RV 101: Towing a Car with a Motorhome

Most motorhomes that are large enough to full-time in are also large enough to require an additional means of transportation.  You can’t pull a 40 foot motorhome up to Kohl’s or visit the downtown area of whatever city you’re near.  Ok, maybe you could… but you shouldn’t.

Part of our reasoning for choosing to go with a motorhome over a towable RV was the fact that we already had a vehicle that was capable of being flat towed.  Continue reading to learn more about what that means!

Getting your towed vehicle (or “toad”) ready to actually be towed isn’t exactly a simple process.  This post will shed some light on the topic and the process of choosing and prepping a toad.

 

Decision Time: Four down or dolly?

The two most common ways to tow a vehicle are via a dolly and flat towing (or “four down” towing).  Dollies work with most vehicles (but not AWD or RWD automatics, I believe) but require you to store the dolly when you arrive at your destination.  You also have to drive up onto it and possibly store additional ramps to make that possible.

A Car Dolly, courtesy of Camping World’s website (I guess they are good for something after all)

Flat towing / four down towing does not require a dolly – all four wheels are on the ground and rotate freely.  However, flat towing also has limitations – only certain cars with automatic transmissions can be flat towed (most vehicles with manual transmissions can be flat towed).  The main advantage to flat towing (in our opinion) is skipping the dolly.  Who wants to store that thing? There certainly hasn’t been any extra room for a big dolly at any of the campsites we’ve had, and most places are very strict on where you can park things. Flat towing has its own set of required equipment, though.

Note that you cannot reverse when you’re flat towing.  The tow bar does not function properly and you can break it!  darn it, physics!  I believe you can reverse with some dollies, but I may be wrong.

The best way to know if your vehicle can be flat towed would be to check the owner’s manual.  The second best way would be to check out the towing/dinghy guide for your vehicle’s model year:

FMCA’s towing guides

Motorhome Magazine’s Dinghy Guides

WILDCARD: You can also tow a flat trailer with a motorhome and put your other vehicle on that.  Some even have room for an ATV or golf cart AND the toad.  But, again, who wants to store that thing when you arrive at your destination?  That’s less than ideal for full-time travel.

*Disclaimer: Your motorhome will have a maximum weight it can tow and also a maximum combined gross vehicle weight (GCVWR).  You must make sure you’re within these limits!

 

Flat Towing Equipment

Tow Bar

Blue Ox Tow Bar

A tow bar connects your dinghy/toad to your motorhome.  It has two arms that extend and retract (covered by black rubber boots) to allow the toad to follow around turns.  It attaches to the motorhome via a 2″ hitch connection and to the toad via base plate tabs (for Blue Ox products at least – I’ve seen other variants out there that differ a good bit).

Base Plate

Base plate, tabs, and wiring connections

A base plate attaches to the frame of your toad.  The installation is pretty complex – you usually have to remove the front bumper/grill assembly and possibly drill some holes in the frame.  That was fun.

Base plates are vehicle specific.  The are bolted (with high-strength thread-locker) and cabled to your toad for extra security.  Silver “tabs” make the actual connection to the tow bar.  The tabs can easily be removed when you’re not towing so you don’t have metal chunks protruding from the front of your car.

 

Supplemental Braking System

Supplemental braking system, power supply, 7 pin to 6 pin connector cable, and safely cables

Most states require a supplemental braking system when your toad is over a certain weight.  Most cars are over that limit, so you pretty much need one of these.

We use a Blue Ox Patriot system.  There are better, fancier, more automated options out there (usually with more complicated installations), but we got a decent deal on our setup from Trudy’s previous owner. This type of system sits in the driver’s footwell, has an arm that attaches to your brake pedal and a “brain” that detects motion.  When the system detects that the motorhome is braking it also applies the brakes in the toad.

These units must have a source of power.  You can feed power from the motorhome to it, or risk a dead battery and plug it into your toad’s cigarette lighter, or you can opt for an alternate solution like we had to.  Read more about our setup below!

There’s also a remote unit that sits up on the dash of the motorhome (powered by a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug) that tells you the current status, whether brakes are being applied, and also allows you to manually apply the brakes via a lever.

The last component of the supplemental braking system is the breakaway switch.  In the image of the front of the Escape above, the pink cable is connected to our breakaway switch (it’s mounted in the grill area and wired back through the firewall to the driver’s seat area).  The other end has a caribiner that you use to connect to something on the motorhome.  If the toad would detach from the motorhome, the cable would be pulled from the breakaway switch and the system would immediately apply the brakes in the toad.

 

Lights

Legally, your toad has to have running lights and turn signals.  There are two main options for this – you can feed the signal from the motorhome to the toad and use the toad’s brake lights or you can add the (kind of dorky) towing lights to the top of the car (I think they’re magnetic).  In order to cut down some on what we have to setup every time we tow we elected to go with the first option.  That’s also the harder one.

In order to feed the signal from the motorhome to the toad’s lights, you have to run new wiring from the 6-pin connector at the front of the vehicle to the rear lights.  This can be tedious but the wiring can usually be hidden under trim pieces after carefully popping them off.

For bulbs, you again have two choices – add additional bulbs to your brake light assemblies or add diodes and reuse your factory bulbs (the diode allows you to feed signal to the bulb from two places – the factory wiring and also the wiring from your motorhome).  We went with the first option, which is also the harder one.

Two bulbs – one fed by the factory wiring, one fed by the new wiring that connects to the motorhome

Cables

Now an easy one –  you have to connect a cable from the 7-pin connection to the 6-pin connection on the toad.  Of course, you have to add the 6-pin connection to the toad and wire it all up first.

Lastly, there are two safety cables that would hold the Escape from rolling away from us if the tow bar would ever break.

Optional: Battery Disconnect

When you tow a vehicle with an automatic transmission you have to leave the transmission in neutral, which means the ignition has to stay in accessory mode.  This means there are auxiliary systems getting power for the duration of the tow.  Also note that the supplemental braking system would normally trigger the factory brake lights (since it’s pushing on the brake pedal).  This is another draw on the toad’s battery.

If you’re towing for several hundred miles or for 2+ days in a row without driving it, you’re risking arriving at your destination with a dead battery in your toad.

To mitigate this risk, a battery disconnect can be installed on your toad.  They are easy to install and it only takes an extra 30 seconds to pop the hood and hit the kill switch.  This turns your vehicle into a zombie toad – it’s totally dead,  but still rolling down the highway with functional tail lights!  It’s a cheap and worthwhile extra step in my opinion.

 

Warning: Double and triple check that you can flat tow your vehicle!

I posted two links to dinghy/toad guides towards the beginning of this post.  Interestingly, one states that the 2012 Escape Limited (our toad) can be towed flat and the other does not  Of course we saw this discrepancy after the Escape was pretty much ready to be towed!

We found out that Ford stopped supporting flat towing midway through the 2012 model year Escape.  Our owner’s manual clearly states that we can flat tow the Escape.  However, apparently some 2012 Escapes have a supplement to the owner’s manual that states that the vehicle should not be flat towed, but we either threw that away or never had it to begin with.

We also found that Ford released a service bulletin about towing the second generation (2008-2012) Escape.  We  lowered the transmission fluid as recommended and follow the steps outlined in the bulletin when towing.

Ford TSB-11-07-15

We’ve read and heard stories about Escape transmissions blowing up due to flat towing, but we haven’t had any issues so far.  Be sure to do extensive research before committing to flat towing!

 

Our Setup

Our toad is a 2012 Ford Escape Limited 4WD.  We were storing Trudy ~1 hour away before we left, so most of the work on the Escape was done at home, without the ability to test it.

To summarize, I:

  • Installed the base plate on the Escape
  • Installed a battery disconnect on the Escape
  • Added 6-pin connector to the front bumper
  • Ran wires from 6-pin back to rear light assemblies
  • Added additional brake lights to rear light assemblies
  • Ran 12v power lead from 6-pin through firewall to female cigarette lighter plug

Like I said above, I did all of that work away from Trudy.  When it was all done and we were finally able to test it, I was relieved to see that everything worked – except for the last item (the 12v lead).

The problem with the lead was actually a problem with Trudy – there was no constant 12 volt fed into the factory 7-pin connector!  I couldn’t find any 12v near the tail end of Trudy to piggyback off of, and I didn’t have the patience to run a new, fused lead from the battery, so we went with option B – having a separate power source (a battery bank) sitting in the passenger seat.  This is only there to supply power to the supplemental braking system.  Using it to power the Patriot for 4-5 hours only reduces the battery by 5%, but we still make sure to keep it fully charged nearly all the time.  It also can be a great way to charge devices when boondocking – as long as you’re able to charge it back up before you have to tow again.

Breakaway cable and 12 volt feed (female cigarette lighter plug) in the driver’s footwell.  The 12v feed is useless!

 

Here are the main components of our towing setup.

Blue Ox Alpha Tow Bar

Blue Ox Patriot Braking System

Blue Ox Base Plate

Blue Ox Bulb and Socket Tail Light Kit

Blue Ox Coiled Cable

Schumacher PSJ-2212 DSR ProSeries 2200 Portable Power Unit

Top Post Battery Master Disconnect Switch

 

How Does it Affect Driving?

Well, you can tell it’s back there.  Acceleration is much slower and some rough roads cause additional swaying and pulling.  But the impact is pretty minor.

Since the car pivots via the tow bar, it follows pretty much right in the motorhome’s tracks.  It doesn’t feel like you’re driving a 60 ft motorhome like you might fear.

 

Summary

The equipment and setup required to flat tow a vehicle is not simple or cheap.  That being said, we’ve had no issues with our setup so far and could not survive without a toad.

The first time we ever towed the Escape more than a few miles was when we actually hit the road.  The first time you pull away with your toad connected to your rig is pretty nerve-wracking, but you get used to it and the process of connecting and disconnecting the toad becomes second nature.

2 Comments

  1. Nice overview. Motorhome.com publishes an annual dingy guide that lists all the vehicles in that year’s production that are flat towable, along with instructions and advice on various tow options. Back copies of previous year’s issues are available on the site as well since few of us buy a new car just to tow behind our motorhome. We tow a 2011 Honda CR-V and found it easier to install a 12v line line from the 7-pin connector to the Honda’s battery to keep it charged during towing. Works very well.
    Interesting observation on Ford’s seeming ambivalence on flat towing the Escape. My hardcopy version of the 2011 CR-V clearly states that the vehicle can be flat towed while an online version of the manual doesn’t contain that section. Honda also removed the flat towing language from their manuals after 2015. RV forums commenters suggest manufactures began removing the flat towing language due to an increasing number of transmission issues due to people not properly following transmission operation and care instructions for flat towing. Flat towing does require extra transmission maintenance- at least on the CR-V.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike! The dinghy guide (and FMCA’s towing guide) are great starting points but it’s important to check with your vehicle’s manufacturer for the final say.

      Thanks for reading!

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