Towbar 101

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few months ago, I mentioned that my new car had been delivered, complete with factory-fitted towbar (incidentally, the instructions to release/retract it are in the handbook, just not under any index heading that might help, such as “towbar”).

Since then, I’ve been having fun with my new 4-bike carrier on the back of the Tig’ (no more piggyback carriers scratching the bikes and the car…) but I did go through a pretty steep learning curve, so I though this post might help other “towing virgins” (except perhaps caravanners).

Firstly, I should clear up that I have no aversion to caravanning (well, actually, I do – particularly when trundling along  behind them on single carriageway roads on a summer Saturday – but that’s not the point here) however, I understand that caravans need extra electricity or something (for fridges, etc.). I was advised at order time that the factory-fit towbar on my car has “single electrics” and so that might be a consideration for those who use a caravan (sadly at least one Skoda-driving-caravan-owner was not given the same advice).  As I have no intention of joining the Caravan Club any time this side of… ever… that’s not a big issue for me but I appreciate that for many it would be…

A trailer might be useful sometimes though, and I already mentioned that my use of the towbar is to carry several bikes on the back of the car (the roof would be another option – but more expensive, and more difficult to lift them on/off).

One thing I quickly found was that, in common with many older trailers, my carrier had a UK-style 7-pin “N type” plug (cf. the 7-pin “S type” used for caravan wiring) and that my car had a 13-pin Euro socket (albeit with just 10 live pins). Halfords sell a suitable converter for under fifteen quid and that did the trick nicely, although I struggled to get it on the first time, it’s become easier over time (full marks to the guys in Halfords, Wellingborough, who were really helpful).  Unfortunately I can’t leave it on the car when not in use as it prevents me from retracting the towbar (no great shakes really).  Those who do have a full set of electrics and who need to tow a house on wheels might find a “spider” adapter useful to split the 13-pin Euro connection into two 7 pin connections (one N and one S, confusingly known as 12N and 12S!).

I found it interesting that the wiring on my car is intelligent enough to disable the rear parking sensors (the display shows a picture of something being towed) and will also sound the alarm if disconnected when the car is locked.  It should also disable the vehicle’s fog lights in preference to the trailer/trailer board’s lights, although I haven’t tested that.  Whilst I sometimes wonder if it might have been less expensive to have an after-market towbar, features like this are a useful side-effect of using a factory-fitted model.

Of course, towing something generally obscures the rear registration plate so I needed to get an extra one (the dealer who supplied the car was happy to oblige there – thanks to Citygate Volkswagen’s fleet sale department) but I needed to drill holes in the plate to mount it on my bike rack.  A few tips that might help here (I picked most of these up from a forum for Vauxhall Vectra enthusiasts):

  1. Start with a small drill.
  2. Use a slow speed (turn town the speed if your drill is variable).
  3. Leave the protective plastic cover on (I started from the front side) until the holes have been made.
  4. Drill through onto a block of wood.

Finally, I got a bit nervous with the bikes on the carrier using just the supplied straps (they are OK for a few miles but I’d be concerned using them for long distance at motorway speeds).  I picked up a 5m ratchet strap (again, from Halfords) and I use this for extra security.  For those who aren’t used to ratchet straps, they can be difficult to get used to but there is a great video on YouTube that might help.

So that’s my top tips for towbar newbies. It’s not complicated, but there was definitely a learning curve involved. If you’ve any tips to add, please leave a comment, although I can’t really support people with their towing questions (especially when it comes to caravans!).

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