Sep 072010

A few days ago we talked about tow cars for motorhome owners. Today let’s discuss tow bars and auxiliary braking systems.

Keep in mind that I am not a technical person, and I have not tested everything out there on the market, but I will tell you what we have used, what has worked for us, and what has not. As they used to say in the television commercials, your mileage may differ.

When we started fulltiming, we used a Roadmaster Falcon 5250 tow bar to tow our Toyota Tacoma pickup. The tow bar had a rubber covered release button on each arm, and we fought that darned thing for years. If the motorhome and truck were not aligned perfectly, it was almost impossible to remove the pins that locked the tow bar to the truck, and to depress the above-mentioned release buttons.  We hated it.

A couple of years ago we upgraded to a Blue Ox Aventa II tow bar with a 10,000 pound capacity. In my opinion, it is a far superior product in every way. The Aventa uses levers to release the arms, and they are much easier to manage. With the Roadmaster, we were constantly struggling to release the arms, and since I have a touch of arthritis in both of my hands, it was painful. But that has never once been a problem with the Blue Ox.

If the van and motorhome are not perfectly aligned, I simply start the van’s engine and turn the steering wheel all the way in one direction, which releases the tension on one side of the tow bar, and then repeat the process in the other direction. I have shared this tip with users of other brands of tow bars, and they all said it made things easier.

It is important that your tow bar be level when going down the road. If it is mounted too high or too low on your motorhome, you will need an extension from the motorhome’s receiver to either raise or lower the contact point with the tow bar.

When we started out, we didn’t have an auxiliary braking system for the Toyota, basically out of ignorance. I didn’t realize the need for one, and later on, when we switched to our MCI bus conversion, I always said that the heavy bus weighed enough to stop the much lighter pickup.

I learned just how wrong I was, in a small town in Alabama one day, when some fool ran a red light and I had to make a panic stop. We had a motorcycle carrier on the back of the bus, and the pickup turned the tow bar inside out and ended up with the front wheels sitting on top of the motorcycle rack! Fortunately, I didn’t have a bike on the back of the bus, or it would have been totaled! Folks, if you don’t already have an auxiliary braking system on your tow vehicle, get one. All it takes is one idiot pulling out in front of you to cause a lot of damage to your motorhome and dinghy.

Our first auxiliary brake was a Brake Buddy, and we hated it as much as we did the Roadmaster tow bar. It was heavy, had to be put in place inside of the vehicle and hooked to the brake pedal every time we traveled, and then we had to find a place to stash it when not using it. We also had to use a wooden plank between the Brake Buddy and the driver’s seat because it didn’t match up correctly and tended to shift around in travel.

The final straw was when we arrived at a campground in Texas and discovered that the 12 volt plug had overheated and melted into the power receptacle on the van’s dashboard sometime during the day’s traveling. I called Brake Buddy and talked to a tech, who said “That happens sometimes” and told me that I could send the unit back and pay to have it rebuilt. I’m not thrilled when somebody takes such a cavalier attitude about their product burning itself up in my van!

We replaced the Brake Buddy with an SMI Stay-In-Play vacuum assisted brake and love it. It is smaller than the Brake Buddy, sits under the driver’s seat, never has to be moved in and out of the vehicle, is hard wired to power so there is no electrical plug to mess with, and when we’re ready to travel, all we have to do is turn the switch on and go.  Again, a much superior product than what we started out with.

So that’s what works for us. How about you? What do you use?

Thought For The Day – A friend is a person who tells you all the nice things about you that you didn’t even know yourself.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  12 Responses to “Tow Bars & Braking Systems”

  1. Nick: Fortunately we have never (so far) had the panic braking situation, but I am sure at some point we will. We tow a Dodge Dakota 4WD. At first we also used the Falcon 2 and experienced the same problem as you. We switched to the Roadmaster All-Terrain and love it. For braking we use the M & G system hooked up to the air brake system on the coach. As you know, it is simply a part placed between the Master Cylinder and the Booster and reacts to the activation of the Air Brakes on the coach.

  2. We use the Aventa II also. I evaluated what was on the market and chose the Aventa II for its strength and ease of use.

    For a brake system, we started with a Blue Ox Toad Stop II which never worked properly. I replaced it with an SMI Air Force One, which is tied into the the truck air brake system (gladhands). It is an outstanding system if you have air brakes.

  3. We also upgraded from the Roadmaster Falcon 2 to the Roadmaster All-Terrain. It solves the button problem by replacing them with levers and it will hook up no matter how twisted your toad is. We love it. We have used the Brake Buddy for seven years now and find it easy to use. It is light weight in our opinion and installs easily and quickly in the various toads that we have had.

  4. Nick, I have an Blue Ox Aventa 11 and an M & G Air brake towing a 2006 Jeep Wrangler. Love the setup. ray

  5. Out of ignorance we bought a Roadmaster Sterling aluminum tow bar when we started towing eight years ago, because that’s what Camping World had on sale.

    Being knowledgeable about aircraft component metal fatigue, I became alarmed when the aluminum pull bars began to score after a couple of years of use. Alunimum is especially vunerable to fatigue, and I was worried that the score marks would initiate a fatigue crack.

    Apparantly, I was not the only one worried about this issue. About 6 years ago, Roadmaster voluntarily replaced the aluminum bars with new stainless steel bars at no charge, at an FMCA rally in Buffalo. They were announcing this free refurbishment to anyone who requested it.

    About a year later, after extensive travel on unpaved roads in Alaska and Canada, these stainless bars became difficult to operate. Roadmaster’s solution was to “wash” the bars by spraying them with Vroom, then forcing them in and out several times, wiping them down, then repating the process 10 or 20 times until dirt stoped coming out and the bars worked freely. This process offered some improvement, but the bars have never been completely free since. I now spray silicone on the bars and wipe them down thoroughly every time I unhook. This has been effective in preventing complete bind-up for several years.

    My bigest complaint is that the bars bind up if the motorhome and tow car are not perfectly alligned. I believe you mentioned the same experience. Fortunately, the Sterling has levers instead of buttons, and I have always been able to operate the levers with a pry bar. Being worried that I may eventually damage the mechanism, I am careful to pull ahead straight before unhooking, whenever I can.

    We use a Brake Buddy for supplemental braking. Unlike you, I find it easy and convenient to install and remove. It adds about 2 minutes to my hook and unhook process. Like you, I’ve had some trouble with the system. I’ve replaced the circuit board once, and had the unit back to the factory on another ocassion for complete rebuild. The unit has been very noisy since it came back, but it works OK, so I am ignoring the noise.

    I’m not concerned about the lack of proportional braking, as I really don’t want supplemental braking except in a panic stop. I learned the hard way that too much supplemental braking will wear out the toad brakes quickly, so I keep the sensitivity set low. Overall I am happy with the stand-alone supplemental braking system, and will be more so when it comes time to replace the toad.

    I think these tech topics that you are starting to publish are a good idea. I used to work the SKP forums, but I believe your blog gets wider exposure, especially to the new folks who need the advice. Keep up the good work.

  6. We too started our motorhome days with a Roadmaster Falcon. After six years of use it needed rebuilding or replaced. We replaced it with the Roadmaster Sterling and the difference between the “buttons” and “levers” has been well worth the extra cost. We have found Roadmaster to be very considerate at the rallies they attend, offering free service to all equipped with their products. We use the Brakemaster supplemental towing system, very east to hook up, and no large “box” to find a place to store when not using. We have air brakes on our motorhome and the supplemental braking system does work! It is a safety issue just like the brake-away system. Do not leave home without them!

  7. We have been using a Roadmaster Stowmaster 5000 for almost 7 years now and have never had a problem with it. Gave it a shot of silicon spray once during that time, maybe i should do it again. :>) Use a US Gears braking system, i believe that it kept us from being hit headon the first day we had it, so as far as i am concerned it paid for itself then. Easy to use, flip a switch, connect 2 cables, good to go. Takes about 30 seconds to do.

  8. We have a very old(before zipcodes) Roadmaster tow bar and new lift off mounts on a 1998 jeep grand cherokee, and the tow bar is very heavy, has the buttons, and it works. Have the roadmaster air brake system with brakeaway. Yes you need to kneel down to hook it up, but used and was cheeeep. We have a 1977 TMC bus (built in Roswell NM) old hound.

  9. We do the same thing as Jack Mayer, although when we bought both I trusted the opinions of others and ….. they were right. Air Force One and Blue Ox Aventa II are a winning combination.

  10. Nick,
    Thanks for doing these technical posts. I know you are not technical (or so you say), but a lot of us are and I, for one, appreciate hearing from you and other people who have used equipment in the field (some from before zipcodes, even — Yikes! Was the Earth still cooling then?).

    As far as towing and braking, I don’t think you can spend too much on this aspect of your rig. It is vitally important from a safety standpoint and every step should be taken to get it exactly right. I’ve heard a lot of stories like yours where the towbar became a pretzel or failed completely. So, don’t skimp here, skimp on something else.

    I became personally convinced one day when my mind wandered (proves I have one) and a rural red-light sneaked up on me. I blasted all the way through the intersection while literally standing on the brake pedal. Thank goodness, no one was coming from either direction. Would have been a tragedy. Instead, it was merely a major eye-opener. I’ll never forget the feeling of not being able to stop all that weight.

  11. We also use a Blue Ox Aventa II towbar …I wanted at 10k towbar rather than 5k (toad weighs apx 4,100lb), and steel rather than aluminum. It has worked great for almost 60k miles and 7 years. For auxilliary braking system we have a Roadmaster Brakemaster. It has an air cylinder that installs between the toad brake pedal and a bracket under the seat, and is quite easy to setup before and remove after towing. The included breakaway and pilot light on the dash are great.

  12. Howdy, I am getting ready to tow my 2003 Tacoma 4×4 manual transmission pickup with a tow bar. Since this is my first go at such a set up I had a couple of questions. I am assuming the steering on the Toyota gets strapped straight ahead. Is it sufficient to place the transfer and transmission in neutral? Or does the drive shaft need to be removed? Thanks for any suggestions and information.

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