TOWING THE LINE
When Malcolm and I bought our first motorhome some 5 years ago, it was on the basis that we liked the idea of following the open road and laying our heads where the fancy took us, without the hassle of pitching up a caravan, sorting out all the waterworks etc and spending a few hours arguing with a recalcitrant awning. Having bought the van, however, and I might say being delighted with it, there was a certain element of envy when the chap in the caravan next door hopped into his car early doors and shot off for the morning paper.
Nothing daunted by this we decided to make full use of a) the bikes and b) the bus passes. This has worked very well by and large but we must admit that there are times when we would dearly love an element of extra mobility. Hence we have spent many an hour considering whether it would be worthwhile to tow a car and if so whether this should be on a trailer or an A frame. In fact, we have just traded in my Mini for a Fiat 500 with a view to going down the A frame route.
In this series of articles we therefore seek to outline the advantages, legalities and practicalities of towing on a trailer, towing on an A frame or simply using other means of transport – including hiring a car when the occasion demands. Whilst we have made every effort to ensure that the information which follows is complete and accurate we cannot guarantee this so you will need to make your own judgement when making a decision.
TOWING ON A TRAILER
This must be the most straightforward of all methods of taking your car with you without actually driving it in addition to the motorhome. The main downside, as far as we can see, is that having reached your destination you then have to find space to park a car and a trailer – not easy on a lot of camping sites. In addition, it will either need more space at home to store your trailer as well as car and motorhome, or if you keep it in storage you will face a similar potential dilemma. Other than that it would seem this is a viable proposition, provided you take account of the relevant legislation surrounding towing.
TOWING WITH AN A FRAME
The idea of towing with an A frame suggests the benefits of towing your car without the disadvantages of towing on a trailer, as outlined above. You simply attach the car via an A frame, tow it with you, and on arrival dismantle the A frame and store it in the boot of your car. Easy peasy you might say, and so it may be, but there has been much confusion around the legalities of towing by this means, which we can hopefully address in these pages.
IS IT WORTH IT?
The costs of buying a trailer seem to be similar to that of having an A frame fitted. Your trailer can go with you whenever you change your car or van but that may or may not be the case with an A frame. If you change your tow car there will be some cost involved in either a new A frame or the re-fitting of your old one. We have had one quote for fitting an A frame and at an average taxi fare of, say, £10 we could do 200 journeys, so maybe if you only need transport for the odd day taxis might be a better option.
When it comes to having independent transport you could always get the wind in your hair and get on your bike. If that sounds a bit too energetic for you then an electric bike may be for you. I have recently acquired one and I must say it is excellent - I could never have managed a 25-mile bike ride, up hill and down dale, on my old Claud Butler! But if even that sounds too energetic for you then how about a motorcycle or scooter? These can be carried on a rack at the back of your van, just like the pedal variety, although your clothing requirements may be somewhat different.
On a recent stay at Waterfoot Park, Ullswater, Malcolm and I hired a Renault Twizzy for the afternoon and that was great fun It is an electric car, rather like a bike with doors and a roof. Its not exactly weatherproof when the wind and rain are doing their usual Lake District thing, but in fine weather they would be great. I should also add that the site manager made me get into the back seat before we hired it just to make sure I could do it. I managed it but my dicky hip was not best pleased.
However, it was when we went to the NEC in October that Malcolm saw what he considered to be the dream answer – a lovely classic car being towed behind a motorhome – preferably a Morgan 3-wheeler for Malcolm – about as difficult for me to get into as a Renault Twizzy I reckon.
THE LEGAL ISSUES
There is much talk about the legalities of towing on an A frame in the EU so perhaps we should consider this here. The British government considers that, when you attach your car to a motorhome by means of an A frame the car becomes a trailer and is thus subject to the legislation relevant to trailers. We will be looking into those requirements in the next issue of your magazine, but it would be as well to add here that the Department for Transport (DfT) has issued an Information sheet entitled ‘A-Frames and Dollies’ and in that publication they say that the international law governing the use of A frames in EU countries is the Vienna Convention. This legislation was drawn up to make travelling in foreign countries easier by requiring those countries who adhere to it to recognise as legal a vehicle which is legal in its own country. However, the DfT says that it ‘cannot comment on the interpretation of the legislation by other countries and whether they permit or prohibit the use of A-frames in their national traffic’. I suppose that means users may have to continue to run the gauntlet when travelling in Spain. In any event, I would say that any comments on the subject within this magazine are not endorsed by ATOC but are the views of that author and should be viewed in that light.
Finally, if we want to get clued up on the pros and cons a bit further a good place to start is by asking those who have been there, done it and got the T shirt, so here are 2 articles submitted by members about their experiences of towing.
A Frame V Trailer, our experience.
We purchased our first motorhome in 2005 and soon discovered we needed a form of transport to get out and about away from the campsite. Having been caravaners we were used to having a car to tour the area. Bikes and buses were not an option at that time. We tried going out in the motorhome but soon found parking and access was a big problem.
We decided an A frame would be the best option. I did a lot of research on A Frames, but 11 years ago, they were relatively new to the UK. We contacted a manufacturer/fitter who convinced us we should go for a Smart car on an unbraked A frame. We arranged the fitting and that was it. We did not know then and can’t say if the current trailer rules regarding brakes on a trailer were in force at that time. The fitter/supplier said we did not need brakes as the car was under 750kg. We towed that Smart car for over 10,000 miles all over Europe including Spain over a 2-year period. During that period, we had no problems whatsoever, legal, mechanical or otherwise. We did have lots of strange looks, crowds of men gathering around the vehicle and crawling underneath to see how it worked especially in Italy.
Under today’s rules that set up would be totally illegal for the following reasons.
If a trailer has brakes, then they must work. Ours had no overrun braking system as fitted to caravans and larger trailers. It depended on the motorhome brakes to stop both vehicles.
If the trailers maximum gross weight exceeds 750kg it must have brakes. We were told it was ok as the unladen weight was under 750kg when it should have been maximum vehicle weight. The Smart was around 900kg max weight.
So what we had then would be definitely illegal today in both UK and EU.
From the Smart we moved on to a braked A frame (overrun brakes) on various cars, Matiz, Smart, Jazz, Fiat 500 and now we are back on our third Smart car. You may have read in a recent copy of MMM regarding towing of Smart cars. The information was simply not accurate. A Smart car can be towed at any speed over any distance as long as it is set up correctly. (contact me directly if you need more info on Smart cars and towing them).
We are now fortunate enough to spend our winters in Spain. Last year we decided to take the Smart car on a trailer to Spain, (at that time we did not have an A frame fitted). We invested in a Smart car specific trailer and we thought that would be ideal. The total weight of the car and trailer was just 1000kg which was my maximum towing weight on the Arapaho. The van towed the car and trailer very well, it’s a 3 ltr auto with a remap. The fuel consumption with the trailer on was about 1mpg less. I never felt entirely happy about towing the car on the trailer, I was concerned about the trailer which had only 2 wheels on the ground, rather than the 4 wheels of the car. Pulling a ton load on a single axle, two-wheel trailer with the risk of a blowout (how many boat trailers do you see at the side of the motorway with punctures?)
I feel much safer with a 4-wheel trailer/car, with a wheel at each corner on the ground. The process of loading the car onto the trailer and securing it on all 4 corners took a while. A lot longer than fixing up an A Frame. When we arrived on site it became a problem of storage, 8.73 mtr van plus bike rack, car and trailer. Additional storage area had to be found for the trailer, sometimes at additional cost.
So after a year with the trailer we have decided to go back to an A Frame. The cost between a purpose made trailer and an A frame can be very similar, when compared with an overrun braking system, or you can go with modern technology with the more expensive LNB Towbar system. (Others are available). See elsewhere in this issue for the article covering the fitting to our Smart car.
Why LNB? The system uses a lightweight A Frame and hydraulics to operate the brakes, rather than a cable system which makes the braking more efficient and reliable. The fitment is very neat with no bars or brackets protruding from the front of the car. A warning light on the dashboard of the motorhome tells you when the brakes are operating or if there is a problem with the car brakes. LNB are local to me being only 30 miles away.
I am very pleased with the system and the standard of work. (No I didn’t get a discount for a plug). See the LNB advert in this magazine or visit their website at www.lnbtowbars.co.uk
In mid-November June and I set off to again to Spain with our Smart on an A Frame.
A Frames are not illegal in Spain or any other country!
The law which does not allow their use, or that of tow ropes, tow chains or tow poles etc. states that one motor vehicle cannot be used to tow another motor vehicle, unless you are an authorised recovery agent (called Grua in Spain). Towing dollies are a definite no no, even in the UK.
You will also read elsewhere in the magazine a statement referring to the Vienna convention and recognition of legality in the country of origin. In the UK the towed car is recognised as a ‘trailer’. This is what I will base my discussion on with the local police, should we get stopped on our journey to Spain and during our time in Spain. The language may be a problem; the understanding of the Vienna Agreement may be a problem. Hopefully we will not have to put it to the test!
Most A Frame suppliers will provide you with a number of documents in various languages quoting the car is now recognised as a trailer in the UK and quotes the Vienna Agreement. Are they worth the paper they are printed on? No I doubt it, but it may help convince a traffic officer somewhere.
At the end of the day I am towing a car behind another motor vehicle.
I will load the car up with June’s trike, chairs and other bits and pieces to strengthen the trailer use. Fortunately, June can drive so if we are forced to unhitch the car/trailer we can continue with our journey.
After 10 years of A Frame use and 1 year of trailer use I still feel the A Frame is the better option all round, Spain is the only country currently where there may be an issue. The same law applies in France and Portugal, they do not choose to enforce it, currently. It’s still a very grey area in the UK, but its use is accepted. There really needs a change in legislation or a court case to bring the matter into the open and a decision made that states A frames are legal or illegal in the UK, which of course would still leave the same situation in some parts the EU. After Brexit, who knows what’s going to happen anyway?
Our insurance companies for the motorhome and car are both aware that we tow a car on an A Frame and don’t have any issues with it. (Unlike the A bar/nudge bar I fitted recently only to find out if I left that in place my insurance would not be valid). I would advise anyone who changes anything on their motorhome or car to make it a non- standard construction to advise their insurers of the modification. Whichever method of towing you go for you should also make sure you do not exceed your MGVW (motorhome weight fully laden plus car trailer or car plus A Frame. I see lots of motorhomes towing cars on or off trailers in excess of their maximum permissible weights. Overweight set up = no insurance.
I will follow this article up in the Spring with another article on our experiences in Spain, with the A Frame. Hopefully it will be a very short article, but I don’t wish to tempt fate yet!
June and Dennis Paul
TOWING OUR SMART CAR
My second wife introduced me to the joys of motorhoming in 2007. We bought an Autocruise Starspirit which was a beautifully built and well designed rear lounge van for 2. As I have always had access to a car I was keen to tow something. At that time, and probably not much has changed today, it wasn't clear which EU countries allowed towing on an A frame and so we bought a Smart car and a dedicated Smart car trailer.
We took this outfit successfully to Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia and Greece. Along the way we encountered a few problems. For example, a flat tyre half way down a mountain road in France meant that the tow truck had to load our motorhome on the back and attach our trailer to the rear. On a couple of occasions a (wrong) narrow road or a tight access in a campsite meant we had to detach the trailer in order to turn around. This latter event happened in pouring rain and gave the occupants of all the other motorhomes and caravans about 30 minutes of entertainment! We were flashed and hooted at on a motorway in Belgium and when we pulled in discovered that the fixings of one of the jack stands had vibrated loose so that it was digging into the road and making sparks. This was a lesson for the future.
Our scariest moment came when we were leaving a Greek ferry in Igoumenitsa. We had driven on to this ferry and parked up next to a line of caravans. When we came to leave, the crew decided to reverse us down this line of vans and around a corner in order to face the off ramp. I could see the car on the trailer through our rear window and flinched every time it moved near the vans or side of the ship, until my wife told me to stop looking in the mirror and just take instructions from the crewman who was leaning on our bonnet and indicating left or right. This trip is a great journey, by the way, as you camp on the ferry with an electric plug in and can use everything in the van apart from gas, obviously. We boarded in Ancona, about half way down the Italian Adriatic coast, and spent one night on board until we got to mainland Greece. One other problem with towing in Greece was that the staff on the new toll motorways didn't know how to assess us, counted axles and charged us more for our toll than a coach.
In conclusion, there are clearly pros and cons with towing. The pros are obvious with an ability to go and visit places without the problems of parking a large vehicle, resupply from a local shop or supermarket is easier and the car also provides space to pack some of those things that inevitably end up loose in the motorhome. The cons are extra fuel consumption, increased costs on ferries and the extra difficulty of towing, manoeuvring and parking a trailer on site. An A frame dispenses with the parking difficulty.
We replaced our Starspirit with a Laika A class with drop down bed over the cab when the boss got fed up making a bed every night. After a couple of years we became tired of having to climb in and out of bed so we changed to a caravan with a fixed bed. A whole different towing experience! Although the caravan provided luxurious accommodation on site and we had the benefit of the tow car for touring and provisions, the extra palaver involved in setting up and leaving camp finally persuaded us to go back to a motorhome. We now have a Tracker RB with a fixed island bed so we're looking forward to the best combination of ease of touring with a motorhome and the convenience of the caravan like accommodation.
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