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A guide to classic tow cars

Hooked on classics Published: 13th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
A guide to classic tow cars
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Some classics make great tow cars – better than most moderns in fact – and, provided you follow our advice, there is no reason why they should come to any harm either

Although most of us treat our classics like a baby, a fair few other owners make them work for their keep, such as towing a trailer or caravan to car shows. Sacrilege? No not really! Even oldies were designed to tow and some do it far better than a modern motor thanks to their simpler make up. If you’re planning to haul a heavy trailer or caravan, then you can’t do better than use a traditional heavy rear-wheel drive car. A long wheelbase is helpful for straight-line stability provided a fair amount of the weight is focused on the rear wheels, while a shortish rear overhang (that’s the body projecting past the rear wheels) is also beneficial to prevent a tail-down attitude and subsequent wallowing. A good power-to-weight ratio is always critical when towing, but low-rev torque rather than high-revs bhp is also the key. This is where classics with big lazy engines score over today’s 16-valve screamers that truly fly when given the boot, but typically can’t pull the skin off a rice pudding below 3000rpm - which is right where most of the driving is done. The inherent lowly gearing employed on most oldies is another, often forgotten, bonus to make the most of all that pulling torque.

Top tow cars

By law, you can tow a trailer up to the kerbweight of your car, so a high torque, heavy classic is the ideal. Anything with a Rover V8 in will pull like a train - Range Rovers, P5Bs, P6Bs etc - as will Jaguars, old Humbers, Zodiacs, Crestas and the like. The next time you see a Reliant Scimitar GTE, bet a penny to a pound that a towbar is fitted as half of these hatchbacked workhorses were so equipped, thanks to the car’s lusty Ford V6. This is not to say that lesser cars like Cortinas, MGBs and so on can’t haul successfully – it depends on what you need to tow. A normal trailer, jet ski and the like is fine but modern caravans may not be due to their increasing weights to cater for conveniences that mirror your home, such as air con, central heating showers… the list keeps growing and this is why so many caravan enthusiasts use 4x4s and SUVs to cope. Your handbook or workshop manual will give you the precise weights of your car (or your car club can help), but bear in mind that despite what the law says, it’s far preferable and safer (especially for towing novices) to stick to the industry’s recommended 85 per cent rule (i.e. you only haul up to 85 per cent of the car’s kerbweight). In fact, we’d hover around the 75 per cent region in deference to an old car’s condition and value.

Tow car tips

Which brings us on to the next point – making sure your classic is up to the task. As you’d expect, towing places added strain on any car, irrespective of its age, and this will amplify on a well-worn classic; the transmission, engine and suspension being the hardest hit components. Don’t forget the body and chassis either. The strength of the chassis members to which the towbar is attached is critical - so make sure you eradicate any rust and weld in new metal anywhere the original has been weakened due to age and corrosion. The last thing you want is rot causing the car to break into two once hitched up like a scene from Carry on Classics! Bear in mind that not all towbars were designed to be strong enough for big trailers: ones that bolt through bumper holes were generally only designed to tow light camping trailers. If any part of the car is suspect, make good or even beef it up. The rear suspension on most classics will be too soft and need uprating with heavy-duty springs and dampers (plus even spring assisters) to combat a nose-up stance. The engine’s cooling system must be tip-top at all times. Many classics are prone to overheating and the added strain of towing will surely put some over the edge. Have the radiator re-cored or flushed through, replace any dodgy hoses and, if it still runs hot, get the bore and engine block descaled and flushed. Also consider using one of the new types of cooling additives which makes the car run cooler such as Wetter Water and Supercool from Dynolite. Adding an electric cooling fan is worthwhile, or failing this you may be able to fit an uprated design from an ‘export’ version of your car. Another reason why classics can run excessively hot is due to unleaded fuel, which isn’t strictly compatible with older engine designs. Under severe loads, such as towing, valve seat recession can occur or even piston burn out in the case of cars designed to run on good old five star. Special lead substitutes (and octane booster) additives are an answer, although if the cylinder head ever has to be removed then it is preferable to have specially hardened valve seats installed. Of course the engine should be in top tune, plus it might be worth considering raising its game to cope with towing better and make cruising (which is now 60mph incidentally) easier. Torque is key so don’t go wild here with high lift camshafts. Instead concentrate on better breathing (carbs, head etc, perhaps from the GT version) or even a larger engine if one was included in the range such as 1500 instead of a 1300 or 2-litre over a 1.6. If your car’s transmission is wearing, then consider an overhaul, with at least a new clutch (perhaps a heavy duty alternative) fitted for added reliability. Overdrive is beneficial, especially if you can twin it with a slightly lower axle ratio to provide better acceleration. Automatic transmissions may demand an oil cooler fitted if not already installed to keep the working temperatures down.

Sporting chance

Sports classics have real pulling power in more ways than one, but they are a no-tow area. This is ironic as a Dodge Viper, set a world speed record at 128mph a few years back - hauling a twin-axle tourer! It’s more image rather than safety reasons why you can’t officially tow with the likes of an MGF, MR2 or Porsche 911. All is not lost though as the answer is to use a bespoke bar hand-made for your car. By law, vehicles made after 1st August 1998 must have EEC Type Approval including an endorsement for towing from the car makers. Apart from few exceptions, such as the BMW Z3, most don’t qualify. Herts-based Watling Engineers (01727 873661/0161-304 9014/www.watlingonline.co.uk) has been making bespoke bars for over half a century and claims sports cars are better suited to hauling a caravan than many ordinary cars due to their superior suspensions and surplus of power. You can certainly pull in a two-seater, but what can you actually pull with one? Don’t expect to haul a twin-axle six-berth around due to their lightweight nature. A Mazda MX-5 is quoted as little as 955kg - around the same as a Fiesta for example. Also the accepted 85 per cent towing rule should be regarded as the maximum; reckon on 75 per cent for added safety and car reliability. Expect to pay in the region of £400 plus fitting on most classic sports cars.

  • Towing the line
  • An unbraked trailer must weigh no more than 750kg or half the kerbside weight of the towing vehicle - and that’s including its load, of course
  • A braked trailer can be heavier, but should not exceed the towing vehicle manufacturer’s maximum permitted towing weight. On more recent vehicles, that’s on the VIN plate, but for most classics you’ll have to check the original handbook. Some may never have recommended one, but on classics you should be OK provided the maximum allowed weight of the trailer does not exceed the unladen weight of the car. On newer trailers, the maximum allowed weight should be stated on the frame
  • Although you can legally tow the kerbweight of your car, it’s recommended that the actual weight you tow does not exceed 85 per cent of the towing vehicle’s unladen weight. We’d actually go one further than this and advise that you don’t haul much more than 75 per cent of your permitted towing limit to ensure reliability, especially on older classics that may be a tad worn or where a bespoke tow bar has been fitted to a vehicle not intended for towing
  • Aim to have the trailer nose heavy, ideally such that you can barely lift it yourself at the nose. Four-wheel trailers, incidentally, may be towed better by front-wheel drive vehicles: they generally balance their weight on their own wheels and over uneven surfaces may sometimes tend to lift the back of the tow car, so the towing vehicle needs as much of its own weight as possible over the driven wheels. Don’t exceed the load capacity of the tyres: eight-ply ‘van’ tyres are ideal and less prone to snaking
  • Check that your driving licence covers you, too: if you passed your test after 1/1/1997 you cannot legally tow a trailer whose maximum allowed weight exceeds the unladen weight of the towcar, or a combination of which the maximum allowed (not actual) weight exceeds 3.5 tonnes, without passing a further test
  • There are numerous other pitfalls for the unwary, such as the requirement for trailers over 750kg built since 1968 to have brakes on all wheels. Braked trailers must also have a securely attached breakaway cable that operates the brakes if the main coupling becomes detached while unbraked trailers must be marked with year of manufacture and maximum gross weight - though there are also waivers for the specific purpose of towing a broken down vehicle to a place of safety
  • Just to be on the safe side, run it past your insurance company to make sure you’re covered. Advice can be found on http://www.dvla.gov.uk and www.dft.gov.uk; you can even take a course on legal and practical requirements with http://www.towing-solutions.co.uk


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