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Trailer Buyer's Guide

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by Bruce Caldwell   More from Author

Great trailer buying tips.


Finding your next classic car project can be a lot of fun, but getting it home can be a challenge. Many great deals are for non-running cars. You can always pay a professional tow company to retrieve your next diamond in the rough, but it’s much more convenient if you have your own car trailer. A single trip from a farmer’s field to your garage doesn’t justify a trailer purchase, but over the course of a restoration project you’ll find dozens of uses for a trailer. And, as a trailer owner you’re bound to expand your circle of trailer-less friends.


Types Of Trailers

Car trailers come in a wide variety of styles and shapes, but for space and simplicity we’ll just cover the ones most relevant to the average automotive enthusiast.

An open bed, bumper/receiver hitch-style car hauler will best serve most first-time car trailer owners. An open-bed trailer with a wooden deck is the most common, least expensive tandem axle trailer (avoid single axle car trailers). Full decks make them excellent for non-automotive uses. That increases their functionality, and makes them easier to justify financially.

Treated wooden decks are versatile. They handle abuse well, and temporary blocks (as well as other items/structures) can easily be attached. Trailers with side stake pockets can be adapted for landscaping/remodeling tasks.

Metal decks are neater, and easier to clean or degrease. Heavy car parts slide easier on metal decks. Aluminum decks look good and are easy to maintain. They weigh less than steel, which lowers the overall trailer weight.

There are trailers that are totally made of aluminum. They cost substantially more than steel trailers. Their lighter weight saves fuel when towing empty, and allows heavier vehicles to be carried. It’s the combined weight of the trailer and its cargo (GTW, gross trailer weight) that counts.

A tilt-bed trailer is a plus for loading low cars and not having to deal with ramps. A trailer with a rollback bed is even nicer, but much costlier. Some trailers have the last couple feet of bed on a slant. This design is known as a beavertail or dovetail bed. The slant makes loading and unloading easier.

An enclosed trailer is the easiest loading of all, since the fold-down rear door doubles as a ramp. Rear doors are quite heavy, so power doors are a big bonus. Non-power doors usually have some type of spring assist.

An enclosed trailer can weigh substantially more than an open trailer, so keep that in mind relative to your truck’s towing capabilities. Protection from the elements and their added security make enclosed trailers a good choice for only a couple thousand dollars more than similar-size open trailers.


Desirable Features

Of particular importance when considering a trailer are the following items: Deck material, deck height, deck length, load capacity, ramps, and brakes.

The least expensive open trailers have wood decks. A steel deck is better and an aluminum deck is even better, although aluminum trailers are much more costly. Trailers with just two tire tracks and an open center are fine for cars, but lack flexibility for non-automotive uses.
Ramps for open trailers vary in design and length. Longer ramps are better for low cars. Solid ramps are easier to roll a non-running car up. Battery-powered, 12-volt winches are inexpensive and great loading aids. A winch with a remote control is best.
A good trailer has four-wheel electric brakes. Electric brakes are better than surge brakes. Some cheap trailers only have brakes on one axle. Many states mandate four-wheel brakes. Trailer-specific wheels and tires are better than passenger car wheels and tires.
Getting in and out of the car while loading can be a problem, especially with low cars. A hinged or removable left fender will give added clearance. On enclosed trailers, a left side door is a welcome feature.

A low deck height is desirable for car trailers. It makes towing easier, because the overall center of gravity is lower. A low deck usually involves more expensive dropped axles.

Deck length is a key consideration. Common car trailer lengths vary from 14-24 feet, usually in two-foot increments. Enclosed trailers can be much longer. A 16-foot trailer is an excellent compromise between accommodating most cars, and not being unwieldy to tow. Flatbed trailers are most commonly 16-20 feet long, and enclosed trailers are most apt to fall in the range of 20-24 feet.

More important than length is the total load capacity. Load capacity is based on axle ratings. The two most common, consumer-style car trailer axles are 3,500-pound and 5,000-pound. That equals capacities of 7,000 and 10,000 pounds. Capacities go up for larger, more heavy-duty trailers.

In order to determine which capacity you need, you must know the weight of the empty trailer. An average flatbed trailer weighs around 2,000 pounds. It’s best to have a margin for error. A 7,000-pound trailer will handle most cars, but a 10,000-pound capacity is nice to have.


New Versus Used

There’s a lot of competition among trailer manufacturers, which means new-trailer prices can be quite attractive. If all you need is a basic hauler, it’s hard to beat the cost of a new, mass-produced trailer.

A downside to the least expensive new trailers is that many are built as loss leaders. That is, they have the minimum features necessary to compete for customers who are strictly shopping prices. Once you get to the sales lot, the staff will surely point out numerous upgrades. The challenge is to separate the upgrades you truly need, versus those that would simply be nice to have.

Even if you’re looking to buy a used trailer, it’s a good idea to shop a couple new trailer outlets. Look at what they have to offer. Take notes on what the upgrades are, and how much they cost. When used trailer shopping, you may find upgraded ones priced only slightly higher than base trailers.

Two big advantages to new trailers are: knowing exactly how the trailer was used, and having some type of limited warranty. With a used trailer you have no idea of what crazy abuse might have been visited on it. You can get a general idea by the trailer’s appearance, but it’s tough to tell how overloaded it might have been, or what torturous roads it may have traveled.

Price is the biggest advantage of buying used. It seems like the best deals are on used, enclosed trailers. Open bed trailers hit a plateau where their functionality maintains prices, but enclosed trailers have more room for depreciation. We’ve seen lots of barely used enclosed trailers priced at only slightly more than deluxe open bed units. An enclosed trailer is potentially a bigger spousal eyesore, which can exacerbate the push to sell it. The added weight of an enclosed trailer may be more than the towing capacity of the seller’s truck, and rather than buy a bigger truck they opt for a smaller, lighter trailer.


Trailer Safety 

Safety is paramount. Never compromise safety for saving a couple bucks or a few minutes. Tires, lug nuts, brakes, and all hitch components should be checked before every trip. Even though fasteners may appear fine, the stresses of trailering can loosen them. Commercial truckers constantly inspect their rigs–you should too. Besides endangering yourself and any passengers, you don’t want to carelessly damage your prized classic car.

A breakaway emergency braking system is mandatory. Trailers with electric brakes employ a switch that’s operated by an auxiliary battery. A pull-pin hooked to the tow vehicle activates the brakes if the trailer separates from the hitch.

Sturdy safety chains must be used between the trailer and the truck. These chains should be draped loosely beneath the tongue/hitch (to allow turning) in an “X” fashion to keep the tongue off the road if the hitch fails.

Any trailer should have a substantial means of securing the car. Recessed D-rings are a good feature. Tie-down straps or chains are hooked to the rings and the car’s four corners. Chain binders should be used with chains. Cars need to be pulled very tight to eliminate bouncing. After the first hour or so on the road, stop and double check all binders and everything hitch-related. All extraneous cargo needs a secure home.


Hitches

Trailer hitches are classified by tongue weight ratings. The higher the number, the greater tongue weight it can handle. Tongue weight should be about 10-15 percent of the gross trailer weight (GTW). A class III or IV hitch is sufficient for most hobby car trailers. If you don’t have a hitch, consult a hitch specialist to get one suited to your trailer.

It’s important that the trailer tongue be parallel to the road. There are adjustable hitches that are especially useful when towing with a 4x4 truck.


Buying Tips 

Buying a car trailer is a lot like buying your first collector car. You’re bound to learn a lot during the process that will better prepare you for the second purchase. An attractively priced basic car trailer will handle all your occasional and local trailering needs. If this is all the trailering you do, you might never need anything fancier. If you get serious about entering car shows or travel long distances, you’ll eventually want to upgrade.

Two key elements of a car trailer are the quality of construction, and how well it tracks. Inspect several trailers from different manufacturers. The lowest-priced trailers have to save money somewhere and that can be in materials and construction methods.
A well-designed car trailer is one that tracks effortlessly. A good trailer is almost unnoticeable, but a trailer that wants to control the truck (instead of the other way around) and fights you will quickly exhaust you physically and mentally.

A slick way to drastically reduce the cost of owning a trailer is to buy one with a friend or a couple friends. The reality of how often you actually use a trailer makes sharing pretty practical. Co-owning works best with a basic flatbed trailer (less to damage, etc.), and when the owners live close by each other (fewer logistical problems).

This is a lot to think about; however, once you own a car trailer, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without one.


Whether buying your next project or selling your old one, a sturdy car trailer is necessary for transporting unfinished cars. A nice trailer is also great for attending far-away car shows.


Door clearance is an important consideration when shopping for a car trailer. This stock-height 1955 Chevy has no trouble clearing the trailer’s fenders, but a lowered car could have problems.


Better-optioned trailers have removable or tilt-out left side fenders for enhanced door clearance. This deluxe aluminum trailer has lightweight removable fenders.


Trailer length and total weight capacity are important factors if you plan to haul a long bed classic Chevy pickup. This wooden bed trailer has a mini metal rear beavertail to ease loading and unloading.


Aluminum trailers like this Featherlite model cost substantially more than steel trailers, but they’re rustproof and lighter to tow when empty. Their lighter empty weight allows them to haul heavier cars.


Enclosed trailers have many benefits including security, weather protection, and room for spare equipment. Drop-down rear doors serve as low angle loading ramps that are great for radically lowered cars.


An enclosed trailer has become almost mandatory if you do any racing. Buy an extra length trailer so there’s room for a mini shop in front of the car. This trailer has an oversize door and a large retractable awning.


Open bed trailers with ramps that stow underneath the bed are a handy feature. These steel channel ramps are very strong, but solid aluminum or steel diamond plate ramps are easier for loading non-running cars. Ramp length affects loading/unloading ease.


This deluxe open bed trailer has a full steel diamond plate bed with a rear beavertail. It has recessed swivel D rings and hidden, slide-out loading ramps. It has a substantial front wind/rock shield to protect the front of the car.


If you have the necessary parking space, there are some excellent deals out there on used ramp trucks. The slanted rear portion of the bed is an exaggerated version of a trailer beavertail.

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