Antique and Classic Automobile Restoration
Tag Along Trailers
TRAILERING BASICS 101
A look at trailering before and after you buy the trailer.
You’re the owner of a collectible automobile. Great. Either it’s a show car or one intended to participate on tours. Whether you’ve owned it for years or recently acquired it, you now have the decision to have your collectible transported. Professional transport services are convenient, but are not for everyone. If you’re considering buying a trailer to transport it yourself, the following tips are offered before and after you purchase one. Goose-neck trailers are not addressed here although some of the tips may be applicable. This applies to pull trailers also referred to as tag along trailers.
- Open or Enclosed Trailer – An open trailer has several advantages such as less weight, less cost, and even ease to tie-down the vehicle, but the enclosed trailer offers security and protection from the elements of weather. Plus the enclosed trailer shields your precious cargo from tempting eyes while enroute or overnight at a hotel. The extra $3,000 price difference for an enclosed trailer easily justifies piece of mind over cost. Also, contrary to popular belief, there is no significant reduction in gas mileage when pulling an open trailer, so the decision, based on cost becomes even easier. Since our collector cars tend to be rather large, also note the width of your candidate trailer. Most trailer manufacturer’s adhere to the maximum overall width of 102 inches established by the US Department of Transportation.
- Weight – Lets first discuss Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) – The Gross Trailer Weight is the total weight of the trailer and the cargo, which is the hauled vehicle’s weight plus any accessories and ancillaries such as tools. Most two axle enclosed trailers weigh approximately 4,500 pounds and handle 10,500 pounds GTW which leaves approximately 6,000 pounds for vehicle and cargo. A full classic weighing 5,200 pounds doesn’t leave a lot of margin. Consider a trailer with 12,000 GTW to increase your weight margin and can be as simple as ordering the trailer with larger tires and/or axles. Now another term. Gross Combined Vehicle Weight (GCVW) is the maximum allowable weight of the entire rig, loaded and ready to go. It includes not only the weight of the tow vehicle, but also its fuel, passengers, luggage or cargo, the dog, plus the weight of the trailer and everything inside of that. This results in manufacturers publishing a Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). This is the design metric used by engineers to size things like the cooling system, engine and transmission, axle ratio and brakes. Take the time to understand these weight terms when choosing the trailer and tow vehicle and how they may affect your purpose.
- Tow Vehicle – The vehicle you use to pull your trailer should be made based on a number of considerations. The most significant factor is the weight class it will handle. Will the vehicle comfortably pull the GTW of 10,500 or 12,000 pounds? What about passengers and cargo/luggage? Is the GCWR enough? Basic pick-up trucks can be used, but are limited in seating. Will this be a dedicated vehicle for towing or a multi-purpose one? Chevrolet/GMC Suburban or Ford’s Excursion offer ample seating and weather-tight cargo luggage area. In general, a longer wheel-base tow vehicle and heavy duty suspension with three quarter ton or higher capacity is recommended. Several companies now even offer special tow modes that computer-control the transmission and engine during acceleration or slowing down. The selected tow vehicle should be considered “Heavy Duty” in aspects like pulling capacity and transmission and oil cooling, yet still offers reasonable comfort while being many hours on the road. Finally, the tow vehicle should accommodate a hitch system matching or exceeding the GTW. Class 4 hitches are rated at 10,000 GVW and a tongue weight of 1,000 pounds whereas the Class 5 hitch is rated for 14,000 and a tongue weight of 1,000-1,200 pounds. Class hitch receivers (bolted onto the tow vehicle’s chassis are easily identifiable. The class 4 hitch receiver has a square opening of 2 inches and the class 5 receiver has a 2 ½ inch square opening. The Class 5 hitch is recommended.
Tow Vehicle Comparison Data. Source: Edmunds Evaluation.
||2006 Vehicle Data
||Dodge Ram 3500 Mega Cab
||Ford F-350 Super Duty
||Chevrolet Silverado 3500
||Vehicle Curb Weight
||Driver & 2 Passengers
- Door Height – The height of the rear door should be considered when purchasing a trailer. Is a door height of 7 feet enough? Since some collectable cars of the “teen era” tend to be higher than a standard 6’8” garage door, than you may require a larger trailer with a higher door. If you think you will never trailer a tall car, then stay with a standard height.
- Inner Fender Well Height – Does the trailer you’re considering have an inner fender well? Will your car be able to pull in and open the door without hitting the inner fender well? Ideally the door should swing above the inner fender well. 1930’s cars probably have enough clearance, but 1940’s cars may not. This would force you to climb out the window once inside or add/raise the height of the floor to get the necessary clearance, using perhaps wooden planks for a particular car. Exercise care when choosing your trailer on details such as this on just how you’re going to use it.
- Hitch System – The hitch system must be considered when selecting your trailer. Two terms should be considered, Weight Distribution and Sway Control. Weight distribution is the hitch system’s ability to transfer a portion of the trailers weight to the tow vehicles chassis. When you add the weight of the trailer (called tongue weight) to the rear of the tow vehicle, the rear of the tow vehicle will be lowered under this weight. The tow vehicle can more than likely handle this weight, but it alters the tow vehicle’s original posture and thus handling. In the extreme case, it can leverage the weight of the tow vehicle such that the front wheels make minimal contact and steering is effected, especially in wet pavement. Rather than merely supporting the trailer tongue weight, weight distributing hitches apply leverage between the towing vehicle and trailer causing the tongue weight to be carried by all axles of the tow vehicle and trailer. When tongue weight is distributed in this way, trailers with greater tongue weights can be towed resulting in a more level ride which reduces stress on the rear of the tow vehicle and provides greater steering and brake control. By including a weight distribution hitch system, essentially you maintain the tow vehicle’s posture as if the trailer were not connected. Sway control minimizes the trailers movement that pivots around the hitch ball. The practical benefit is when being passed by other larger vehicles such as a semi-tractor trailer truck, the trailer’s side-to-side motion caused by the passing truck will be minimized. Sway control is of such importance to trailer towing safety it should be mandatory. Reese, Draw-Tite, or Equal-I-Zer hitch systems offers BOTH weight distribution and sway control features. Take the time to understand these two important features and how you’ll include them into your truck & trailer. Remember, a correctly adjusted trailer and hitch system will ride in a relatively level position.
- Braking system – Braking systems used on larger two or three axle trailers should be researched and understood when selecting a trailer. The two most common types are Hydraulic and Electric. The purpose of the trailer’s braking system is to allow the trailer and its cargo to brake on its own and not rely solely on the tow vehicle. Hydraulic brakes are applied when the trailer senses movement at the hitch and that movement is translated to the hydraulic master cylinder much like stepping on a brake pedal. The more movement (harder stop), the harder the master cylinder operates and the more the brakes are applied. Electric brakes are quite different. A separate control in the cab of the tow vehicle senses the electrical connection of the brake pedal and applies a regulated amount of electric current to the brakes on the trailer. Most electric brake controllers have easy adjustments for the driver to apply the right amount of braking when the brake pedal is depressed. If using electric brakes, investigate how the controller is installed and how it will be used. Starting in 2005, Ford now offers an integrated controller into their wiring and brake systems on larger pick-up vehicles such as the F-350 models. Other brands may offer a similar feature. Either system, when operating properly should stop the trailer evenly when the tow vehicle slows down. Electric brakes also have a safety switch feature that applies a separate electric current from a small battery mounted on the trailer’s frame that engages in the event the trailer separates from the hitch and needs to stop on its own.
- Left side door - Having a left side “pass door” over the axles is a handy feature. It permits easy egress out of the vehicle once it is parked in the trailer rather than having to shimmy down the side and out the back. This is standard among some models and is worthwhile if it has to be ordered.
- Front Pass Door – A thin pass door on the front passenger side of the trailer is a necessity to gain access to the front of the vehicle to attach the hold down straps. This is usually a standard feature amongst trailer manufacturers.
- Spare Tire – Where should you mount the trailer’s spare tire? Locating the spare in a hidden floor compartment saves space, but can be havoc if you need it and there is a car over it. Mounting it up front against a wall may take up valuable space intended for other ancillaries. Care should be taken when considering how and where you include the spare tire in your trailer order. Changing the spare tire on a trailer especially when fully loaded should be considered. A simple method is to raise the trailer tire up by rolling the good tire onto a set of wooden planks. This could mean pulling forward or backing up depending on the tire to be changed. Store the planks is an accessible but out of the way place and hope you never need to use them. Thanks to John Tritle with photo by Charlie Russo for this tip.
- Electric Winch – Including an electric winch into you trailer design is a good idea. If for some reason the vehicle breaks down, the winch will be a great asset to pull the stalled vehicle into the trailer and get it home or to a shop. When considering a winch, make sure 1) it’s mounted to the frame (e.g. U bolts over the trailer’s frame or channel), and 2) run adequate cable (suggest 8 gauge or better) from the tow vehicle battery to a specialized two prong quick disconnect at the tow vehicle’s rear bumper to power the winch. A little hole opening in the trailer’s floor adjacent to the winch can be used to route the power cable out to the quick disconnect. The hole can be protected by a wooden or rubber cover when the winch is not in use. Another option for mounting the winch is to include a class 4 or class 5 hitch receiver into the design. The receiver is firmly mounted on the trailer's floor and the winch with its square tubing slides into the receiver and secured by the same pin and clevis clip as a regular hitch. Advantage of this detachable winch version is that the winch can be used on the tow vehicle's hitch receiver (trailer disconnected of course) if the situation arises. The electrical connection would be the same two prong heavy duty disconnect plug as if the winch were inside the trailer. Thanks to John Tritle with photos by Charlie Russo for this detachable winch design tip.
- Trailer Tongue Jack – A trailer tongue jack is essential to lift the trailer’s tongue off and on to the hitch ball. Most tongue jacks are manual wind style, but where it’s mounted is especially important. A convenient location is right behind the trailer’s tongue (hitch ball point). If the tongue jack is located on the outside of the frame rail with a swing up feature, it may interfere with the hitch’s weight distribution bars, forcing you to have to remove or reattach the jack each time the weight distribution bar is installed. An added convenience is an electric tongue jack and can be powered via the same two-prong quick disconnect electrical plug used for the winch. Pay extra care about height and location of the tongue jack that it does not interfere with any part of the tow vehicle such as the drop down tail gate or door on pick-ups or SUV’s.
- Tongue Weight Scale - Consider purchasing a tongue weight scale for use when positioning the vehicle inside the trailer. Moving the vehicle back and forth will increase or decrease the effected weight on the hitch ball. Too much weight will alter the tow vehicle’s handling and not enough weight may cause the trailer’s tongue to lift up off the hitch ball. Once the vehicles location is established, a mark on the trailer’s floor or a stop can be fastened, assuming its the same car each time. These cost approximately $110 and are offered at Northern Tool, McMaster-Carr or select trailer supply companies. Or perhaps you can borrow one and do it once. A relative tongue weight is at least 500 pounds and should not exceed 1,000 pounds which is the limit for most hitch systems.
- Reflective Tape - Using Reflective Conspicuity Tape on the outside of the trailer improves the visibility of the trailer to others on the road. Use
of this tape is even more important if the trailer is a dark color or one that easily blends in with one's surroundings. This tape is required on all commercial trailers but is not required in most states on car trailers. It is available in various lengths and in kits and is very easy to install. Thanks to Charlie Russo for this reflective tape tip and photos.
- Tie Down System - Consider using the E-Track Tie-Down System. E-Track is a heavy gauge metal cargo securing system that when used with E-Track clips and straps, secures the vehicle to the trailer. Since E-Track has multiple connection slots to place the clips, it permits holding the car more securely while in transit. E-Track should be installed so it’s connected to the trailer frame and not just the floor. E-Track can be purchased through McMaster-Carr Industrial supplier or other truck-trailer-cargo vendors. A simple computer search under “E-Track” reveals many. And don’t forget the E-Track clips/straps along with the regular 2 inch wide Tie Down ratchet straps and special double ring straps that wrap around the suspension. Regarding cargo straps:
- Inspection: Always inspect straps prior to each use. Webbing that is cut, frayed or abraded should be replaced immediately. Never use any oils, solvents, acids, etc. on the webbing itself. When necessary only lube the mechanical workings of a ratchet or cam buckle with a lightweight lube such as WD-40.
- Exposure to Sunlight: Use only top quality straps and webbing with UV protection. Sunlight is still a killer. When not in use, don't leave your straps laying around on the deck of your trailer in the sunlight. Ideally, store them in a cool dry location. This will greatly prolong the life of your straps.
- Routing: Be careful of how your straps are routed. Avoid sharp edges or abrasive surfaces whenever possible. If this cannot be done, make sure you add some protection between the webbing and the surface in question.
- Cleaning your Straps: Warm, soapy water and a good scrub brush is the best method. Once the cleaning is complete, hang the straps up to air dry. Avoid cleansers with bleach or acid as these will weaken the webbing.
- Tie-Down Method – Consider the method you use to tie down your vehicle using the ratchet straps. Straps that run in-line (straight front-to-back) would provide ample holding power front to back, but straps that also criss-cross will provide extra side-to-side control.
- Flooring protection – Since most collectible cars leak a little, consider protecting the floor with either an epoxy paint or suitable floor covering for easy clean-up of oils and spills. One such covering is a vinyl floor sheet by Better Life Technology, LLC, Lenexa, Kansas. Also consider traction needs when covering the door (ramp) as well. Tip: Put down the E-Track over the vinyl covering.
- Back Up Lights and Back Up Alarm– An important accessory that can be useful on your trailer is a set of back-up lights and back-up alarm. The lights can be wired traditionally as back-up lights and/or as accessory spot lights while loading or unloading in the dark. Consider carefully where and how to mount these lights. Mounting them below the frame might break off when encountering a valley or hump on the road and mounting on the door may be a problem when the door is down. Another mounting method is to recess them into the door, if the door can accommodate them, but doesn’t offer general lighting when the door is down. If you choose a flood light arrangement, a separate relay may be needed. Most tow vehicle reverse light switches/circuits don’t handle a lot of current. The back-up alarm can be as simple as mounting the speaker or siren under the chassis. A situation to think about is when backing up into your own driveway late at night. Do you really need to announce yourself to the neighbors with the backup alarm going? Adding a backup alarm kill switch in a convienent location like just inside the pass door may keep you on good standing with the sleeping next door neighbors. Thanks to John Tritle with photos by Charlie Russo for this alarm and kill switch tip.
- Storage – When storing your trailer for long periods, consider a special trailer cover to protect it from the sun and elements. Weather can wreak havoc on an unprotected unit, especially the seams and moldings. Consider using small jack stands on the rear frame members and in conjunction with the tongue jack to take some of the weight off the springs while in long term storage.
- Mirrors – The mirrors on your tow vehicle are an important safety accessory when towing. Using the driver and passenger side exterior mirrors provide the driver an instant perspective of the surroundings, which is usually other traffic. The driver must learn to depend on mirrors and gauge where traffic is in relation to the trailer. The most common occurrence for mirrors is lane changes. Exterior mirrors on many of today’s tow vehicles simply pull out (extend) to accommodate the extra viewing area needed for seeing past or alongside the trailer.
- Video Camera System – A video camera system can provide the driver with extra comfort while towing by seeing whose following behind the trailer. This is much like the camera system used on motor homes, but instead the camera is mounted at the rear of the trailer. The camera can be mounted high up on the rear door with a quick disconnect clip or on the roof of the trailer. Small bullet cameras such as Swann’s SW-C-CCBC is outdoor rated and operates on 12 volts. If it’s mounted to the rear door, remember to remove it when lowering the door. Small 5-6 inch TFT-LCD video monitors such as the Valor VH-700WR, Emerson MT-1563, or Accelevision LCDP56 can be used. Its important to remember that with a video-camera monitor system, left and right are switched and thus the selected monitor must have a mirror or reverse video mode to correct left and right confusion. The Bravo-View MR-04F system includes the camera and entire rear view mirror which includes the video monitor inside the mirror. Benefit of the Bravo system is that when the camera is off, the rear view mirror is totally usable again and also has the reverse video mode. Wireless camera systems are possible, but a hard wired system using coax cables for both video and 12 volt power should provide years of worry-free service. Another benefit of a video-camera system is to temporarily mount the camera (using a magnetic mount) to the rear of the tow vehicle and the camera facing the hitch-ball. Backing and aligning the tow vehicle hitch-ball to the trailer exactly the first and every time by yourself has never been easier. You can now throw away that tennis ball alignment system!
- General Information – Take the time to plan where and how everything in your trailer will be placed.
- Layout where accessories will be stored. The E-Track system makes their product with both vertical and horizontal slots, so using it on the trailer’s inside walls is also possible. This permits multiple tie-down points for boxes and parts or tools.
- Check for peculiar things like operation of the inside lights. Some tow vehicle’s trailer connector only provide 12 volt power while the ignition is on. Is this what you want? If not, consider ways to change this. Like the back-up lights suggestion, perhaps you want separate back-up lights when backing, but have separate flood lights mounted high that are switched on independently of the reverse lights.
- Enclosed car trailers can be very dark places especially before sunrise or after sunset. Most trailer manufacturers offer optional interior lights at a nominal cost. Interior lights can also be added later by the trailer owner. In most cases interior lights are run off of the tow vehicle's electrical system. Having these lights wired that way can result in a dead battery in your tow vehicle if you leave the lights on. Some trailer manufacturers or trailer sales dealers offer an optional battery to power interior trailer lights. These batteries are usually deep cycle marine batteries and are usually mounted somewhere on or in the trailer. They can be wired so that they are charged by the tow vehicle when it is running and not drain the tow vehicle's battery. Another tip for improving interior lighting - paint the interior walls bright white to improve reflection. Thanks to John Tritle with photos by Charlie Russo for this interior lighting tip.
- Fire Extinguishers - Since most enclosed car trailers have wooden floors and walls and carry vehicles that contain flammable liquids like gasoline. Carrying one or more properly rated fire extinguishers is a must. When deciding on where to mount fire extinguishers, accessibility should be a priority. Mounting them near one or more of the trailer doors is usually where many trailer owners located them. Thanks to John Tritle with photo by Charlie Russo for this fire extinguisher tip.
- Wheel Chocks - There are a number of wheel chocks available on the market today. Some are made of plastic and have a simple design. Others are made of metal and are mechanical in nature. Whenever a trailer is not hitched to a tow vehicle, some form of wheel chocks should be used to insure the trailer does not move from it's parking spot. Mechanical wheel chocks are available from most RV retail stores or on-line RV web sites. Thanks to Charlie Russo for this tip and photo.
- Think about the locks you’ll use. Having the locks all keyed alike saves frustration in finding the right key. This includes the pad locks on all the doors and the hitch (ball) lock.
- Maintenance – The trailer you’ve bought or are about to purchase requires maintenance just as much as the vehicles themselves. Greasing suspension components, the hitch ball, and wheel bearings; check tire pressures and there overall condition; clean electrical connections and check lighting and electric brake operation. On the trailers exterior, lubricate door hinges and lock hasps and look for moldings and trim that may have worked loose.
- Look and research how you’ll be using your truck and trailer. Take the time to understand the weights mentioned as it applies to you.
- Look at other people’s truck & trailer arrangements and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The dumbest question is the one that didn’t get asked. Learn from other peoples experiences.
- Sherline Website: Information on tongue weight scales and trailering
- McMaster-Carr Industrial Supply
- Better Life Technology
- Reese Hitches
- Draw-Tite Hitches
- Fry Electronics (video vendor supplies)
- Reflective Tape Supplier