Trailer Basics: How to safely move your classic car

Towing Pamphlet

If you are in need of vehicle transportation for your classic, choosing a competent carrier and being prepared go a long way toward reducing the stress and worry that go with sending your vehicle off with a stranger.

It’s easy to find auto-transport companies online or in publications like Hemmings Motor News and Sports Car Market, but how do you choose a trustworthy company? Ask around. Major auction companies, museums, restorers, local car club members and other collectors are all good sources for recommendations.  It is essential to use a company experienced with collector vehicles so that they use nylon straps or wheel nets to prevent damage to the chassis and are careful about low ground clearance or very tall cars that might not clear the trailer roof or upper deck.

Never base your decision solely on price. Most reputable carriers have similar cost structures and, with few exceptions, an unusually low price is a bad sign. The easiest way to size up a transport company is to ask how long they’ve been hauling cars. You can also visit the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website at to look up a company’s safety record and insurance status.

You’ll need to decide whether you want your car to travel in an open or enclosed trailer. Open transport is less expensive, but unless you’re hauling a car in need of restoration, you’re better off going with closed transport since the risk of damage to your classic is much lower. And keep in mind, most open trailers aren’t equipped with a winch for non-running vehicles, and carriers sometimes charger exorbitant fees to load inoperable cars. No matter which carrier and option you choose, it’s important to understand and agree on all fees up front.

When it comes to insurance, a carrier is liable only for its own acts of negligence and is not responsible for unforeseeable acts of nature. That’s why it’s important to makes sure your car is covered with agreed value coverage from a company that specializes in collector car insurance before transporting it.

Keep in mind that auto transport is not a regularly scheduled service like airplane or train travel. When you place your transport order, the dispatcher must assemble a load of up to six cars, including your vehicle, and route a truck. Depending on your location and time of year, this may take anywhere from several days to several weeks. The minute you hear of an impending storm, start calling from a list of carriers you have ready in advance. In such cases, it might be best to work with a smaller local transporter who might be more able to fit you in on short notice.

Once you’ve booked transportation for your classic, you’ll need to prepare it for pickup. One of the best things you can do is make sure the car is clean, so it’s easier for you and the carrier to do a proper inspection. This helps avoid damage claim problems.

You’ll also want to provide written instructions regarding anything the person handling your vehicle will need to know, including information about battery and fuel cut-off switches, hidden switches, alarm instructions and any other “tricks” to starting and running your car. It’s recommended that you only have your tank half full and charge batteries to avoid additional fees for winching. Don’t leave loose articles in the vehicle or trunk, which can be damaged or cause damage to your car, and be sure your antifreeze level is adequate for the climate at both ends of the trip to avoid a cracked engine block.

Whether you need to move your classic out of the path of an impending hurricane or you just want to save it some wear and tear, you may have had the need to trailer your car to a safer location, or to receive repairs.  Towing may look easy, but like most things that look easy, it takes a lot of careful preparation to do it right. Before you get started, there are some safety precautions to be aware of before and during your tow.

Before every trip

Every time you plan on using your trailer, take a few minutes to check these things carefully before loading:

  • Lights
  • Wiring
  • Brakes
  • Tires – for wear and pressure
  • Tightness of lug nuts
  • Hitch
  • Chains
  • Breakaway wire

Connecting your trailer

Even if you’re in a hurry, it’s important to follow all of these steps when connecting your trailer.

  • Position the hitch ball under the coupler, and lower the jack so the couple lands right on top of the ball, then lock the hitch. It helps to have another person guide you.
  • Crank up the jack all the way so it can’t drag
  • Connect the electrical wires between the trailer and the tow vehicle. Make sure the wires are long enough to handle turns, and buy extensions if necessary.
  • Connect the safety chains, crossing them to give added stability (it’s required law in some states).
  • Connect your breakaway wire, which will engage the trailer’s brakes if it disconnects.
  • Check to see that the trailer’s lights are working, including both turn signals, parking lights and brake lights. Pull the trailer to test its brakes, and then check underneath to make sure no lighting wires are hanging and nothing is broken.

Loading your car

When loading your car, make sure the trailer is parked on level ground. For an open trailer, put the ramps in place; for an enclosed trailer, open the rear-loading gate. It’s easiest to load your car with an electric winch connected to a “bridle” harness attached to the front live axle or suspension of the car. When you’re ready to load:

  • Carefully position your car behind the trailer and align the ramps.
  • If you’re winching, hook up the winch and begin loading, keeping close watch on the relationship of the tires to the ramps.
  • If you’re driving onto the trailer, look out your window at the side rail of the trailer. As you’re driving, the front of the trailer will rise up then level out as you pull over the axles. When you think you’re centered, check to see if the trailer is level.
  • Once the car is properly positioned, tie it down. Using four nylon ratchet straps and four axle straps (or straps that combine the ratchet and axle straps) will make it simple. Always tie down the chassis or suspension, not the body. Never move a trailer unless the car is firmly secured by ratchet straps at all four corners.
  • Check the brakes one last time and you’re ready to go.

On the Road

As you pull out for the first time with a full load, proceed slowly to make sure the trailer is tracking well and the car – if you can see it – appears secure. It’s an excellent idea to stop after 10 to 25 miles to check the tightness of your ratchets. After that, check the following every time you break for fuel or food:

  • Check ratchet straps for tightness
  • Put your hand close to the wheel hub to feel excess heat – a sign of sticking brakes or a bad bearing
  • Inspect hitch assembly
  • Check safety chains and breakaway wire
  • Ensure all wires are connected
  • Inspect tires for any cuts or visibly low pressure
  • Tighten lug nuts at least once per trip

At first, your tow vehicle will feel heavy, but you’ll get used to it. Take your time, and allow plenty of distance for stopping – especially on wet surfaces. Don’t slam on the brakes. Make turns as wide as possible to avoid curbs and objects. When backing up, remember to turn the wheel in the opposite direction of where you want to put the trailer. 

When your car is picked up, the driver will inspect it and note any pre-existing damage. Upon delivery, you or a trusted representative will want to perform a similar inspection. Before signing off on the delivery, make sure to note any damage in case you need to submit a claim.

Choosing the reputable transporter will help ensure your classic gets from one place to another safe, sound and within a reasonable amount of time. Here’s a short list of top-quality transporters to get you started:


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Read next Up next: Protecting Your Collector Car: How to fortify your garage

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