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Follow the leader

February 14, 2009—Having a new car was good—heck, it was great! But it put me in an awkward position: I travel solo, and I can only drive one vehicle at a time... so until my new Honda Fit was equipped with things like a towbar, lights, and auxiliary brakes, I couldn't leave the campground where I was staying! Of course I'd planned ahead and ordered the parts I needed to make the little red Fit play "follow the leader," but it turned out that shipment was delayed for various reasons, and my allotted three weeks (the maximum stay in New Mexico state parks) were about to run out, with no towing hardware in sight.

What to do? Well, I talked it over with the campground hosts, and they said "Just park the car next to our trailer while you do your time out in your rig, then you can come back for another three weeks." So I reluctantly bid farewell to my new car and went to stay at Caballo Lake State Park, 35 miles down the road, for a bit. By the time I got back, the tow gear had arrived... boxes and boxes full of heavy metal parts, some of them pretty tough to lift.

What was in all those boxes? Well, if you've ever towed a boat trailer or a U-Haul trailer, you might think that towing a car is just a matter of dropping a coupling onto your ball hitch, plugging in the lights, and heading out. Unfortunately, it's a lot more complicated (and expensive!) than that. After consulting with knowledgeable friends and my favorite RV techs, my shopping list looked something like this:

  • Roadmaster All Terrain towbar for motorhome: $900–$1,100
  • Roadmaster tow bracket ("baseplate") for car: about $400
  • safety cables: $55
  • UltraGuard full-width mudflap for motorhome: $100
  • lights: anywhere from $50 for magnetic ones to $450 for independent bulbs installed in existing taillight assemblies
  • auxiliary brakes: anywhere from $400 (ReadyBrake) to $1,200 (US Gear Unified)
  • miscellaneous cables, locks, wire, connectors, carrying bags, covers, and other hardware: about $150
  • labor: about $1,000

I'd known from talking with friends that equipping a car to be towed would cost around $3,500 altogether, so I'd budgeted for all these items in addition to the price of the car. Yes, it could be done for less by choosing cheaper components, but there'd be a steep price to pay in ease of use. For example, I could have bought an inexpensive one-piece A-frame towbar, the kind that stays attached to the car and flips up in front of it when you're driving around. But that means a big clunky piece of metal in front of your face when you're driving. And to hook up with that type of hitch, you must align the car and the motorhome precisely—something that's hard to do for two people, and almost impossible for one. A good "non-binding" towbar such as Blue Ox's Aventa or Roadmaster's All Terrain series has flexible and extensible arms, so it can be connected or disconnected even when the car and motorhome aren't exactly centered or leveled with each other.

Roadmaster Sterling towbar

Towing was already going to add complications to my life; I didn't want it to be any harder than it had to be. So I chose to go with easy to use top-of-the-line components, hoping to save money by installing as many of them as I could myself.

I found a dealer, KC Trailer (541-689-0011), that sold me the Roadmaster Sterling All Terrain towbar, 2009 Fit tow bracket, and Roadmaster's wiring and hardware "Combo Kit" as a package deal for $1,298.50 shipped. That saved me several hundred bucks over the normal prices.... but as mentioned, I had to wait a few extra weeks while Roadmaster got the new 2009 Fit hardware into production.

Why not Blue Ox?

Blue Ox towing products are probably the most widely recommended of any brand, at least by the RVers I've met. The company has an outstanding reputation for high quality products and excellent customer service. So why did I go with Roadmaster instead? Well, Roadmaster also has a pretty good reputation... but the main reason I picked them was that Roadmaster's baseplate for the Honda Fit came closer to putting the brackets on a level with my coach's hitch.

Blue Ox

I'd already measured the towbar alignment on a Fit equipped with a Blue Ox tow bracket, and it was four inches low on the toad end, necessitating the use of a drop hitch extension to achieve a level towbar (very desirable). A drop hitch increases the chances of dragging the hitch when driving on uneven ground, such as a steep service station driveway, so it's to be avoided if at all possible.

This isn't a general criticism of Blue Ox; their equipment is top-notch. It's just that the way they designed their baseplate attachment for this particular car was not ideal for my particular motorhome. The ability to have a level towbar without resorting to a drop hitch extension was my prime consideration in choosing Roadmaster.

NOTE: If you already have a Blue Ox towbar, that's no problem, because you can get adapters to let you use Roadmaster's baseplate with Blue Ox tow gear. They're part numbers 032 and 033—see the "Adaptor Bars" page in Roadmaster's catalog. That seems like a much better idea than accepting a 4" height mismatch.

Towbar update: Blue Ox is better

May, 2014—After five years with the Fit, I switched to a 2014 Subaru Forester (see "Post-Postscript" below)... and at the same time, switched to a Blue Ox Alpha towbar. Now that I've used both systems, I must say that Blue Ox has a better design overall. For example, see that big black crossbar at the left in the photo above? That has to either stay on your car, attached in front of the bumper by a pair of complicated mounting brackets, or stay attached to the towbar on your rig. (I guess you could take it off and store it somewhere, but who wants to do that?) Blue Ox needs no such crossbar; the towbar arms connect directly to inconspicuous attachment points that stick out slightly under the bumper.

Roadmaster's main safety cables are straight, and attach to the removable brackets on the car by sliding a crimped-on ball end through a zigzag slot. (Take another look at that bracket closeup.) It's awkward to do, and some owners have reported that the ball end can pop out of the slot. The cables themselves are contained within sleeves in Roadmaster's Sterling towbar, but they can still drag on the pavement if not made to exactly the right length. Blue Ox's safety cables are coiled, so they can't drag on the pavement, and they attach directly to the towed car with large, heavy-duty snap hooks.

Roadmaster's trailer wiring cable is also straight, and I had to replace mine after it dragged on the pavement and wore through its insulation. Blue Ox's trailer wiring cable is coiled, so it can't drag.

Roadmaster's brackets on the towed car are technically removable, but it's more trouble than it's worth to do so. First you have to remove (and store) the heavy black crossbar. Then you must unscrew a pair of links on each side—four in all—that connect the brackets to the car's baseplate via a pair of ridiculous-looking four-inch mini safety cables. Then at last you can remove the bulky, heavy bracket... and think about where you're going to stow it. In practice, every Roadmaster owner I've seen has left those brackets and that ugly black crossbar in place on the towed car all the time.

Blue Ox has none of these complications. There's no crossbar. There are no bulky, complicated brackets. Their attachment points are simple slotted steel bars that can be removed in seconds with a tug on a safety latch and a quarter twist.

Don't get me wrong—Roadmaster's equipment is sturdy and well made. And in the case of my Fit, it was the only practical way to get proper vertical alignment between the car and the motorhome. But Blue Ox's equipment is not only sturdy and well made, it's thoughtfully designed, with convenience features such as the ones just mentioned that make setup and take-down much easier. If you have a choice, I recommend Blue Ox.

Lotsa parts

But let's get back to the Roadmaster installation. At last, everything had arrived. The big, heavy packages that UPS delivered to the park's visitor center contained a plethora of hardware. In fact, what you see here are only some of the parts that went on the outside of the car... not the towbar, baseplate, lights or brakes. (More about those later.) And see those four different installation booklets? It took me a couple of days to get everything sorted out and read all the instructions.

Lotsa parts

Finally I thought I had a pretty good handle on what I was supposed to do. It was time to start bolting together all this heavy-duty hardware. My first task was the easiest: mounting the Y-shaped towbar to Skylark was just a matter of sliding its tail into the 2" square "hitch receiver" tube under the rear bumper.

The hard part was mounting the custom-made tow bracket to the Fit. (Note: I've added a page of detailed tips for those who are thinking of doing this job themselves, as I did.)

Removing the bumper core

I used my orange Lynx leveling blocks to make ramps, so I could get under the car to work. Those things sure do come in handy!

Does this void my warranty?

First, I had to pull off the whole front end of the car (one very large piece of plastic) and unbolt the core of the bumper, which is what you see me doing here. Believe me, it's more than a little scary to take apart your brand new car! I was grateful to have help from Frank, the campground host, in pulling off the front end and the bumper. Then I bolted on the Roadmaster tow bracket in place of the bumper core:

Tow bracket in place

The two tubes sticking out in front are where the rest of the towing gear will attach. With the car's plastic front end replaced, they're barely visible even if you look for them:

Tow brackets closeup

Of course, it's a little more cluttered when you add all the other stuff needed to tow the car.

Inevitably, there was one part left over...

One more screw

... but I think the car will hold together without it.

I kept reminding myself that I really was lucky: many tow bracket installations involve cutting the bumper, or worse, the chassis to make room for the brackets. I did have to slightly enlarge a couple of holes that didn't quite line up, but my Dremel tool with a grindstone bit made quick work of that job. All in all, the installation wasn't too hard. Finally I had a car I could tow! And the vertical alignment was perfect, unlike some towing setups I've seen.

Perfect alignment

As mentioned, that perfect alignment was the main reason I chose the Roadmaster hardware. RV tech Mike Sylvester had warned me that it pays to check this out before choosing a towing system, and I was glad he did.

Towbar side view

Lights

There are three main ways to provide taillights on a towed car. The best way is to add independent brake and turn signal bulbs, mounted alongside the regular ones in the existing taillight assemblies. That way you don't mess with the car's electrical system. A more common approach is to wire into the existing taillight circuits, adding diodes to prevent damaging the car's electrical system. The cheap way is to use auxiliary lights with magnetic or suction-cup bases that stick to the roof.

The Fit's taillight housings appear to be too small to permit adding extra bulbs for towing. I haven't made up my mind whether to go the diode route, but for the time being, the easy solution was a pair of magnetic lights from the local Wal-Mart. They were overpriced at $50 for the set of two, and as cheaply made as you could imagine, but they do the job. The lamp housings were made of black plastic with no reflectors behind the bulbs, but I glued aluminum foil inside the housings, making them twice as bright as before.

With help from fellow Lazy Dazer John Leach, I ran four-wire cable from the Fit's roof down inside the tailgate and under the car to a trailer jack in the grille. It's well protected and fastened, so there's nothing flapping in the breeze. Connectors in the cable near the roofline let me remove the lights when I'm not towing.

Conveniently, it turns out that Honda thoughtfully provided a cubbyhole in the back compartment of my Fit that's just the right size to hold both lights.

Cubbyhole

I bought a couple of steel electrical box covers (less than a buck apiece) and screwed them to opposite walls of the cubbyhole, giving the magnetic lights a place to stick when they're not in use, so they don't rattle around.

Broken Modulite

But it wasn't as simple as adding some wiring to make the magnetic lights light up. You see, Lazy Daze provided a trailer light jack, but they connected it directly to the existing taillights... but that circuit just doesn't have enough juice to power yet another set of lights, so when I plugged in the magnetic lights, everything went dim—too dim to see in daylight.

There is a solution to this problem: a relay box that feeds full power to the towed vehicle's lights. In fact, it turned out that the previous owner had added one to Skylark. Unfortunately, it also turned out that it was broken: the left turn signal and brake light never came on. So I ordered a new Modulite HD electronic relay box, waited a couple of weeks for it to come... and then wired it in backward, burning it out!

Back to the drawing board! I wasn't eager to wait another two weeks for another relay box, so I called around to local RV places, but none of them stocked what I needed. Finally I ended up ordering a similar box sold under the Valley brand from Amazon. Thanks to my Amazon Prime membership, it cost only $3.99 extra to get overnight shipping. Amazon sent out the item only three hours later, and it arrived at the park's visitor center around 10:00 a.m. the next morning—less than 24 hours after I ordered it. Now that's service! I wired it in, double-checking my connections this time, and all worked perfectly: the lights blinked on cue. What a relief!

Taillights

I made one other change to the lights. It bothered me that while driving down the road, I couldn't tell whether they were working. So I drilled a 3/8" hole right in the center of each housing, glued in a red acetate "ruby window"...et voilà! I can see a bright red dot when the bulb lights up.

Ruby window

Putting on the brakes

When you tow a ton or two behind your rig, you're putting an additional load on your motorhome's brakes, and your stopping distance increases accordingly. The solution is to add an auxiliary braking system that applies the towed car's brakes at the same time the motorhome is slowing down. Many states and provinces require this, and in any case it's the safe thing to do. As with lights, there are three main ways to add brakes. I can sum them up by saying that the systems that are easiest to install are hardest to use, and vice versa.

Brake Buddy

"Brake in a box" systems such as Brake Buddy don't have to be permanently installed. The big box just plops down in the driver's footwell of the towed car. When the motorhome starts to brake, a pendulum inside the "brake in a box" triggers a power-operated arm that pushes on the brake pedal. It has to push pretty hard, because with the engine turned off, there's no power brake assist. And with most units of this type, braking is an all-or-nothing affair—when it thinks it's needed, it stomps hard on the pedal.

The whole thing is powered by plugging it into the car's dashboard 12V outlet. That can be a problem, because the car's battery can end up drained after a long drive with lots of stops. Worse, if the battery is drained, the "brake in a box" stops working. Also, the unit is a bulky, heavy contraption that must be stored somewhere when you're driving the car. Those are a few of the many reasons why I chose not to go with this type of brake. But if you frequently switch towed vehicles, a "brake in a box" is easy to move from one car to another. I have friends who use them and like them.

More sophisticated braking systems such as SMI's Stay-IN-Play Duo and US Gear's Unified Tow Brake are permanently installed in the towed vehicle. Both systems use vacuum pumps to apply full power-assisted brakes, and both work proportionally, braking only as hard as necessary. Powered from the motorhome, they won't drain the towed car's battery. (With the Fit's dinky battery, that's a real concern.) In fact, the US Gear system actually charges the car's battery as you tow it.

Both these systems are fairly complex to install—more than I wanted to tackle on my own. That meant I'd need to pay an RV technician to do the work, on top of the $1,000+ cost of the braking system itself. I was prepared to do this... but then I started hearing about ReadyBrake.

ReadyBrake

The low-tech alternative

ReadyBrake takes a different, much simpler approach. It goes between your hitch and your towbar. When the motorhome slows down, the towed car surges forward, pushing on the ReadyBrake. That causes the lever arm on top of the ReadyBrake to pull forward. A cable attached to the arm goes through your car's engine compartment and through the floor under the brake pedal. When the ReadyBrake's arm goes up, the cable pulls down the brake pedal, applying the car's brakes.

When I first heard about this, it sounded kinda Rube Goldberg. But as I researched the product online, the comments from ReadyBrake owners—including some experienced RVers whom I'd known for a long time—were overwhelmingly positive. Then my friend Debbie pulled into the campground where I was staying, towing a Toyota Scion with a ReadyBrake in the hitch. She liked it too... and I got to examine it firsthand.

The ReadyBrake mechanism is simple and pretty much foolproof, as long as you keep it well lubricated. Braking is proportional: the more rapidly the motorhome decelerates, the harder the towed car surges forward and the more strongly the brakes are applied. Hookup is a literally a snap: snap a cable to the ReadyBrake's arm and the small cable loop on the front of your car. A breakaway system is provided, along with an indicator light for the motorhome that tells you when the car's brakes are being applied. Best of all, ReadyBrake costs less than $400—about a third of the cost of any other braking system I looked at. Convinced that it would work, and that I could install it myself, I ordered one.

But when John Leach and I set out to install the ReadyBrake system, we made a frustrating discovery. After about 45 minutes of crawling over and under the car, we were forced to conclude that it was impossible to fit a ReadyBrake to this particular car. You need at least four inches behind the firewall where the brake pedal is, but the Fit's transmission housing is only an inch or so away from that area. There's just no way to mount the ReadyBrake's cable hardware where it needs to be in order to pull the brake pedal straight down.

Fortunately, I'd saved all the packing material and hadn't actually installed anything, so the dealer (Vince Sadowski at Towbars Unlimited) was willing to let me return the unit for a full refund.

But that left me brakeless. Oh, I could have bought a "brake in a box" unit—no installation required—but as I mentioned earlier, I think those devices are less than ideal in a number of ways... and if I'm going to spend a thousand bucks, I don't want a half-assed solution. So I fell back on my original plan: I had Mike & Lisa Sylvester install the US Gear Unified Tow Brake. Skylark was already wired for it, thanks to the previous owner, so I saved a little money there. But with US Gear, most of the parts and labor are in the car installation, so it still cost me about $1,500. It would have been nice to save a thousand bucks by installing the ReadyBrake system myself, and I'm sure it would have worked fine, but at least with US Gear I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have what is by most accounts the best toad brake system on the market.

Heading out

Postscript

April, 2012—I've been towing the Fit for more than three years now (about 16,000 miles driven and 18,000 miles towed) and can truthfully say that it's the best car I've ever owned. It has averaged more than 45 mpg—much better than its EPS ratings. (I attribute that to the fact that I do almost no stop-and-go driving.) With its 2,300-pound weight, I hardly know it's back there. It's never given me a moment's trouble, and it has carried every load without complaint.

For example, I took it across the country in 2009 to clean out my new Jersey storage room. My friends offered to help with their Volvo station wagon, but it turned out the Fit held more cargo than the Volvo wagon! I brought it back loaded with twenty-three big 1.5-cubic-foot moving cartons full of books, plus other smaller items, and I could still see out the back window.

At 30,000 total miles, I found that the original Dunlop tires were pretty close to bald. I had been thinking of just the mileage on the odometer, forgetting that it had been towed an additional 16,000 miles. I replaced them with the best steel-belted Michelins I could get. I've been driving on Michelins since the 1970s and never had a blowout.

After a couple of years I also had the Fit's taillights hooked up to Skylark's trailer light connector via diodes, so that I no longer needed to use the magnetic toad lights. They worked, but being able to just plug in and go is much more convenient.

As far as I'm concerned, the Fit is just about ideal as a toad—assuming you don't want to go off-road. With five inches of ground clearance, this is not a car to take over rugged terrain. For that you need a vehicle with all-wheel drive and high ground clearance—something like a Subaru Forester, a Honda CR-V, or (if you're willing to sacrifice reliability) a Jeep. But since I have no urge to go off-road, the Fit suits me just fine.

Post-Postscript

May, 2014—Five years later, I traded my 2009 Fit for a 2014 Subaru Forester. The Fit was a great car for running errands, and it certainly was a pleasure to tow, due to its light weight. Its 45 mpg average fuel economy made me happy too, even though gas isn't a big part of my budget. But the Fit's minimal 5" ground clearance sometimes caused it to bottom out even on steep driveways, and ruled out going anywhere that didn't have fairly smooth roads.

The Forester's 9" ground clearance and full-time all-wheel drive let me go places I couldn't go in the Fit, and it has a host of modern improvements such as a rear-view video camera and automatically darkening mirrors. It weighs a thousand pounds more than the Fit, and it only gets about 29 mpg... but for my purposes it's a more practical car, and one that broadens my traveling horizons.

Subaru Forester
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