Sunday, July 31, 2016

Using a closed trailer to move collector cars

Are you thinking about a closed trailer to move your collector car to events?

The first question to ask is:  Do you have a vehicle that can haul your pet car in a trailer?  If you want to move a full sized car it’s going to weigh 4-5,000 pounds, plus a similar weight of trailer and gear.  In total you will have a towed load near 10,000 pounds. Even little cars weigh more than you think.  A vintage MINI or a small racecar is a 6-7,000 pound load in many cases.

That kind of rig is best pulled by a full-sized 2500 or 3500 pickup with the biggest possible engine (this means your rig will probably get all of 10mpg if lucky).  If you don’t have a suitable tow vehicle you may consider renting.  Outfits like Penske rent late model 2500 trucks with tow packages.  Professional haulers will use even bigger rigs, with gooseneck or fifth wheel couplers. 



We use a 24 foot trailer, which gives about 6 feet of storage and work room in front of a large car.  Others prefer 28 foot trailers for even more clearance.  If you’re moving full size cars like Rolls-Royce or vintage American iron things will get really tight in anything smaller.  

If you buy a new trailer it’s probably going to come with a basic ball hitch.  Most professionals I know use a load distributing system to shift some of the tongue weight to the front wheels of the tow vehicle.  Sway dampers are another common addition.  The trailer needs a jack at the front to uncouple it safely, and it’s smart to have jacks in the rear so you can load and unload without being hooked to the tow vehicle. 

The most important thing to remember when you load the car is to drive it far enough forward that you have a decent weight on the hitch, but not so far forward that too much weight is on the coupling.  A good rule of thumb is that the tongue weight should be about 10% of the trailer weight.

With a 10,000lb load that means a tongue weight of 1,000 pounds or so.  It’s important to make sure the hitch and coupling are both rated for that weight.  If you have a late-model 2500 or larger truck with factory tow package it’s likely to use the commercial 2.5 inch square system, which will handle that no problem.  Older vehicles may be challenged.

You can check your tongue weight with a tongue weight scale (available from an RV dealer) or by weighing the rig on a commercial scale. If your tongue weight is too high you can reduce it by moving the car back in the trailer, but don’t move it back too far.  Low tongue weight is the main cause of instability and sway in trailers.  If you’re using a weight distributing hitch you should look at its instructions to level the truck now.  Don’t forget to grease the hitch balls and pivots too.

Once you’ve figured out where to position the car in the trailer for proper balance the next step is to tie it down.  If you’re doing this for the first time, you might want to mark the positions of the wheels and unload the car, because you will need to add tie down points. 

There are two good choices to tie the car to the trailer.  Either tie the wheels to the trailer floor, or tie the suspension to the floor.  In both cases, the tie downs leave the vehicle free to move up and down over bumps.

If you tie the vehicle down by the body with short up and down straps (the way cars were secured on multi car carriers for decades) they will be slamming the straps every time the bounces up and down, and eventually something will break.  The only way to avoid movement over bumps will be to cinch the car down so tight the suspension is fully compressed.  Few people move cars in single car trailers that way today because the risk of damage is too high.

We use two methods to secure cars.  The first is called  e-track, and it’s similar to the l-track used in airplanes.  We have tracks running front to back along the floor of the trailer, and the car is driven in atop them.  We put heavy rubber chocks in front of the wheels and then snap e track straps into the floor behind the wheels.  The straps pass over the wheels to a loop in front of the tire.  The strap stretched forward to a tensioner latched into the track just in front of the car.



In the rear we put loops of strap around the rear axle braces, and hook straps from there to rings that are set into the trailer floor.  Those are our principal means of keeping the car in place on heavy deceleration.





To do that job, it is important that the rings and e tract be secured with nuts and bolts through the trailer floor and frame.  If you buy a trailer “set up” I suggest you check this carefully because many people install tie down points with sheet metal screws or even wood screws and those weak attachments will rip out under stress!



Once the car is safely tied down it’s time to think about what else you’ll need to bring.  One obvious thing is a spare tire.  Our trailer has four tires.  If you run over something that damages one tire, it’s likely to damage both.  For that reason we carry two spare tires, tied down to more e-track in the front of the trailer. 

What about changing the tire?  To do that you will need to get a jack under the trailer axle, and the jack must be strong enough to lift a loaded trailer.  I carry a 3.5 ton floor jack from our shop for this purpose.  You might look at that jack in the trailer and think it’s overkill but I assure you the tune would change as soon as you faced a flat tire on a dirt roadside with something less.  We keep a tool box in the trailer with a battery powered impact gun and hand wrenches for the wheel lugs and all the hardware on the trailer and hitch.  We also carry a few spare lug nuts.

PRO TIP: Make sure your jack will fit under the trailer if both tires on one side are flat, and make sure you have enough spares to change out a side (usually two to three tires)



I really encourage you to test your tools for this at home, to be sure you can actually change a tire at night by the side of the road.  That is no time to discover your lug wrench isn’t strong enough or the jack won’t lift the trailer.

Before driving off you should check the tightness of all the hardware on the hitch and tow rig.  Check the wheel lugs and check the pressure in the truck and trailer tires.  In most cases the trailer tires will be inflated to the pressure stamped in the tire sidewall.  Follow the recommendations in the owner’s manual for the tires on the truck.

Check the trailer brakes and the brake controller.  Any closed trailer should have electric brakes.  One tip – if the trailer starts to sway when you’re on the highway you can often damp it by touching the trailer brake while the tow vehicle coasts.  Applying the tow vehicle brake in that situation may make your sway worse.

What if a tire goes low?  A low tire may mean a leak, and for that you can purchase liquid stop leak.  It’s an aerosol that partly inflates and plugs a leaking tire at the same time.  It’s often an effective temporary repair for nail punctures and similar damage.  Some people carry battery powered compressors to pump up tires, but I find them unacceptably slow. We also carry a 12 gallon tank of 125psi compressed air that can quickly inflate tires on the tow rig or on the vehicles we are towing.

TIP:  Carry an infrared thermometer in your truck and shoot the temps on the tires at every stop.  Trailer tires should be even 100-140 degrees in temperate weather.  A higher temp usually means low air or damage.  The truck rear tires may run a bit hotter unless you have duel wheels, which will probably be cooler

You would be wise to pack a set of flares in your tool box, along with 4 chocks for the trailer and truck wheels.   The list of other tools you may carry depends on your abilities.  In addition to hand tools we pack several battery powered lights and lanterns that are essential for any repairs at night.  We carry Milwaukee M18 battery powered lights and impact wrenches.  They make a really nice blower whose power rivals that of a small gas leaf blower.  We use it to dry cars after washing, and to blow dust off the paint or out of the interior.  You can find similar tools from Makita and other makers – battery power has really taken over!

We pack a big co2 fire extinguisher, as well as a dry chemical unit in the cab of the truck.  If you have to put out a fire in a collector car co2 or Halon gas is what you want because it’s won’t leave nasty residue but you need a big extinguisher to do the job.  They are expensive but worth in, for damage avoided.

When you get to the show you may end up parking the trailer and driving off in the truck.  If you do it will be smart to lock the trailer against theft.  We use high security padlocks on the rear door, a quality dead bolt latch for the side door, and a lock on the coupler.  When the trailer is hooked to the truck we lock the hitch to the vehicle and we lock the release pin on the trailer.

With all that preparation we hope to get our cars to the show fields in the same pristine condition they were in when we loaded.  If it doesn’t, our trailer carries polish, towels and other cleaning supplies for on-field touch up.  The battery powered air gun is a great help.  We usually carry some lightweight drive-on ramps too in case anything needs attention on the ground.  And speaking of the ground – don’t forget a foam pad (like a yoga mat) or at least a big beach towel to lay on when you hook up under the car, etc.

Before you set out, I suggest gathering the registration and insurance documents for the truck, trailer, and show car in one place, in case you get pulled over.  Better to discover any problems now so you don’t end up in a country pokey later.  Make sure registrations and inspections are all up to date and your loaded rig is not over its registered weight limit.  Check carefully for any potential violations on either the truck or the trailer.

With all that, I hope your towing and showing experience is a good one.  See you on the road!





(c) 2016 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.


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