What are my car towing options?

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Now there's a camper who knows how to tow.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Now there's a camper who knows how to tow.
Nancy Louie/iStockPhoto

­There are a lot of things to consider when you're towing your car: Is the coach vehicle (the one doing the towing) at least 750 pounds (about 340 kg) heavier than the car in tow? Are the brakes of the lead vehicle capable of bringing both vehicles to a complete stop without terrifying the passengers involved? If not, then an aftermarket braking system would be a wise investment. These systems use the electrical impulse generated by the lead car to apply the car in tow's brakes equally. Breakaway brakes perform a similar function, applying the car in tow's brakes in case it becomes unattached to the lead car.

These are all important considerations to take into account before you hop into your lead vehicle and tow your car off into the sunset. It's also important to practice with towing a car before taking your caravan out on the road. Driving with a car in tow is a completely different experience from regular driving, although many people think they'll come by it naturally. This isn't always the case; instead it's a good idea to practice maneuvers like turning and backing up in wide, open spaces. Parking lots work well for practicing these maneuvers.

­There's also the consideration of what method of towing best suits you. In this article, we'll explore three methods of towing your car - flatbed towing, two-wheel towing and flat towing. Each of these methods has its benefits and drawbacks. Some are safer, but more expensive than others. Some require you disconnect parts of the car before you take it out on the road. Others require special attachments.

Is your head swimming yet? Relax. We're here to help you choose what towing method suits you best. Read the next page to learn about the first method, flatbed towing.

Flatbed Car Towing

Towing with a flatbed trailer. Does it get any better?
Towing with a flatbed trailer. Does it get any better?

Flatbed towing is but one way to go when you're trying to get your car from point A to point B. This type of towing often involves a specialized truck that has -- you guessed it -- a flat bed in the rear. You've likely seen a flatbed tow truck if you've ever been stranded on the side of the road and called a tow service.

Flatbed towing is one of the safest ways to transport a car. There are plenty of services that offer long-haul towing of your vehicle. Some services pick up several cars in one region that are all headed to a similar destination. Adding your car to a large haul can save you money, but hiring a hauling company can be extremely expensive; it's usually used for one-time transportation of a high-end car.

Flatbed trailers usually have four wheels -- most often placed together at the center of the trailer to balance the weight of the car above and prevent swaying during towing. Loading is usually easy. You simply drive your car up the rear ramps to the trailer, park it, secure it to the trailer and go.

Unlike towing with dollies or tow bars (we'll get to those soon), flatbed trailers don't require any special adjustments to the car's power train -- the part of the car that transfers energy from the engine to the wheels. Aside from the hitch required on tow vehicles, you also don't need to buy any extra parts to tow the car. With a flatbed trailer, the car in tow doesn't take any wear or tear during the trip as it would if you drove it yourself, since all four wheels are off the ground, the engine parts aren't moving and the keys are safely out of the ignition.

There are some drawbacks to towing with four wheels off the ground rather than with dollies or tow bars. Flatbed trailers are usually heavier, which decreases gas mileage for the coach vehicle. Some high-end models come with their own brakes, but a mid or lower-class of flatbed trailer that utilizes the coach vehicle's brakes can wear them down due to the addition of the trailer's weight to the gross total weight (the weight of the coach, the towed vehicle, the trailer, passengers, fuel and anything else on board -- all of which must be halted by the coach vehicle's brakes).

Price is also a consideration; a good flatbed trailer can easily set you back thousands of dollars. For ease of use and babying your car, however, a flatbed trailer is definitely the way to go. If you've got a car you wouldn't choose over your spouse if forced, then perhaps you should look into a less expensive means of transporting it.

Read the next page to find out about two-wheel car towing.

Two Wheel Car Towing

A tow dolly for use in two wheel car towing.
A tow dolly for use in two wheel car towing.
Courtesy Master Tow

Two-wheel car towing involves towing a car with its two front wheels off the ground. A tow dolly -- a short, two-wheeled trailer with ramps and slots your front tires drive up and nestle into -- attaches to the lead vehicle's trailer hitch. Rented tow dollies can offer a cheap and efficient way to get two cars from point A to point B. However, two-wheel towing has its disadvantages: The two tires riding on the ground will wear down more quickly than the two on the dolly, which can potentially cause poor handling when you drive the car later on. This isn't much of a consideration during a short or medium-distance one-way trip, but may cause problems if the car is towed often or travels over a very long distance.

­If your car only has front-wheel drive, (where the power from the engine is delivered only to the front wheels) two wheel towing may be the best way to go. A car with front-wheel drive won't require any special steps: Only the two back tires are on the road, and since they're not connected to the drive shaft (which connects the axel to the transmission and engine), they'll just spin happily along the highway. Even better, since these wheels aren't connected to the engine, you won't register any miles on your towed car's odometer.

If your car has rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, there are some extra steps you'll have to take. First and foremost, you'll have to remove the drive shaft from your car. Normally, when you drive your car, your wheels are spinning because the drive shaft is delivering energy produced in the engine, distributed through the transmission and then to the drive shaft. But the process is reciprocal: If the engine is off, the spinning wheels -- for example, those of a rear-wheel drive car in tow -- will still put moving parts along the power train in motion. What's worse, oil and transmission fluid aren't being distributed, so the engine parts aren't lubricated and friction develops, which can cause severe damage to your car's engine.

With the drive shaft removed, the wheels are no longer connected to the engine; they're simply spinning along the axel. Drive shaft removal isn't necessarily a quick operation. For many people, this job is best left to a professional mechanic. This adds to the cost of to transporting a car -- on top of purchasing or renting a tow dolly. So why not simply back the car onto the tow dolly in the case of a rear-wheel drive car -- then it would be just like towing a front-wheel drive car, right? Wrong. Tow dolly rental companies and manufacturers explicitly warn against towing a rear-facing car with a tow dolly. This is due to the weight distribution found in most cars. Tow dollies are designed to accommodate most (if not all) of the car's weight. Since the bulk of a car's weight is found in front due to the weight of the engine, having that weight hanging off the back of a tow dolly can create an imbalanced weight distribution. At relatively low speeds, this improper weight distribution can cause the car in tow to whip -- a violent sway that can take both cars off the road.

For some people who tow often -- like RVers -- having to load and unload a car from a dolly to uninstall and reinstall the drive shaft is too much work. Many of these people look to tow bars instead. Read about this towing option on the next page.

Flat Towing with a Tow-Bar

Said, how's that RV pulling that car? With a tow bar, with a tow bar!
Said, how's that RV pulling that car? With a tow bar, with a tow bar!
Tim McCaig/iStockPhoto

A third option for towing a car is to flat tow -- a method where the towed car's four wheels are all touching the ground. Flat towing involves a tow bar, a tool that has several advantages to other types of towing. Tow bars are usually less expensive to purchase than a dolly or flatbed. They're also lighter (and thus more energy efficient) and are easier and faster to connect and disconnect than other methods of car towing.

Flat towing, also called four wheels down towing, requires a few upfront purchases, but these are usually one-time purchases. Once you install your tow bar set-up, you'll be good to go, especially if you tow the same car around with the same lead car during every trip.

T­here are different types of tow bars to consider. The three main types are self-aligning coach-mounted receivers, self-aligning towed vehicle-mounted receivers and the rigid A-frame tow bar. Of these three, the optimal set-up is a self-aligning coach-mounted-receiver tow bar. Since it's self-aligning, the receiver can be adjusted from side to side, allowing for a less-than-perfect approach between the vehicles when hooking up the car for towing. A-frame tow bars require precise driving when coupling the tow bar to the receiver, since these tow bars don't move. It's also generally better to purchase a coach-mounted receiver, since they are usually the heaviest component in a tow bar set up. If it's hooked up to the back of the coach, the front of the towed vehicle isn't bogged down with extra weight that can wear out the power train components of a towed vehicle. What's more, coach-mounted receivers usually fold up on the back of the coach vehicle, which is a plus when you're driving the towed vehicle around town during a stop.

Flat towing will cause your tires to wear out evenly (an advantage over tow dollies) but more quickly (a disadvantage to flatbed towing). As with two-wheel towing, it's a good idea to disconnect or remove the drive shafts when you're flat towing. Because flat towing is so popular among RVers who frequently unhitch their towed cars for use during trips, some companies manufacture aftermarket drive shaft couplings that can easily connect or disconnect the drive shafts of the towed car with the pull of a lever.

Some people choose to opt out of this extra cost and instead flat tow their cars with the transmission in neutral. While this method is rough on cars (and requires you travel with your car keys in the ignition), manual transmissions work best in this situation. They produce less resistance (and thus, less friction) than an automatic transmission. If you have a car with an automatic transmission, you can still flat tow in neutral; it's just a better idea to invest in an aftermarket component that lubricates your transmission during long trips to prevent wear and tear. Either way, when towing with a car in neutral with the drive shaft still connected, plan on your car's engine wearing out much more quickly than if you take the time to disconnect the shafts.

Regardless of which method of towing is best for you, be sure to practice towing before hitting the open road and contact your insurance agent to make sure you're properly covered.

For more information on towing and other related articles, visit the next page.

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More Great Links


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