there you are, chuffed at having purchased your dream project car, now
the tricky problem of how to get it back rears its ugly head. Do you drive
it back, tow it or get someone else to do it all for you?
If the car is road legal then the easiest way of getting it home is to
drive it. Obviously you will have sorted out insurance and tax before
hand and it will have a current MOT, but when the car is still a bit of
an unknown there are some pitfalls awaiting the unwary. First of all its
worth taking a small tool kit, preferably with a few spare bits of hose
and wire, just think about the top ten things that go wrong with that
type of car and be prepared. Second thing to consider is taking a can
of fuel, most cars are sold with little or no fuel and running out before
you get to the first petrol station is embarrassing, usually expensive
and potentially dangerous.
Now, if you intend to get to the car on public transport then you have
to fit all this kit in a ruck sack, and the bus driver has the right not
to let you on if you smell of petrol due to a leaky can! A far better
way is to get a mate to give you a lift, that way you also have a potential
rescue vehicle in the case of a breakdown. Even if you have breakdown
cover it can take several hours to get on the road again so its worth
having immediate help on hand.
Whilst on the subject of breakdowns, if you are going to rely on one of
the big breakdown services to get you out of trouble then make sure that
you take out the policy in good time, most wont help you for at least
24hours after the cover is started.
Finally, before driving off you must make sure the car is roadworthy,
remember the daily checks in the Highway Code? It is the drivers legal
responsibility to ensure the car is fit for the journey, including things
like tyres, loose exhaust parts, leaking fluids as well as general condition.
But if the car is
not roadworthy then the only option is to transport it, one way or another.
First lets clear up a few points, just putting a tow rope on is only legal
if the car has tax, MOT and the person behind the wheel is insured, it
also has to be road worthy. If its wheels are on the road then its no
different to driving it, except you are not using the engine. So in most
cases this is a non-starter, suitable for breakdown recovery only.
Next up is the towing dolly, you may have seen these behind recovery trucks.
It is a two wheeled trailer that the front axle of the towed car sits
on, it is very small an light and easy to manoeuvre. But as before, as
the towed car still has one pair of wheels on the ground it must be roadworthy,
so its only good for recovering breakdowns, not picking up rusting projects.
So the only option in this case is to move it with all four wheels off
the road, either on a suitable trailer or on a low loader.
There are now hundreds of companies offering low loader services, usually
for something like 1£ a mile, but check to see if that includes
the return journey too. Most reputable companies do not charge for the
return journey because they will organise another transport for that trip.
Sometimes they struggle to find a suitable load for the return journey
and this can be helpful, just ask for 'back loads' and see if your project
and fill their gap, this is cheaper although you do have to fit into their
schedule to make it work. Before booking, make sure the car is movable
with relative ease and accessible, these companies are on tight schedules
and if they turn up and the car is buried in the middle of a field then
they will have to leave it there, and you will still get charged.
The final option is
to pick it up yourself on a trailer, either renting one or if you do a
lot of projects then buying one can make sense. But as ever there are
Starting at the front, the tow car needs to be capable of handling the
weight behind, obvious but so many people try to get away with using the
family Astra, and fail. If you look in the car handbook it will tell you
the maximum weight of a braked and an un-braked trailer. This is based
on the cars pulling power, its brakes and its ability to go where you
point it. Manufacturers spend many happy hours testing this on steep hills
in hot places like Arizona, checking that the clutch or auto box doesn’t
cook when pulling away repeatedly, checking the brakes don’t fade
on those long down hill twisty bits and checking that any trailer weave
doesn’t force the car off the road. Which is nice.
For most cars the maximum trailer weight will be the same as the cars
kerb weight, or a little less, typically less than 1500kg which would
allow you to tow a 1000kg classic on a 500kg trailer for example. Land
Rovers and some other 4x4s have a low ratio transfer box which can drop
the gearing for pulling away up really steep hills and get excellent engine
braking going down the other side. A Discovery or Classic Range rover
has a braked trailer limit of 3500kg.
One thing that is useful to understand is the difference between gross
vehicle weight (GVW) and gross train weight (GTW). Gross vehicle weight
is the maximum your car can be, including driver and passengers and a
full tank of fuel. The limiting factor is usually the cars suspension
and how it works when its is heavily compressed.
Gross train weight is the maximum that the car and trailer added together
can be. The limiting factor here is usually the brakes an engine/transmission.
If you add up the maximum permitted trailer weight to the gross vehicle
weight you will get a bigger number than the gross train weight, but you
cant do that because then there is a fair chance the brakes and transmission
will disappear in a cloud of smoke. So to tow a trailer at maximum weight,
make sure the tow car is not loaded to the max too. Having said that,
you must put some weight in it to keep the back wheels planted.
The trailer needs
to be capable of carrying the load safely, all trailers made after 1982
need to have a plate stating the maximum weight, but be careful, this
is not the maximum load as it includes the weight of the trailer. Police
can order you to a weigh bridge and if the all up weight of the trailer
and its load is more than the plated weight then you are a criminal.
If you build your own trailer then it still needs to be plated, its up
to you to prove that the weight you choose is reasonable. In most cases
you can go by the axle manufacturers spec as a basis. But avoid the temptation
to use a caravan chassis, they cant take much weight.
Most trailers use over run brakes which have a sliding hitch, as the tow
car slows down, the trailer tries to push forward and forces the brakes
on. The harder the tow car slows, the harder the trailer brakes. One word
of caution; on long descents you may rely on engine braking in order to
stop your brakes fading, but the trailer brakes will still be working
and could over heat. On long down hills pull over occasionally to let
If you have a very light car you may be able to use a light weight un-braked
trailer if the total comes below the limit for the tow car, but this is
very rare. However, you are then relying totally on the stopping power
of the tow car and things can get out of shape more easily.
You can also hit problems if you have a big braked trailer with a light
load because some brakes do not do much until there is enough load to
force the hitch to move, usually this happens on badly maintained trailers
where the hitch slider has become dry.
In fact most trailers have a life of neglect, left in the corner all winter
then dragged out with out a second thought. Maintenance is vital, the
brakes get the worst of it so check the mechanism works properly and lubricate
it correctly, and store it with the hand brake off. The electrics should
be checked, moisture often get into connections and light clusters leading
to unusual lighting displays. Don’t forget to lubricate the hitch
Trailer tyres suffer from neglect horribly, if a trailer is to be left
in one place for a long time then take the load off the tyres, otherwise
a flat spot will set in. All rubber parts get attacked by ozone and ultra-violet
rays, leading to hardening and cracking so check the tyre carefully and
renew if necessary. And check the tyres' load rating is high enough for
the intended job.
Loading up is critical,
the way a car and trailer works is that the tow cars rear axle does all
the steering for the trailer and as such must be properly loaded.
First you must position the car on the trailer so that there is enough
load on the tow hitch to ensure that the back of the tow car is pushed
down rather than being picked off the ground, but don’t over do
it or the front wheels will struggle for grip. The car handbook should
tell you the maximum permissible hitch load, typically somewhere between
50 and 75kg. If your project comes with spares and loose parts then its
usually best to take them out of the project car and stow them in the
Secondly you must make sure the load in the tow car is loaded evenly to
make sure the tyres have even grip front and rear, front wheel drive cars
can be inherently light at the back and so putting a bit of load on the
back seat is usually a good thing as it helps the rear tyres grip.
The project car needs to be securely tied down, normally you should hold
it by the wheels, using proper straps. If you tie the car down by points
on its body then you risk the straps coming loose as the car bounces on
its suspension. Just think how the thing will move if you go over speed
bumps or have to do an emergency stop. If you use ratchet straps, make
sure the ratchet mechanism is not bent. Keep the straps clean, dirt in
the webbing acts like sand paper and weakens the strap, so if it gets
muddy then remember to wash it out at home.
Before moving off
check that the lights work, check the brake, side, indicators, hazard
and fog if fitted. Also check the indicator works when the brake light
is on, sometimes a poor earth connection can lead to these lights working
at half power when they are both on.
Check the tyre pressures, small tyres with a heavy load will need a high
pressure, if you are not sure what it should be, ask the trailer manufacturer.
As soon as it is safe to do so and before you build up speed, check the
brakes work and that the rig draws up in an orderly manner, if anything
feels odd then stop and sort it out.
As the speed builds pay attention to how the rig handles, if the steering
feels too light then you probably have too much weight on the hitch, if
the back of the car weaves then you may have not enough hitch load, or
not enough weight in the back of the tow car. This is all making the grand
assumption that the tow car is fit for use, any wear in the suspension
will be much more noticeable when towing so make sure it's in good order,
and adjust the tyre pressures as recommended in the handbook.
If you have never towed before then take your trailer un-laden to a safe
space and spend at least an hour practising reversing straight and round
into parking bays, try asking your boss if you can use the works car park
after hours, or better still do a training course. Like all skills, it
gets better with practice.
Finally, if you do decide to buy a trailer, you will be amazed how many
new friends you can make once the word gets out.