of things to consider when towing a car.

The first is the trailer, if you only need to tow a car occasionally, then either borrowing a trailer or renting one makes the most sense.  That way you don’t have to store and maintain a large item that you rarely use.  If you find yourself frequetly towing a car, maybe you have a race only car, it probably makes more sense to buy one.  I haven’t looked at car trailers recently, but from what I have seen, the more expensive ones give more features, and may be aluminum for lighter weight, which means easier towing.

The second thing would be the type of trailer.  If you just need to tow it a short distance, and the car is road worthy anyway, a tow dolly may work.  A tow dolly is a small trailer that just the front wheels of the car you are towing goes on.  It is obviously smaller and lighter than a full car trailer.  The disadvantage is that the rear wheels of the car are still on the ground.  That means that if you have an automatic transmission in your car, you will need to disconnect the drive shaft.  If you are towing a car that is front wheel drive, that isn’t a concern.  But since the rear tires are on the road, at least in Minnesota, and I am assuming more states, require that the vehicle being towed have license plates.

If the car you are towing is not able to be towed on a dolly, either because it isn’t complete, doesn’t have license plates, or just because you are towing it farther, you will need to look at a full car trailer where all four wheels of the car are off the ground and on the trailer.  Because of that, the trailer is much larger and heavier than a dolly.  That means that you need to make sure that your tow vehicle can tow the weight of the car and the trailer.  You would need to check for each trailer for the empty weight of it, as it would vary between each trailer.

Once you know the weight of the trailer, you need to know the weight of the car you are towing.  When you add them together, that is the amount you are towing.  Then you need to look at the tow rating of the vehicle you are towing with to make sure you do not exceed it.  Not only that, but you need to look at the maximum combined gross weight rating.  That is the maximum that the truck and the load being towed should weigh for safety.

Since the total weight for a muscle car, or most cars, plus the trailer would be over 4,500 to 5000 pounds (these are rough guesses based on a car that weighs 3,500 at a minimum and a trailer that is 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, please make sure of your actual weights), you would realistically be looking at a full size truck to tow a car with.  Are there other vehicles that can tow that much, yes, but the full size trucks are the most common.  That means that you probably either have one, or know someone who has one you can use.

Going back to the tow and maximum combined gross weight (mcgw) ratings, as an example for a 1997 Expedition (since I have a manual for one and have access to the numbers for an example), it has a maximum tow rating of 7,400 pounds and a MCGW of 13,000 pounds.  Since the truck has an empty weight of around 5,500 pounds, and if you are towing 7,400 pounds, then when you add the 5,500 and 7,400 pounds, you are at 12,900.  Now the truck may weigh less than 5,500, but that is also with no one in the truck.  Where I am going with this is assuming the truck weighs 5,500 pounds, and you have four guys in it who weigh an average of 200 pounds each, then the truck now weighs 6,300 pounds, and now the remaining amount for the MCGW is 6,700.  If you put some luggage in the truck also, or some car parts, you can add enough weight to the truck to were you are exceeding the MCGW even if you have not gone over the tow rating.

If you are going to be towing, it would be good to check the weight of your vehicle on a scale.  Most truck stops have a scale that you can use.  I am assuming there is a minimal fee that would be worth it for the piece of mind when towing a car.  It can be easier than it seems at first to exceed the rated weight of you tow vehicle when towing a car, especially if you are carrying things or people in the truck.  It will also allow you to see how much weight you have on each axle of the trailer and the tow vehicle.  There are rated limits for each of them also, that information should be in your owners manual as well.

For some extra capacity, you can look at a 3/4 or 1 ton truck.  They are heavier duty than a half ton.  If you are not familiar with what those are, a half ton is a Ford F-150 and a 1500 for Dodge and Chevy/GMC.  A 3/4 ton is a F-250 or a 2500 and a one ton is a F-350 or a 3500.  The larger the number, the heavier duty the truck.  The most heavy duty of the full size trucks is a one ton dually.  Those are the pickups that have two rear wheels on each side for maximum towing and hauling abilities.  While not needed for towing a car, at least not just one, it would tow it just fine, and not even be close to hitting the limits of the truck.

Now that you know your vehicle has the capacity to tow your vehicle and haul what ever load along with it, there are a few other things to think about.  One would be mirrors.  Since you are carrying a large load behind you, you need to make sure that you can see with the side view mirrors on your truck.  The rear view mirror on the windshield will just give you a nice view of the car you are towing.  Most full size trucks have large mirrors for towing and hauling, and some have extendable mirrors to see around wider loads.  The larger the mirror, the more you can see in it.  But with towing a car, most cars are going to be narrower than a full size truck, so you should be able to see around the car with the regular mirrors, but be sure to check before you head out.  If you can’t see enough around what you are towing, you can get extended mirrors that clamp on to your exiting mirrors and stick out farther to be able to see more.

Another safety thing would be to make sure that the trailer hitch and hitch ball are rated for at least as much weight as you are towing.  While th bumper of the truck you are using for towing a car may be rated to haul as much weight, you are not able to adjust the height to match what height the trailer is.  If they match up, that is good, but if not, you need to look at a reciever hitch.  A reciever hitch is a hitch that has a square tube that a ball mount or draw bar (depending on who is naming it) fits into and that is what the hitch ball attaches to.  The advantages to them are that they are generally rated for a higher capacity than the truck’s bumper, and you can either get different ball mounts for different height trailers, or you can get an adjustable height ball mount.  You need to make sure the hitch is rated for enough weight, there is usually a sticker on it that lists the weight capacity.  You also need to make sure the ball mount and hitch ball are rated high enough.  The ball mount will have it’s capacity either on a sticker or stamped into it, and the ball usually has it’s capacity on the top.

Also, make sure the trailer has safety chains, and you use them.  If the tailer comes unhooked from the truck for whatever reason, the safety chains will make sure the trailer doesn’t just go bouncing down the road.

The last thing is trailer brakes.  There are two types, hydraulic and electric.  With hydraulic brakes, when the truck slows down, the trailer tries to keep going.  This pushes against linkage on the trailer tongue and actuates a master cylinder that applies the brakes on the trailer.  The brakes are regular hydraulic brakes like on your car.  The other kind are electric brakes.  These require a brake controller in the tow vehicle.  The brake controller senses the vehicle slowing down and applies an electric current via wiring to the trailer where the brakes are actuated by the electricity.  This is a more complicated system, but it allows the driver to adjust the trailer brakes based on the load.  The hydraulic system will not apply the brakes as much with a lighter load since the trailer isn’t pushing agains the truck as much, but it is not adjustable.  Both types have a chain or a cable to hook to the vehicle that will automatically apply the brakes if the trailer comes unhooked from the tow vehicle.

Since towing a car is adding a significant amount of weight that needs to be slowed down, please make sure that the trailer you are using to tow a car has trailer brakes.  While the weight will just make the truck slower, and it will take you longer to get there, not being able to slow down as fast can cause an accident.  Since the faster you go, the harder it is to stop, in fact at twice the speed, the vehicle has 4 times the energy, consider driving a little slower when towing for safety.

One last thing is backing up with a trailer.  The easiest way to remember which way the trailer will move is to put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel, and move your hand in the direction that you want your trailer to go.  Keep in mind that you need to keep track of where the trailer is, as well as where the truck is.  This is something that takes practice, and it can be helpful to have a spotter helping you guide the trailer if there isn’t much room to get it where you need to be.  Just make sure that you have agreed on hand signals with your spotter before you start.

While this is a long post, it is really just an introduction to towing a car.  The main thing is to keep safe, and make sure every piece of the system is able to hanle the load of towing a car, including the driver.  There is a lot more to think about, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, see if there is someone you know who can help.  And if in doubt about how much you are towing and or hauling, find a truck stop with scales and check.  It is better safe than sorry.


Towing a car — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Diesel pickups -

  2. This is a great article many good points. I wish I had a friend with a trailer to borrow whenever without storing it but unfortunately, I am the friend with the trailer that always has to let others borrow it or help them move something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *