As you would imagine, running a campsite I get to see a wide range of vehicles each year with different towbars. Its not only cars towing caravans but occasionally we also have guests with motorhomes towing cars/trailers. I’ve only ever seen fixed towbars fitted to our guest’s motorhomes. However, when it comes to cars I’ve seen a range of fixed, detachable and over recent years retractable towbars. So for this post, I thought I would discuss the different towbar types. This information could be useful for caravan beginners or those upgrading their tow car. I’ll discuss some example tow bars you could consider along with some of the pros and cons of fixed, detachable and retractable towbars. After reading this post you will hopefully be able to decide which type of towbar will be best you based on the features you desire and your budget.
Later in the post, I’ll also discuss how to prepare the new tow ball on your towbar for towing a caravan. If you use your car to tow trailers and caravans you are going to have to get used to cleaning your towball after using the trailer, I’ll discuss why below. As you would imagine, there can be a considerable difference in product and installation costs depending on fixed, detachable and retractable tow bar which needs to be considered. Also, when purchasing a second-hand car with a towbar and towball already fitted you want to get it checked out before you tow a caravan. As strange as it sounds, some towbars and towballs are not actually suitable for towing!
Introduction to Towbars and Towballs
As I’ve stated above, there are three main categories of towbar, they are either fixed, detachable or retractable. However, within those categories, there are further options. For instance, you can have a bolt-on towball or a swan neck towball. Furthermore, there are manually retractable and electric motorised retractable towballs. I’ve noticed more guests over the last few years arriving with motorised retractable towballs which are the most ‘fancy’ option available.
A typical example of a fixed swan neck towbar assembly for a popular tow car the Nissan Qashqai: Image – Amazon
However, don’t think motorised retractable towballs are the reserve of only top-end BMWs and Range Rovers. I have one guest who recently purchased a Ford Kuga and they were able to choose an electronic retractable towball option. Anyway, to start off this post and provide a general overview of the different types of towbar/towballs available I’ve included the video below from a popular towbar manufacturer Brink:
When a Towbar/Towball is Not Suitable for Towing
I wanted to include the video from Brink above because within just over 2 minutes it demonstrates the different towbar options available. However, the video also discusses something very important, when a towbar is not actually suitable/capable of towing. If you are purchasing a second-hand car and you see what looks like a towbar on the back don’t presume its suitable for towing. It may very well be a ‘bike carrier towbar‘. This type of towbar has no rated towing capacity. Therefore, if the car its self is even actually capable of towing the bike carrier towbar would need to be removed and replaced with a ‘proper’ towbar before you pull a caravan/trailer.
Fixed Towbar Pro and Cons
The most affordable option is that of a fixed towbar available with either a bolt-on/flange tow ball or swan neck. Besides being the cheapest option there is another benefit of fixed towbars over detachable or retractable options, simplicity. With detachable towbars, there are spring clips/pins to secure them into position. With retractable tow bars, there are hinges and even electric motors. The point is, with a fixed towbar as long as the bolts/welding is strong and in a good condition, there are no other components which could potentially fail or seize up.
In terms of the downsides with fixed towbars, some people do not like how they look. Hence, when their car is not towing a caravan/trailer they feel the towbar ruins the aesthetics of the car. To some, this may be trivial. However, with a car being the second biggest purchase most people make, I think its a reasonable concern. However, there is actually another downside to fixed towbars besides how they look and that’s ergonomics.
Even if you don’t mind how a fixed towbar looks on your car, there is another potential issue: Image – Amazon
The Biggest Problem with Fixed Towbars
Ergonomics covers how well something is designed for human use. In other words, how efficiently and safely can a person interact with an object. While a fixed towbar performs perfectly well as a device for towing, its ergonomic issues are present when its not in use. We have a fixed towbar on our Nissan X-Trail. I do quite a bit of DIY, therefore I’ll often take the car and collect heavy bags of cement etc and load them into the back of the car. The number of times I’ve banged my shins/knees in the fixed towbar is countless. Now, you may not be into DIY, however, the same issue with a fixed towbar is true when it comes to loading shopping into the back of the car. Therefore, even if you don’t mind how a fixed towbar looks on your car. You may want to think about how it will impact your use of the car when its not towing your caravan/trailer.
Bolt-on/Flange Towbars or Swan Neck Towbars?
If you still wish to choose the fixed towbar option the next decision you have to make is whether you want to go for a bolt-on/flange fitment or a swan neck towball? Well, bolt-on/flange mounted towbars are generally considered by some to be the ‘ugly’ option as more of the components are on display. A fixed swan neck towbar is considered the more ‘discrete’ option. However, as discussed above, if vehicle aesthetics is really a concern for you, your probably better off going with a detachable or retractable tow bar.
Some people consider a bolt-on towball the ugliest option: Image – Amazon
Something that is worth noting is that with some short-neck bolt-on towballs there could be an issue with the caravan stabiliser hitch coupling up properly. With a swan neck, this issue is not present. However, there is an advantage of a bolt-on towball as I discuss in my caravan tips post as you can fit a bumper protector plate:
A typical example of a bolt-on towball bumper protector plate with fitment brackets for 7-pin (trailer) and 13-pin (caravan) electrics: Image – Amazon
Now, arguably fitting a bumper protector plate with a bolt-on towball makes an ‘ugly’ towbar even uglier. That’s obviously subjective, but it does serve a purpose. We have a bumper protector plate fitted to our bolt-on towbar. When we are not using our tow car for the caravan I’ll often have a trailer on the back, going to the local recycling centre (tip) for instance. As I pull the trailer onto the cars tow hitch by hand, the bumper protector just makes sure I don’t accidentally damage the car.
Whether a bolt-on or swan neck fixed towbar is the best option for your car will often depend on the rear bumper design. With a bolt-on towbar rear bumper modifications, potentially even cutting could be required. With a swan neck towbar its less likely that the cars rear bumper would need to be cut/modified. If you wanted to remove the towbar before selling the car in the future this could influence your choice.
Detachable Towbar Pros and Cons
If vehicle aesthetics are a concern for you or just don’t want to bang your knees/shines against a fixed towbar the next step up is a detachable towbar. There are several manufacturers on the market providing detachable towbars. There is Brink referenced above, however, another popular brand is Witter. Below is a video from the YouTube channel Here We Tow on how a detachable Witter towbar works:
As you can see from the video above with the Witter detachable towbar a spring pin fixes the towbar into the car. The release handle can also be locked so a thief cannot easily steal the detachable towball off your car.
The pros as discussed above with a detachable towbar are that it can be relatively easily detached when towing is not required. So no more banging your legs on a towbar when you’re just going to the shops. Furthermore, other than the towbar fixing point, when the detachable towbar is not fitted the car retains its original appearance.
With regards to the cons of a detachable towbar over a fixed towbar, you are going to have to pay a bit more for the privilege. For a fixed towbar, just for the kit, you will have to spend up to around £200. For a detachable towbar, the price jumps up to between £300-400. Furthermore, while the condition of any type of towbar should be inspected. With a detached towbar, it will require a bit more attention. Making sure the spring fixing/release mechanism is working properly. The manufacturer’s instructions may recommend an occasional spray with WD40/Silicon lubricant.
You will have to potentially pay double the cost of a fixed towbar for a detachable towbar: Image – Amazon
Retractable/Deployable Towbar Pros and Cons
The ‘poshest’ towbar that a car can be fitted with is a retractable/deployable towbar. Some are manually operated, where you have to get on your knees, release it and turn it into position. You can see an example of such a manual deployable towbar in the Brink video at the start of this post. However, the true ‘poshest’ option is to have an electric motorised deployable towbar. Over the last couple of years, we have had a few guests with Land Rover Discoveries with electrically deployable towbars. However, even manufacturers such as Ford are now offering the option of an electronic deployable towbar. Just in case you have never seen one in action, the video below is an example of one fitted to a Land Rover Discovery 5.
The pros of motorised towbar are its discrete appearance when not in use. Now, that’s obviously also true of a detachable towbar. However, with an electric deployable towbar, you don’t have to get down on your knees to set it into position. A deployable towbar is also quicker to position and hide than a detachable towbar. Finally, there is the benefit that you don’t have to find the space in your car to store the towball as is the case with a detachable towbar.
What are the cons? Well, there is a couple, and I’m sure you’re not going to be surprised by the first con, and that’s the price. For a manual retractable towbar, the cost is typically around £500. For an electric motorised retractable towbar, the cost can be quite a bit more. You may be looking at a bill for around £1,000, potentially, even more, depending on the car/brand. The second con is complexity/reliability.
How Reliable are Electric Retractable Towbars?
With added convenience/ease of use for such a discrete towbar with the use of electric motors/hinges, there are more components to potentially fail at some point. As electric retractable towbars are relatively new there’s currently very little information out there on their reliability. However, if you do a quick search on YouTube you will see they can fail. Hence, while an automated retractable towbar is definitely the ‘top of the range’, it would be concerning if you pressed that retract button and nothing happened.
New Towball Preparation and Breakaway Cable Fixing Points
Whether you choose to opt for a fixed, detachable or retractable towbar for your car, once its been fitted you need to condition it before its used to tow your caravan. The towball its self will be covered in paint, and that paint needs to be removed. Why? well, its to do with how modern caravan stabiliser hitches work. They are fitted with friction pads which grip the towball to reduce the occurrence of sway/snaking when you are towing a caravan. The hitch friction pads need a good surface contact to the metal of the towball, and the paint gets in the way. There is also the issue of identifying the correct fixing point for the breakaway cable. Dan Trugian in the video below shows how to prepare/condition a new towball.
Dan discusses an important point in the video above. You need to degrease the towball before you hook up to a caravan. Earlier in the post, I mentioned we use our tow car for trailers as well as our caravan. Well, trailers are not typically fitted with friction pad stabilisers, they have greased tow hitches. Hence, every time I tow one of our trailers it leaves grease on the towball. Therefore, before we tow our caravan we have to degrease the towball every time.
Conclusions on the Best Towbars Available
The best towbar option for you will depend on your budget and how important it is to maintain the original appearance of your car. However, as I’ve stated above, fixed towbars can also be a pain when you are loading the car, as it can bang your legs. While detachable/retractable towbars do provide a discrete appearance their added complexity may potentially cause you issues in the future. However, proper maintenance and servicing will reduce any potential reliability issues. Hence, always read the instructions. While I’m on the topic of towbars you may want to read my post on how to hitch up a caravan. I also have a post on what I think are the best cars for towing a caravan, considering the pros and cons of diesel vs petrol etc.
If you are trying to decide which type of towbar would be best for your car I hope the above information was of some use. I also hope at some point in the near future you consider coming to visit us here at Horton Common caravan site to experience our full serviced pitches and amazing views. 🙂