Chapter 10: Tow Bars/Dinghy Towing
One of the most common towing situations in the United States involves flat-towing a small car or SUV behind an RV. For those lucky, permanent road warriors, pulling a small car allows them to set up camp virtually anywhere and use the towed car for local jaunts to tourist attractions and to run necessary errands.
This kind of towing is called “dinghy towing,” named after the way yachts haul small transit boats in their wake. Dinghy towing has claimed such a big share of the towing market that a whole line of specialized equipment has been developed to support the practice, including: light wiring, supplemental brake actuators for towed vehicles, supplemental transmission lubrication pumps, and quick disconnect couplings for the driveshaft.
There are two common ways to go about dinghy towing: using a tow bar or a tow dolly. A tow bar is distinguished by the fact that all four wheels of the towed vehicle stay on the pavement. The tow bar attaches to the front bumper area – often to special attachment points installed in the car’s bumper. There are companies that make custom tow bar brackets that attach to the vehicle frame.
Figure 10-1: Magnetic Towing Lights
Sometimes the “trailer lights” on a towed car are the car’s existing lights, wired to respond to the towing vehicle. But you can also purchase separate towing lights, usually with magnetic bases, that are placed on the towed vehicle.
Using a Tow Bar
Towing with a tow bar can be a complicated procedure as cars aren’t designed to be towed for long distances, they’re designed to drive under their own power.
Figure 10-2: Adjustable Tow Bar
When you tow, you need to make sure that the front wheels are pointed straight ahead, or the car will try to pull your tow vehicle one way or the other. But many steering locks will hold the wheels slightly off dead center. So when towing, the steering must remain unlocked, as the wheels will naturally come back to center when in motion.
You also need to make sure that you have followed the manufacturer’s recommendations with regard to the towed car’s transmission. Transmissions are designed to be turned by the engine, and this process pumps gear oil or automatic transmission fluid through the gearbox. When you tow a car with its drive wheels (front or rear) on the pavement, the wheels turn the transmission and in some designs, this can lead to transmission damage.
One reason why 4WD vehicles such as Jeeps have been popular as towed vehicles is that the 4WD mechanism includes a transfer case that can be placed in neutral, isolating the transmission from the wheels. Front wheel drive cars with manual transmissions are also a good bet. Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you if it can be safely flat-towed.
Your best bet for flat-towing is to consult your RV or trailer center. They will have the most current information on products, legal requirements, and the suitability of your towed vehicle.
Another option for towing a car behind an RV is to use a tow dolly. These trailers are commonly found at RV dealers for purchase, or at trailer rental services. These mini-trailers have two wheels of their own and cradle the front wheels of the towed vehicle. they have their own trailer lights (or magnetic lights) attached.
Downsides of using a tow dolly for long distances include uneven tire wear and occasionally, braking difficulties if the towing vehicle is not substantially larger and heaver than the towed vehicle. All the same procedures, measurements, and cautions or trailer towing apply to a tow dolly.
Figure 10-3: Tow Dolly
The Bottom Line on Dinghy Towing
Dinghy towing has gotten easier, safer, and more popular in the last 20 years. This method of getting another vehicle around will remain a mainstay of towing in general and RV towing in particular. As an old-school purist, I prefer to use a flatbed or car-hauler trailer for ease of connection and safe towing, but I pay the price in added weight. The important thing is to get the right equipment for your towing plans and to know how to use it properly.
- Consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual before flat-towing
- Use safety cables at all times
- Leave generous stopping distance
- Use clearly visible trailer lights
- Familiarize yourself with and adhere to all applicable state and local regulations.
- Assume you can flat-tow any car
- Tow without complete legal safety gear
- Flat-tow above the posted speed limit