31/12/2009
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How to equip your new towcar with a towbar

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THE first and most important question is when choosing a towbar for your caravan towcar is: Do you go for a detachable towball or a fixed one? What are the advantages of each? And how do you find out what options you have for your particular vehicle?

There’s a world of towbar choice out there. A world we all largely ignore – until we change our cars. Then, we are suddenly launched into this mystery sea of options with three factors driving us: speed, cost – and the need to be sure we make the right choice.

First: Speed. The last thing you want is a time-gap between getting your super new car and being able to tow with it. So as soon as you decide on your car, find out what your towbar options are, make the decision and book your slot with a towbar specialist to have it fitted.

He’ll have to order your towbar – and at certain times of the year he’s likely to be busier than usual, so it’s wise to book well in advance.

Second: Cost. This one is simple. Fixed towballs cost less than detachable ones. But detachable ones look better than fixed ones… This is the great balancing act between your budget and the neatness of the back of your car.

And there’s the factor of ease and speed of removal and installation of the removable towball. That’s where it becomes less simple… More guidance later.

Third: The right choice. So where do you start? The website of tow equipment manufacturer Witter is as good a place as any. Go to www.witter-towbars.co.uk
You can navigate by vehicle and by option (fixed or detachable). It tells whether or not, for your vehicle, a cut in the bumper is needed.

It identifies whether a bumper shield is available for particular towbars (that’s the protector that prevents hitch making contact with bumper if you slightly misjudge the hitching and unhitching process). And it tells you whether a cycle carrier can be fitted.

The website identifies fitting centres by area. A calendar identifies date and time your towbar can be fitted. And it tells you how much it will cost.

Now go to the website of another major manufacturer to look at more options. Visit www.westfalia-automotive.de and click on “product overview”. Westfalia was the first, in 1987, to produce a detachable towball, which is why it’s a good source of information to help conquer any fears you may have about detachable towballs being less solidly constructed than fixed ones.

And Westfalia’s spring-loaded detachable towball is one of the easiest on the market to click into place and remove, as I discovered when I took a lesson at the Westfalia stand at the NEC caravan show this spring…

Once it is in its spring-loaded position the towball will release itself by a trigger mechanism – a ball bearing makes contact with the inside of the housing and this triggers the spring loading mechanism to release and lock it into place.

The ball bearing springs out into the recess in the housing. It’s a high-tensile spring-loaded bolt, compression rated at 250Nm. Got it? Even if you haven’t, when you learn from Westfalia that it takes 11,000 tonnes of force to remove a detachable towball from its housing you begin to realise that detachable towballs are robustly reliable, impressive pieces of engineering.

Next stop for your caravan towbar

Towbar fitting - the finished jobA specialist towbar fitter. This is where you’ll learn more detail and gain the confidence, from personal advice rather than websites, to finally decide which towbar to choose.

Compiling this guide for you was real-time for Which Caravan. My new Kia Sorento had been ordered. Its predecessor Sorento had done 120,000 miles of impressive towing and it was an easy choice to go for the same no-frills, good-value workhorse vehicle. The towbar choice, though, seemed less straightforward. I could go for a two-bolt flange (what’s that?) or a horizontal detachable or a vertical detachable (more confusion)…

By this time Sorento and I were at accessory specialists Towtal in Stoke-on-Trent and managing director William Bark was unravelling the jargon for me.
For each specific vehicle there are only two or three specified options of towbars that are suitable. That’s one surprise out of the way…

Taking the popular towcar Sorento as example, my options are:

A two-bolt flange: This is a towball bolted onto a Witter towbar with, yes, two bolts on a mounting bracket called a flange. The standard towball gives insufficient clearance between towball and bumper to accommodate a standard AL-KO stabiliser hitch, so you need to upgrade to an AL-KO ball. Add £28. Total cost including that upgrade and fitting: about £195.
This unit is suitable for fitting a two-cycle rack (£22.50) or a three-cycle rack (£27.50).

A swan neck: Literally a ball mounted on a curved base. It looks neater than the two-bolt flange and William says it’s a popular option for caravanners who don’t want to go to the expense of a detachable option. But it’s more expensive than a two-bolt flange.

A detachable: The neatest option. There are two choices for most vehicles including the Sorento. The first is a horizontal detachable type, on which the receiver (into which the towball fits) is visible.

The second is a vertical detachable type. This is completely hidden under the bumper. Expect to pay around £330 for the bar plus £60 to £140 for the electrical fittings.

This electrical fittings figure depends on the car. Some (notably Saabs and Volvos) are pre-wired, so there is less electrical work to do, so obviously less cost.

Then, within the detachables bracket, there are lockables and non-lockables…
A non-lockable towbar (it simply swings and hooks into position), as its name implies, could be stolen.

So you have to remember to remove it whenever you’re not towing. There is virtually no difference in cost. But in many cases you don’t get the choice, because each type is vehicle-specific…

Choose your towcar towbar time!

By this time my mind was almost made up. Do I splash out on an invisible vertical unit that keeps the tail of my shiny new Sorento in pristine shape? The downside is that each time I tow I have to get the towball out of the luggage area and fix it on. At night. In the rain.

Or do I go for the cheaper, basic two-bolt flange option, and know that every time I tow my towball is ready to work with no action needed on my part?

Cost apart, as a frequent, all-weathers, year-round tower, the full-time, two-bolt flange option seemed the more practical. Detachable towballs, though, are by far the better choice if vehicle appearance is paramount to you and if you don’t tow so often as I do.

The towbar fitting

Sorento and fitter David Wilkinson meet up in Towtal’s workshop and he is finding the easiest route for the wiring to travel from front to back of the vehicle as I take a lesson in how it’s done…

“On this car it’s easiest to trace the line of the brake pipes to take the feed for the 12volt supply to the engine compartment,” he says.

It takes about three hours to turn this model into a towcar; some vehicles require more work, some less, David is explaining to me.

He warns me that, on some, including the Sorento, the entire luggage area side and base panels have to be removed. Don’t be horrified at the apparent dismantling of your beautiful new car, it all goes back together; I’d have been none the wiser had I not watched it happen!

2011 update: current towbar equipment for modern cars

Towbar info for these top towcars:

Audi A4 Avant towbar facts <click here>
BMW 3 Series Touring towbar facts <click here>
Citröen C5 Tourer towbar facts <click here>
Ford S-Max towbar facts <click here>
Hyundai ix35 towbar facts <click here>
Kia Sorento towbar facts <click here>
Land Rover Discovery towbar facts <click here>
Nissan X-Trail towbar facts <click here>
Peugeot 3008 towbar facts <click here>
Skoda Superb Estate towbar facts <click here>
Volvo V70 D5 towbar facts <click here>


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