What a drag: The pros and cons of towing

Trailer BMW

There’s a reason the wildly popular auction website Bring a Trailer is so named. Nothing says “I am ready to buy your car and make it go away RIGHT NOW” like showing up with a truck and trailer. If a car is dead, or too unreliable or valuable (or both), to be safely driven home, trailering it may be an absolute necessity. Sometimes, however, it’s simply a question of convenience—being able to knock the evaluation, purchase, and transportation off in a single trip without pressing a spouse or friend into being a second driver… or coming back later with a trailer… or arranging for shipping.

A certain amount of distance-related calculus goes into the decision of whether or not to arrive with a trailer. If you get word of a pounce-worthy car in your hometown, usually the thing to do is just jump in your own car and go look at it. If you like it, negotiate a deal, but can’t drive it the few miles home because it’s dead, a flatbed tow might only cost a hundred bucks—or you might be able to slap a plate on it and slip it in under your AAA towing. But if the car is a day’s drive away, and if, after repeated conversations with the seller, you’re interested enough to go look at it, you generally want to avoid driving out twice (once to check it out and again to drag it back), so the logistics favor being prepared to do it all in a single trip. Cars that are just a few hours away fall somewhere between.

I recently had a line on very interesting car—an original-owner 48,000-mile BMW 2002 down in Bridgehampton, Long Island, which is about a six-hour drive (assuming you’re driving a car and there’s no traffic) from my home outside of Boston. As I’ve done many times before, I did bring a trailer, and I did wind up buying the car, but for several reasons, this time the process was complicated, time-consuming, and not for the faint of heart. While it’s all still fresh and painful, I thought I’d jot down the pros and cons. Note that there are entire websites devoted to loading and towing, so I’m going to keep things specific to pouncing on cars.

Boy, it’s way easier if you own a truck and trailer

For years, I had a succession of Chevy Suburbans in the driveway. They were mainly used to take the family on our annual beach vacation, as well as drag home engines, transmissions, Recaro seats, and wheels and tires, but they were also damned handy when I bought a car and needed to tow it home. I also briefly owned a small car trailer that I’d actually purchased to tow a hovercraft (long story). It was barely long enough to fit even a little car like a BMW 2002, but damn, it was handy to just bring my own equipment and drive off. Space was an issue, though, as the truck and trailer occupied much of my driveway. I sold the trailer and went back to doing what many people do, which is…

Renting a U-Haul auto transport

I (and everyone else) would love to own a small enclosed trailer with an integrated winch, but for many of us, the $59/day U-Haul auto transport (open trailer) works well for the small-to-midsize cars I tend to buy. There are, however, a few issues to be aware of. Note that the auto transport is a four-wheel-off-the-ground trailer, distinct from U-Haul’s tow dolly that only raises the front wheels. I’d never use a tow dolly to move a car I care about. It leaves the body of the car exposed—not a good thing with a potentially valuable and/or uninsured vehicle. In addition, when towing a rear-wheel drive car any distance on a tow dolly, you’re advised to disconnect either the driveshaft or the half-axles so the transmission isn’t spinning in neutral for hundreds of miles, and that’s a pain.

The oft-used combo of one of my Suburbans towing a U-Haul auto transport so I could bring my BMW Bavaria home.
Rob Siegel
The oft-used combo of one of my Suburbans towing a U-Haul auto transport so I could bring my BMW Bavaria home.

When you reserve a transport on www.uhaul.com, the site asks what your tow vehicle is, what vehicle you’re towing, and the rating of your hitch. If you say you’re going to tow a Hummer with a Prius, it’ll balk, but most any truck towing most any car passes muster. You need the right-sized hitch ball (either 1 7/8-inch or 2-inch) at a height to keep the trailer about level, plus an electrical adapter to allow your car to control the lights on the trailer. If you don’t have either of these two things, U-Haul will gladly sell them to you when you show up to rent the trailer.

U-Haul auto transports have an advantage for the novice in that there’s basically just one way to secure a car on them. The trailer has a pair of wheel nets (ratchet straps in the shape of a net that fit over the top of a wheel) on the front. You extend the ramps, lay out the wheel nets on the deck of the trailer, drive the car on and all the way forward, then throw the nets over the front wheels, pull them through the ratchet mechanisms at the very front, and tighten them down. There’s a safety chain that you then pass over the car’s rear subframe just in case the straps break. That’s it. You’re typically strapped down in minutes.

The integrated wheel nets on the front of the U-Haul transport.
Rob Siegel
The integrated wheel nets on the front of the U-Haul transport.

But there’s a problem: Availability. The $59/day price doesn’t mean U-Haul has a trailer available the day you need it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve either needed a trailer a certain weekend and not been able to reserve one, or I’ve reserved one only to be called that day and told it was unavailable.

Another issue with trucks and trailers is flat tires. Every time I’m towing a car and see some poor soul with a flat, or a piece of a shredded tire by the side of the road, I think, “That could be me.” (More accurately, I remember times when that was me.) If you’re not prepared to deal with a flat tire on the truck or the trailer, you probably shouldn’t be towing. If you have AAA, they’ll cover the truck as long as it isn’t a commercial vehicle. For them to cover the trailer, I believe you must have “AAA RV.” Note that U-Haul auto transports don’t come with a spare. I always carry a portable air compressor and a can of Fix-O-Flat when I tow, but if a trailer tire shreds, you need to call U-Haul’s roadside assistance number and just wait.

Borrowed trailers

If U-Haul doesn’t have an auto transporter on the weekend you need one, you might need to hit up one of your car-buying or track-rat friends and borrow their trailer. If you can, that’s a beautiful thing, but be careful, as a number of potential problems can derail the process.

  • You need a hitch with the correct-sized ball for the trailer. As I said, U-Haul transporters will accept a standard 1-7/8-inch or 2-inch ball, but a heavy-duty trailer usually requires the larger 2 5/16-inch hitch ball.
  • U-Haul transporters have integrated “surge brakes” where the trailer itself detects you slowing down and applies its brakes, but most other trailers have electric brakes that must communicate with a brake controller in the truck. You need to be certain that the two are compatible.
  • If someone loans you a trailer, be certain he or she walks you through how to strap a car onto it (see the section below on the strap-down).

Getting the car on the trailer

If the car runs, this part is trivial: You simply park the trailer somewhere convenient and level, extend the ramps, and drive the car onto it, but if the car is dead (or “inop,” as they say in the trade), the logistics of getting it on the trailer can be problematic.

First, how dead is the car? Is there a key to unlock the steering column? Are the tires flat? Do the wheels turn? It’s quite common for brakes to be stuck from sitting. Specifically, if a car was parked with the handbrake on, the rear shoes can be stuck to the inside of the drums. Jacking up the back of the car, pulling off the rear wheels, and smacking the drums with a hammer usually frees the shoes, but if it doesn’t, you have a real problem.

Next, where, exactly, is the car? Is it in a garage on the street or a storage area surrounded by a big flat parking lot so the trailer can be backed right up to the door? If so, then you can, in theory, easily roll the car to the base of the ramps and winch it up onto the trailer. The best scenario is if you own or can borrow a trailer with an integrated electric winch, but if you’re renting a U-Haul transport, you’ll have to make do with a mechanical come-along or a portable electric winch. I have a small Warn PullzAll that runs off 110V, but: a) you need to be close enough to a building to stretch an extension cord inside, and b) the PullzAll only has 15 feet of cable, so you typically need to block a car’s wheels and reposition the winch at least once to get it up on the trailer. Unless you have a winch with a really long cable, you may need to disconnect the truck from the trailer, back it up to where the car is, hook a tow strap between them, and drag the car out to where it can be loaded.

I bought this car last year. It was landlocked in a rear-facing garage that emptied out onto a lawn, and a fence had been erected since it went into the garage. Trust me, getting it out was much more involved than simply backing a truck and a trailer down the driveway.
Rob Siegel
I bought this car last year. It was landlocked in a rear-facing garage that emptied out onto a lawn, and a fence had been erected since it went into the garage. Trust me, getting it out was much more involved than simply backing a truck and a trailer down the driveway.

One way to view it, though, is that, if you’re a buyer, difficult access presents an opportunity. When you see a car that’s dead in a corner of a barn that’s 50 feet into a backyard without a paved driveway, you can honestly tell the seller that even if they sell the car on Bring a Trailer, shipping is likely to be a problem. Most of the time, when you hire a shipper, you’re actually hiring a broker who hires a shipper, maybe several. Even if you explain to a broker in detail that the car has a flat tire and seized brakes and access to the garage is such that a ramp truck can’t get to the garage door and thus the car will require wheel dollies and a cable tow, the odds of that information getting lost in translation are very high. However, you can make the car go away now, and that may be worth something to the seller.

The strap-down

Strapping a car down on a trailer without the correct straps can be challenging. (Note: This is not my car or my trailer, so put away the pitchforks and rotten tomatoes.)
Rob Siegel
Strapping a car down on a trailer without the correct straps can be challenging. (Note: This is not my car or my trailer, so put away the pitchforks and rotten tomatoes.)

Do not underestimate the challenge in safely strapping down a car. It is generally advised, particularly for older cars, that instead of securing them through their subframes and pulling the straps to compress the springs, they’re strapped down by their wheels and the car is allowed to move on its suspension as it would if it were being driven. While you can use standard ratchet straps over the tires, it’s best if you use dedicated wheel nets.

As I said above, the U-Haul auto transport has an advantage in that there’s basically one way to strap a car onto it using its integrated front wheel nets. Some trailers have “D-rings” inset at regular intervals into the deck, and you position the car so the tires are between two sets of D-rings and attach the wheel nets with ratchet straps fore and aft of the wheels. Others have the D-rings on the side, requiring “lasso-style” side-mount straps. Larger, heavier trailers for construction equipment often don’t have regularly-spaced D-rings at all, instead requiring you to use chains and binders. In all cases, the ends of the ratchet straps must match the attachment points—you can’t safely use straps with flat square ends on D-rings. You really don’t want to be figuring this out for the first time at 8 p.m. with a long drive ahead of you.

A set of lasso-style side-mount wheel nets. (photo courtesy US Cargo Control).
Rob Siegel
A set of lasso-style side-mount wheel nets. (photo courtesy US Cargo Control).

The actual towing

Even the loading and strap-down notwithstanding, a big consideration is: Do you want to drive a truck towing a trailer with a car on it? The guy who taught me how to tow gave me the best advice on driving I’ve ever heard. He said, “When you’re towing, you’re working. You know all those things you do while driving? Changing the music on your phone, fumbling through your backpack for a cough drop? Any time you do any of those, I guarantee you that you’ll rock the steering wheel, and when that happens, the back of the trailer will move around. So don’t do them. Just work. Just drive.” Words to live by.

Another thing to consider is that, when you’re towing anything, you’re not going to “make time.” You should be in the right lane plodding along. Especially if you don’t tow often.

And those expansion joints on concrete highways? They’re going to drive you nuts. Every time you hit one, the trailer and its slide-in ramps will go ba-BANG! You might drive for 30 miles hearing ba-BANG, ba-BANG! You’ll imagine the straps on the car loosening up. And you’ll be right.

And then, of course, there’s backing up. People will tell you to turn the bottom of the steering wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go, and that’s true, but it’s just the beginning. You can do a pretty good job reversing in a straight line simply by looking at the mirrors, but it takes a lot of practice to hook the trailer properly into a tight spot. None of this is an issue when you’re just driving down the highway, but fueling up at standard service stations can be challenging. And, most importantly, you never know what geometry you’ll be forced to deal with when you arrive at the car.

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Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 33 years and is the author of five automotive books. His new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying back our wedding car after 26 years in storage, is available on Amazon (as are his other books). You can order personally inscribed copies here.