VIDEO: Is this tow vehicle SAFE?!

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November 17, 2009

Recently, we saw a fellow towing a 31-foot Airstream Classic with a minivan.

The Classic is the heaviest Airstream model. The 31-footer weighs about 10,000 pounds.

Does this seem like a wise combination to you?

On a similar note, a friend recently send me a photo of someone towing a 25-foot Airstream with a Saturn sedan. Wow, towing a 25-footer with a Saturn? I am impressed — and concerned.

Without running a numerical analysis, I’m immediately concerned about the stability of that rig. I don’t know the exact wheelbase and weight of the Saturn, but one must wonder how the rig handles on a windy day. What about the braking distance?

A secondary issue is the impact & wear upon the transmission of that tow vehicle. Would you want to buy that Saturn? I suspect the transmission is toast. This is why you should have an inspection performed when buying a used vehicle. But back to the more pressing issue of SAFETY…

Towing recommendations factor in a margin of safety for adverse conditions. If you are MAXING OUT the capacity of your tow vehicle, there’s little to no margin of safety when things go wrong. Suppose the wind picks up, or you have to make a sudden emergency maneuver. That’s when the combo gets dangerous. Accidents happen. People get killed. There’s much gnashing of teeth!

Just because something is possible, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Those old images of people towing Airstreams with bicycles are not meant to be taken literally. πŸ˜€

I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here. To me, choice of tow vehicle is a safety issue. I want people to enjoy camping safely. You know, “arrive alive” and all that jazz. Pushing the limits of a tow vehicle / RV combination might seem fine. It might work 99% of the time. Then the 1% happens, and it becomes a disaster.

Think about it this way. Suppose you have to make a sudden lane change at 70 MPH on a steep downhill grade in a stiff cross-wind? Would you feel safe? You want to be in complete control of your rig at all times.

Please make certain your tow vehicle can SAFELY handle whatever RV you choose.

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  1. Borden

    Andy at CanAmRv is mentioned above, Great guy. Andy will tell you if trailer is more than 4000 lbs weight counts! After much research the general opinion from different experts it is the air being pushed that counts under 4000 lbs. A progressive transaxle cooler a must, brakes are often needed and smart to have they increasing the load possible. Still we need to be reasonable. We needed a custom designed class III hitch, WD system for tongue weight, Progressive transaxle cooler for long trips, and trailer brakes for our 2560 lb 17β€² 4β€³ trailer. Any less I feel would have been foolish.
    repost to fix typo’s

  2. Borden

    Andy at CanAmRv is mentioned above, he will tell you if it is more than 4000 lbs weight counts! After much research the general opinion from experts it is the air being pushed that counts under 4000 lbs. Progressive transaxle cooler a must and brakes are often needed and smart increasing the load possible. Still we need to be reasonable. We needed a custom class III hitch, WD system for tongue weight, Progressive transaxle cooler for long trips, and trailer brakes for our 2560 lb 17′ 4″ trailer. Any less i feel would have been foolish.

  3. Steve Mayne

    I’m a European recently arrived in Canada and just about to take delivery of a 28′ Airstream International. I did much research into what would make a suitable towing vehicle and came with the 3.5 litre V6 Toyota Sienna. Andy Thompson at Can Am RV in London, Ontario has some very compelling technical evidence as to why a front wheel drive minivan will be more than adequate for my trailer and he also has the evidence of hundreds of satisfied customers.

    I think there may be something in what Frank Howard says about North Americans being sold vehicles that are actually bigger than required, simply because gas is cheap here, as are cars. There is certainly a huge cultural difference with engine size; my Californian built Toyota Matrix has a 2.5 litre engine and returns only 35 miles to the gallon on an urban cycle. In Europe, that car would have a 1.6 litre engine (and a diesel option!) which would give 45 miles to the gallon but still drive all day at 70 miles per hour. The same can be said for most North American cars, especially those that have European equivalents such as the VW range, some of the smaller Fords GMs and Chryslers. Essentially, the North American car buyer expects a big car with a big engine.

    But Andy Thompson has proved that towing large, aerodynamically efficient trailers doesn’t necessarily require a monster truck. Sure, if you like your gas guzzling truck, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be that way if you don’t want it to be.

    I’m looking forward to towing my Airstream with a Sienna, after Andy has fitted the appropriate hitch and modifications to the Sienna of course. I shall look forward to driving past the trucks lining up at the gas stations, too.

  4. Frank Howard

    The argument is whether a car, a minivan, or a mid-size suv can pull a large travel trailer. The latest vehicles in general have much more horsepower than a similar vehicle 20 years ago. Unibody construction has proven itself over the years and can be easily beefed up by the use of a heavy-duty receiver. As I mentioned earlier, europeans tow large trailers with small cars without the use of equalyzer bars and use only a surge brake. European cars are heavily sprung and when equiped for towing have a receiver that extends towards the centre of the vehicle. Motor fuel is very expensive in Europe and is a primary influence in vehicle selection. Diesel engines are common and their performance characteristics help in moving a heavy trailer. The price of fuel in North America will become more expensive over time and we will have to become more conscious of fuel economy. This will mean smaller vehicles. If we reflect on what is use in Europe, we have nothing to worry about. I would like to discuss what I believe are “real” improvements in RV towing.One is the 3-litre Mercedes diesel engine that was used briefly in Jeeps. THis is an excellent engine with torque equivalent or greater than a V-8 with twice the displacement and it would be nice to see it or a similar engine back in North America in a consumer vehicle. Another improvement has been the use of 6-speed transmissions and we have seen increase in towing capability as a result. Built in electric brake controllers is another improvement and recently manufacturers have been able to add sway control to the package as well.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Frank raises an interesting question. Are North American dealers simply pushing unnecessary vehicle sales with their tow ratings?

    Here’s the way I look at it.

    Are the tow ratings a bit conservative? In other words, can you “usually” tow more with less? Yes, I would answer in the affirmative.

    So what’s the downside risk to doing so?

    Aye, there lies the rub.

    Over 40,000 people die every year in North American motor vehicle accidents. Even with all of our advanced safety measures (airbags, seatbelts, etc.) we still have a small Vietnam War every year on our highways. If we suffered this number of casualties in any military conflict, outraged people would be marching in the streets. But we accept it on our highways.

    I have a friend who towed his 28-foot Airstream for a couple of years with his old gas Yukon (a perfectly respectable SUV). One day when crossing the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, the Yukon engine finally died. My friend was forced to buy a new tow vehicle. He got a diesel truck. After experiencing the difference in towing capacity, he told me, “Man, I feel like a complete idiot, having jeopardized my family with that old Yukon. This new setup tows like a dream. I can’t believe the difference.”

    Granted, that’s just one case study. I leave the question open ended here. “Is your tow vehicle safe?” Only you can really answer that question. It depends on what you are towing.

    I have no financial incentive at all in this discussion. But I guess if I’m going to influence people in some fashion through blogging, I’d rather influence them to be more safe than the alternative. I’ve read too many reports of horrific vehicle accidents in this lifetime.

  6. Frank Howard

    Andy Thomson is a regular contributor to a magazine called RV Lifestyles and
    discusses many examples of using vehicles that are suppose to have limited tow capacity, to tow large trailers. In Europe, small cars tow large trailers regularly. I wonder if North American car manufacturers take advantage of North American economic prosperity to force people to purchase two vehicles ?

  7. Bob

    There’s no cure for stupid.

  8. Owen MacPherson

    There are many factors affecting the safety of a vehicle or combination of such. Appearances can be decieving.

    For example, the imposing height of the current generation of trucks (all things being equal) surely results in a net reduction in safety. Yet many feel the exact opposite when sitting behind the wheel of these behemouths.

    In any event, without a through analysis of the equipment involved any comment on the safety of a combination is pure speculation.

    Merry Christmas!


  9. Andy Thomson

    Hello Everyone

    I can’t expect you all to understand how well a front drive van performs as a tow vehicle when you have not had the oportunity to drive one properly set up with a well matched trailer. I can tell you that we have set up over 1000 front drive vans for towing since 1998 and have millions of kilometers of towing experience with them. None of the disasters some like to predict have happened.

    Just to clarify neither the Sienna in the video or the Town Car in the Hensley video are overloaded. The town car was weighed at a rally by Away We Go and it was within specs on all tires and axles. 40% of the other rigs were not. The Sienna actually has more load capacity than many new 1/2 tons. It has lots of margin in its axle and tire capacity. This van has been towing this Airstream for 4 years now all over the continent without a problem. The owner towed previously with an older Sienna.

    The reason a Front Drive Van tows so well is that it has a short rear overhang in relation to it’s wheelbase. A wide track and suspension stance with a low centre of gravity. Instead of the wallowy balloon shaped tires that most trucks have it has a low profile performance tire with lots of traction but very little sidewall roll.

    In our testing at the local dragstrip a front drive van with a 34′ Airstream executes measured distance lane changes and slaloms at much higher speeds than trucks towing the same trailer.

    If you are generally interested in towing systems and tow vehicles we are more than happy to share our experience. If you are ever in the London area feel free to stop in and take some of our combiantions out for a test drive. I think you will be amazed and the experience will challenge a lot of things you assume about towing.

    Thanks for listening.


  10. If you try to replace the brakes on a trailer you can see that many have an electro- magnet that pulls the shoe and pivots the other shoe and it will only work going forward.

    I saw an e-mail a short time ago someone was going up a trail and could not make it and backed down. Could not control it and rolled the trailer and tow vech. I do not remember the size of towing vech. but they could not stop and came back down lots faster than they went up.

  11. GMAs

    I think if you go to Ford (other manufactures may have the same item) You can get a pub that they put out which is a towing guide… shows their products and which ones they promote for the type of towing your going to do…

    At some point you will be asked if you want to download the compete RV and trailer towing guide. Your choice after all its on the web so try and save a tree kinda thing but if your going to the dealers (other than ford) one might want to take a copy along so you have something to compair it by.

    Remember however, that the power train (engine ) is what most select by… and while this is the pulling ability… it also has a equiv brakeing for the size and weight of the vehicle as a complete package. They pay them engineers big bux to make recomendations for you to be guided by… and I am sure its not about the money… they want you to come back for years after enjoying the product they built.

    As to wheel base … indeed … short wheel bases are more prone to having the tail wag the dog .. so we found… the longer the wheel base the more stable and smooth the ride.. that being said… we have to get the thing around a curve in the road too…so longer wheelbases are not as effective as the short ones in that case… thus a comp has to be reached… just long enough for stability and short enough to make the truns while still staying within the lane…

    Most PU trucks don’t turn too sharp… or have a small turning radi… so when pulling a trailer.. it works well… for the stability but, when you go to park the trailer… you run into the turn radi issue… this has been helped out by putting a reciever under the front bumper… now the same wheels that do the radi turning have more effect… and so when y ou back the trailer into the spot… you have more control and tighter radi… not to mention that the trucks brakes work in the designed direction to the fullest… and the trailer brakes won’t… even if you put the electrical plug up front too… the design of the drum brakes on the trailer (we have both a airstream and toy hauler… the toy has disk brakes that also only work in the forward directions for some reasion… but the Airstreams design is not going to work when the trailer is backed… something they forgot to tell you… I guess… anyway with the trailer being pushed by the front of the truck… you get good braking from the vehicle… that should do great… Just don’t count on the emergency brake on the trucks with 4 wheel disk brakes… take a look at how the emergency brake works… on yours… you will be surprised that its so dinkie… πŸ˜€

  12. Tireman9

    No problem
    After the accident the lawyers will just sue everybody in shouting distance. Airstream for failure to warn the driver not to tow with this specific minivan. The Dealer, The hitch manufacturer.

    And possibly whoever this guy runs into. BUT certainly not the driver. He just didn’t know any better.

    One would think this is illegal in a number of states but as long as our “Law Enforcement” folk are focused on speeders and not on preventing possible fatalities we can expect to see this kind of stuff.

  13. Geoffrey Pruett

    No one Mentioned the wheelbase issue! We have an Escape all wheel drive which on paper makes for a usefull small load tow rig (3500 lbs) but the same gift that makes it a perfect fit for todays minute space parking lots makes for very interesting backup driving. The existing mirrors and rounded sides make putting it in the driveway a thrill. I have driven semi rigs and had little trouble putting them in a blind hole but the combo shown looks like a real headache.

  14. george

    @John: Wow!!! Really? Turning a good RV post into Bush’s bash.

  15. Les

    Glad to see that this is being discussed. As an RV sales person it drives me crazy when I go to RV shows and see dealers that promote this dangerous act by simply displaying RVs attached to underated tow vehicles. By doing this they are subliminally stating that it can be safely towed. In another comment a London dealer was named as a main offender and certainly I see them at every show promoting this act. Why would they do this?… Money… bottom line. Hopefully some day Dealers like this will realize that they must bare some moral responsibility for there actions in selling and marrying up unsafe towing situations for there customers. Unfortunately this wont happen until a serious accident happens that links them to being a part of the cause.

  16. John

    Look! Leave George and Laura alone. They’ve been cooped up for so long they need to get out and see the country with what ever they got. I’m sure he can do just as good a job as he did in DC.

  17. I was traveling across RT80 in Pa. towing a 24 ft lite coachman trailer, I had just checked my driver’s mirror and noted a car comming up quickly. When I returned my vision to the rd my wife and I both saw a pile of junk in the slow lane ahead of us, it looked like a tank trap from a WWII movie. I knew I could not move left and if I hit the junk in the road we aould be broken or dead. I went right then after I passed the mess I pulled back into the lane. Gave my wife the cellphone to call 911. I was driving a large suv with a big engine trans etc. If I had been driving this rig you wrote about I would not have typed this message. My wife and I and the 4 young girls we were taking to swimm camp may have been hurt or killed. I was told that another suv I had owned earlier would pull a good sized trailer ( another salesman said power is ok but it would be the tail wagging the dog) I waited to buy the larger rig. We need some laws and enforcement for this kind of thing.

    I was told by a 5TH wheel owner that many rigs we see are under powered, when I asked why he had a freightliner cab. He also said If you get in to an accident you can go to jail if you kill someone because your tow car was not up to the task you gave it.

  18. C Condit

    Not to mention criminal actions if you cause an accident because of an unsafe tow setup. People have gotten tough jail time for unsafe towing and loads. Get a proper vehicle if you are going to tow. Personally, I think 5th wheels are the best way to keep your family safe while pulling a trailer.

  19. I wonder about the liability issues too.

    Encouraging someone to tow a 10,000-pound trailer with a minivan? That’s kind of like selling someone on the benefits of helmet-free motorcycle jumps. Sure, it’s possible, but is it smart?

    I understand the desire to sell RVs, but at what cost? People’s lives are at stake — not just the RV owners’ lives, but those of everyone else on the highway.

  20. GMAs

    wonder how his libility insurance for giving these people advise is…. I am sure that the survivors of the vehicles he is promoting will probably get early retirement… or is his comments just so much entertainment???

    I knew of one that had his set up on his buick… every time he made a left trun.. the rear door would pop open… gee ya thing the unitized body was real strong?

    Maybe the Feds should require crash testing of these vehicles with the trailer in tow… bet watching that on Utube might wake a few drivers up… problem is they just don’t know any different and can’t comprehend the forces involved on the road… saddly

  21. g. a. henry

    Maybe it had a Hemi in it.

  22. TomP

    Yep, the Classic weighs in at 10,000 lbs. GVWR. Most of these “SUVs” are rated for trailer towing not to exceed 1,500 lbs. Don’t sweat the wear on the transmission, nor the braking distance and brake fade. Worry about the rear axle and the fact that these guys may tear out the entire rear end of the vehicle-not a pretty sight.

  23. When I saw the story headline, I thought “sure, a van has a good long wheelbase and would make an excellent tow vehicle” . Then I saw the picture and saw it was a minivan! Like previous posters, I think the vehicle is practically overloaded with fuel cargo, and passengers, let alone a load of 10,000# behind it! Hope he was taking it to a truck dealership to pick up his real tow vehicle!

  24. GMAs

    Oh!!! and one more thing they forget to tell you .. that we saw happen to someone…

    Think about this… Most of the drum trailer brakes… (AS included) DO NOT WORK WHEN BACKING UP… yep they are built to only work in the forward direction.. ops..

    So guess what happened to the guy who backed his trailer into a down hill spot ….

    Go ahead.. let your imaginaiton run… πŸ˜€ Think about this.. where does it say… anything about YOUR TRAILER BRAKES DON’T WORK IN REVERSE… hmmmm…

    Not to mention most people haven’t a clue about the vehicle brakes today either…

    Shut the engine off… and you get 2 or 3 times.. then the vacuum resevor is gone… and now it takes…. a whopping 280 LBS OF BRAKE PEDDLE PRESSURE TO GET JUST THE VEHICLE TO STOP…

    So if the engine quits… best have the vehicle stopped before it does… and YES it does say so in the vehicle owners manual… we found it in ours… where it says .. never move the vehicle without the engine running… Like Duhhhh…. go figure… πŸ˜€

  25. GMAs

    Yep seen it before… and the results are DEADLY… used to be that Airstream and other Manufactures had some sort of guidelines that one used to choose the tow vehicle…

    Too bad they quit being more of a service and more directed towards the money … sales. (why you can tow this thing with a bike…. really!!!!)… and the car sales people are just a shade above your average grasshopper in directing you on which vehicle to by… most won’t tellyou the toy won’t do the job… (by the way PU trucks are also not the best tow vehicle due to the weight distrubution of it… sure they will pull and they have BIG brakes… but note where all the weight is… up front) Used to be that you saw a lot of AS towed with station wag-gons… Look at the early flicks of WB and his caravans.. and see what they used… International was one… Surburban ? which one was better? Depends… like the choice of 2 wheel or 4 wheel drive…

    What a lot of people don’t seem to understand that you can tow anything with a lawnmower if you have the time.. gears are wonderful devices… but, the laws of phyics apply to towing too… and the one where it says that when a mass is in motion it tends to stay that way till acted upon by another force… Well… so the guy can get the trailer up to speeed…. goooody… but wait till he has to stop… (remember the physics law)…

    Too many rely on the trailer brakes to do the stopping… attttt wrong answer… yes they will but, the “BACKUP” πŸ˜€ is the tow vehicles brakes… soooooo… now when you pull a 6000 lb object to a speed of 60 mph… and do it with a 4000 lb gas mizzer… what do yo think will happen… when the trailer brakes quit… The results are pretty DEAD’N ING… sort of like having a semi truck run into the back of a old VW… guess who is going to lose…

    I don’t think they give a appitude test when you decide to pull a trailer or drive a MH… YET!!! but, if the people who do… keep demonstrating their … defecencies… I’ll bet the government is going to have to dictate to ’em so that they can live to see another day…at a ripe old age… πŸ˜€

    By the way.. we had a new bumper put on the PU (has the winch built into it) … came with the front 2×2 reciever so you can now face the trailer… as you park it… SWEET… wonder how I did without it before… as now you can get into tight places with the trailer… that you couldn’t before… as they say… park on a dime and get a nickle change back…

    But, that is not all… seems that its got other applications too.. such as if you get stuck… great place to hook up the snatch strap… or tow both your vehicle and the trailer in tow with… Not to mention the two 130 watt lights it has built into it… why now you can see bambi 300 yards down the road… all lit up.. like a movie star… but, we did notice that drivers on the other side of the valley would flash their high’s to get you to dim yours… Nothing like having lots of lights… and we didn’t stop at the front bumper… we addes two 55 watt lights to the rear… (lets face it the back up lights on the stock vehicles are JUST A LITTLE BIT WEAK…. πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ … now when you have to hook the trailer up in the dark… nice to see not only the hitch.. but you can walk back and see under the trailer also… no more forgotten hoses or cords… blocks or other stuff.. that can go crunch in the night.. πŸ˜€

  26. Georgie

    Reminds me of the story about a fella taking a course to drive a semi-trailer truck and tractor. He was given the hypothetical question of what would you do if: You’re running double and your buddy is stacking up zzz’s in the sleeper. In the trailer you have 44,000 pounds of dynamite. As you crest a hill in the mountains, you see a loaded school bus stopped for a train carrying propane. You step on the brakes and realize you have no air but that doesn’t matter as the road is icy and there’s no way of stopping. On your left is a sheer granite wall so that’s not an escape. On the right in a sheer drop-off but it’s protected by a strong guard rail. What would you do? The student thinks for a minute and says: Well, I would wake up my buddy and tell him to stick his head out of the sleeper as he ain’t never gonna see another accident like this one. And that is exactly what will happen, sooner or later, when you tow any large trailer with any small, under-rated two vehicle.

  27. Dan Rambow

    Perhaps the tone, of the word mini-van, should be tempered with which mini-van. Many mini-vans are practically overloaded (weight wise) with the passengers aboard, let alone, any cargo or towed vehicle. The key being which mini-van.
    I had a mini-van, a 1989 Mazda MPV, it was equipped with the 175hp v6 Yamaha engine, and a load-leveling tow package. By digging through the literature,I found that its cargo capacity was a staggering 3000 pounds. (and yes it had tires rated for the load too) the towing capacity was 500 pound hitch weight, 5000 pound towing, with huge disk brakes to slow it all down.
    I needed to move my family from Alaska, so we bought a custom trailer rated for 3000 pounds, loaded my Harley and all my office files and such, along with camping gear for all. Put a roof top carrier on the van, loaded the 5 teenagers, wife, me, two cats, and away we went, down the Alaskan Highway.
    Other than the teenagers, cats, and muddy roads, the trip went very well, and we drove up, down, around, through good, bad, construction, etc. And the van and loaded trailer did very well.
    Drove that van for another 11 years, shuttled lots of kid trips across country to colleges. Hated to see it go, (all kids gone, time for a sporty car) but the second owner was a young man, getting his family started, I think he did just fine with that van.

  28. Kurt

    But he does have extension mirrors on it, so he’s safer than a big percentage of the tow vehicles I see that might have the correct capacity.

    But there is no way the brakes for that vehicle can be strong enough for that kind of GCVW, regardless of what the engine size may be.

  29. HS

    I would not only question the judgement of the minivan owner,

    I would like to ask the salesman that sold the AIRSTREEM what were you thinking.

    DOLLARS FIRST ???????

  30. GK

    There is a guy in Ontario I heard about named Andrew Thomson (president of CanAm RV), and apparently he does these types of setups. I’ve read some of the rationale behind it, and it appears he tends to focus solely on the engine (if engine X in an SUV can tow 8,000 pounds, why shouldn’t a car with the same engine have the same rating?). Personally, I’m not convinced, because towing capability is more than just the engine. As the author of this article points out, there is load on the transmission. While a weight-distributing hitch can remove some of the tongue weight, there are still other stresses on the structure of the car (the force needed to get the whole rig up to speed, corners at speed, stopping, trailer sway, vertical forces when the rig traverses bumps and such).

    The reality is that tow ratings are a combination of engine, transmission, differential, structure/frame and suspension. While I’m sure this rig works find on straight, level, smooth roads with no wind, I would hate to come up against a crosswind, a series of undulated bumps, or any serious grades. I don’t believe there is any way for the TV in this setup to effectively control the trailer under less-than-ideal conditions.

  31. I agree, Kriilin. Holy crap indeed! πŸ˜€

  32. Kriilin Namek

    I wouldn’t tow that with my Avalanche 1500, never mind a minivan, holy crap!!