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Towbars & towballs: all you need to know


Flange, detachable, swan neck, retractable – towbar technology and terminology can be bewildering

A towbar is clearly an essential piece of kit for caravanning but before you have one fitted to your vehicle, it's good to fully understand the anatomy of a towbar.

There's more to it than you might think and there are a few things for you to consider before choosing the style you want.

Photos courtesy of witter-towbars.co.uk

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Anatomy of a towbar

A bike rack mounted on a towbar

A caravan's tow hitch attaches your car's tow ball to the caravan, creating a secure, articulated connection for safe towing. But there's more to the front end of a caravan exterior than just an A-frame and connection.

The towbar has several parts to it. First of all, there is the hidden structure which fits to your car’s chassis, and then attached to this is the towball and its neck.

The tow hitch is the part of your caravan which you lower onto the towball and connects your car and caravan, allowing you to tow.

Types of towbar

There are four main towbar types to suit the different needs of many different caravanners:

  • #1 Flange
  • #2 Swan neck
  • #3 Detachable
  • #4 Retractable

#1 Flange towbars

A fixed flange

The flange towbar is the most common and most cost-effective type of towbar, and is sometimes referred to as a towing bracket. This towbar fits to a flange plate, and has two 24mm bolts holding it in place.

The advantage of this is that you can fit different accessories as well as a standard towball to the flange plate.

For example, you can attach cycle racks, stabilisers, a drop plate, bumper guards, etc. It also means you can use a standard Al-Ko AKS hitch-head stabiliser.

These are fitted on most caravans as standard. If you want to fit a cycle carrier to your car, flange types are suitable towbars. The cycle carriers fix between the flange and the ball.

#2 Swan neck towbars

A detachable swan neck towbar

The swan neck name of this style comes from the shape of the unit as it curves up from the towbar to the ball. This type is less versatile than a flange, in that you can either fit a cycle carrier or tow, but not both.

The swan neck design looks more attractive than the more industrial-looking flange type you commonly see.

#3 Detachable towbars

A detachable flange towbar

The detachable towbar is removable when not in use. The obvious advantage is the appearance of your car is neater and more streamlined than if you were to go for a flange type.

When fitted, the detachable towbar looks rather like a swan neck type. You can remove and fit it in seconds. The mechanism is a twist-and-push fit, with a key-locking system.

You insert the coupling towball mechanism in the top or side, depending on the type. Often, the gear is completely invisible when not in use. Some vehicles come with clip-on panels to hide the towbar mount. Detachable towbars are more expensive than the flange and swan neck types.

#4 Retractable towbars

A detachable swan towbar

The retractable towbar hinges out from a hidden location under your car. You lock it into position when you need it.

Some retractable towbars operate at the press of a button. The ball swings into position ready to tow. This is usually the most expensive option.

Which towbar is for you?

Towing a caravan

Which of the four types of towbar you choose depends on two factors. One is price, the other is aesthetics.

Flange towbars are the least attractive but generally the least expensive. Consider a retractable and removable towbar if appearance is important to you.

It’s simple to refine your choice of towball and towbar to suit your car and the type you need. Start online. The Witter website, witter-towbars.co.uk offers instant info.

Identify your car from a series of drop-down menus. You’ll see a choice of towbars available for that car, together with the fitted price. Towsure offers a similar info service, as does Tow-Trust Towbars.

There are also many towbar fitting companies around Britain; take your pick!

Top tips for towbar care and use

A flange towbar in use

Choosing the right towbar and having it fitted is just the first step – next, you need to look after it and make sure you're using it correctly to avoid wear and tear. Follow these top tips to keep your towbar in pristine condition!

Clean your towball regularly

Keep your towball free of road dirt. It’s recommended you give it a thorough clean with white spirit to remove all grit and dust.

When your towball is new it will be nicely coated with black paint. It may seem strange, but you have to remove this paint, using emery paper, before you tow.

Both of these points will prevent damage to the friction pads inside the hitch-head stabiliser.

Position your towbar correctly

Make sure that the towball does not obscure your car’s number plate – or part of it. If it does, you will need to reposition the number plate.

If you fit a bike rack (possible on a flange type), make sure the rack and the bikes still leave the number plate visible. If not, you will need to fit an extra number plate onto the rear of the bikes and the rack.

If you want to have a towbar fitted to a company car, you need to have permission from the company that owns the car. That might be the lease company.

Hitch your caravan correctly

Carry a small mat so that you don’t get mud on your clothes when you crouch down to lock/unlock your detachable towbar. It’s also useful when you are attaching the caravan’s breakaway cable to the car’s towbar.

Get a plastic alignment tool, available from caravan accessory shops. This costs less than £3 and it is invaluable for when the pin area in the 13-pin socket comes out of alignment. If this happens, the caravan’s socket won’t go into the car’s socket. It’s minor, but the small circular plastic alignment tool sorts it out in seconds.

When you arrive at your pitch, after reversing, pull forward a few centimetres. Doing this extends the tow hitch ram so that, when you unhitch, it won’t extend itself into the bumper of your car!

Remember to lock your removable towball in place – and don’t forget to keep the key somewhere safe.

To get an extra number plate for the caravan (or bike rack), you will need to take your car’s V5 log book to a registered supplier. The V5 shows who owns the vehicle when you have the number plate made.

Save on your towbar with Witter

Get 10% off towbar fitting when you visit witter-towbars.co.uk and apply the discount code at the checkout: CAR2022




Advice given by consultants and contributors within Caravan is designed to be by way of suggestion only and does not negate a reader’s responsibility to obtain professional advice before acting upon it. Any such advice is not a recommendation on behalf of the Editor or publisher and is followed entirely at the reader’s own risk.

Consequently, the Editor, consultants and publisher shall not be responsible for any loss or damage incurred by a reader acting upon such advice.

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