History and setting up to tow…

For years, I drove my 35 foot Class A as my daily driver. I had no car except for a short stay in Alaska when out of necessity and opportunity I found and bought a nice Subaru 4-wheel drive sedan. Spent 3 winters there and really had to have it. I sold it the last summer I was there and never towed it with the RV.

Early on, starting shortly after I bought the ’94 Bounder, I weighed the rig and discovered I could only safely tow around 1,500 lbs. I learned that many didn’t worry too much about the towing specs and often towed more then ‘book’. As I learned more and more about towing, I bought a used Blue Ox tow bar I happened across at a RV park in Mexico. So I carried that for years, fully expecting to eventually be able to find a small pickup truck, like those LUVs from the ’70’s, light enough that I expected to be able to tow. Or some other light weight vehicle. Even considered a motorcycle. I never did find that small, lightweight LUV. So the Blue Ox tow bar just stayed in the basement compartment, unused.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon, and bought a bicycle rack. Cost me $17 from the overstock bin at an auto parts store. Researched it online and it was shown at over $200 so I saved quite a bit. And that started a multi-year, multi-bike adventure, pushing the job of finding a lightweight truck into the background. I just planned my RV’ing trips and chose RV parks that permitted bike transportation to nearby places I wanted to visit in mind, where possible. There were many places where I was pretty much stuck in an area though. That is, unless I wanted to unhook, drive the RV somewhere to shop, drive back and hook back up again. Not really all that much trouble for the most part. Weather permitting. If a RV park I was staying at was more than a couple miles from stores, I’d have to conserve my food and supplies and keep a careful watch on them. Got pretty good at keeping lists. I’m now an accomplished conservationist and only have to go shopping once every two weeks. Taking a shopping trip did exercise the RV as well since I often drive it long and far enough to warm it up to proper temps during my shopping trips.

But after I bought the ’02 Journey in Feb. of 2016, found I had the power to pull 5,000 lbs so I seriously started looking for a car. Every little RV park I stopped at from Mesa Arizona north to Portland Oregon I’d check the local Craigslist for cars. I did go visit a car or two but nothing struck me as being appropriate, or they had too many miles, or too high an asking price. Until I got up here to Portland. I checked Craigslist several weeks after I got here and there was a ’01 Saturn SL1 available. Quickly checked it’s reputation, value, and tow-ability online, and soon after was the owner.

  1. Here’s how I’d check if a car is towable: Dinghy Towing Guides
  2. And another towing guide: Remco Towing Guide
  3. Here’s where I’d find car evaluations: CarComplaints

Note: I checked the Remco prices for electrical wiring kits, I’d not recommend them for buying any towing equipment.

Actually got the car for $250 less than Kelly Blue Book price. The owner lives 25 miles from me but he brought it over for me to look at. After a road test and through exam, I decided to buy, gave him an extra $100 because he’d brought it to me.

So now I have a Saturn Model SL1 car with only 60,000 miles on it. As a lucky happenstance, the color sort of matches the RV. Some of the things I wanted but the car doesn’t have are power windows and door locks, and the biggie, Cruise Control. It does have a working AC though.

Saturn’s are designed to tow four down, so I anticipate few if any towing issues. Of course, I’d have to acknowledge possible problems due of my general lack of towing knowledge and expirience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I still haven’t figured out what the discoloration on the seat is. It’s almost like someone spilled solvent thinned oil or something on it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA First thing I’d need is towing equipment. Lucky for me, the RV came with a Blue Ox Avanta II 10,000 lb tow bar, a Blue Ox brake system that goes in the car, and assorted accessories. I’ve been gathering info since purchase but it’ll be quite a while before I’ve got the confidence to tow. Here’s one helpful article I found: Towing a Saturn

First off, I knew I needed a “tow plate” as it’s called, installed in and attached to the frame of the Saturn. It’s the strong solid metal connection in the car that the tow bar on the back of the RV attaches to. There are just a few styles & manufacturers so not much competition, meaning a fairly high price. Of course a good welder, metal shop DIY’er, could come up with something too. I don’t even have a garage anymore to build something on my own so after some investigation, I found the best price on these car specific assemblies were on Amazon. As a Prime member, I get it shipped for free. And it’s heavy. Then I started searching for a shop to install it. It’s not that complicated but does involve drilling into the car’s frame and some cutting of plastic grill areas. Here’s a couple quotes I got before I found the base plate on Amazon, with no electrical included as I planned on doing the wiring myself. Most people would get the lights in the towed car set up at the same shop that installed the tow plate and those electrical kits run a couple hundred plus labor so add that onto these quotes:

  1. Curtis Trailers – $395 parts, $275 labor = $670
  2. Blue Lake RV Repair – $475 parts, $375 labor = $850

After getting those quotes, neither of which included the labor for electrical wiring or electrical parts required to tow, I was happy to order the baseplate myself from Amazon for $361 with free shipping. Type BX3310. And since I have a car now, drove around to several local shops trying to find someone who would install it for me. And as luck would have it, there’s a custom paint and body shop just a mile from this RV park (21401 NE Sandy Blvd, Fairview, OR) that wanted to give it a try. And quoted me $65/hour. I let them know that Blue Ox said it’s a 2 hour job but I didn’t mind if it took them 3 hours since they were new to doing it. That was acceptable to them so made an appointment and a week later, showed up for the work. Their shop is so close to the Portland-Fairview RV Park, I dropped off the car, and walked home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA When I returned a couple hours later, they were just starting on it…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You can see that the front bumper, and both quarter panels needed to be removed. That’s true for many cars. After all the reading and observing over the years I’ve done of other installations, I think it’s fairly common that installing a base plate requires this much tear down.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The base plate is screwed and bolted to the frame and it requires some fairly hefty bolts and nuts to hold it. This could all be done by a fairly competent backyard mechanic but a shop with a lift certainly would make the job easier.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlue Ox provides fairly concise instructions, several adapter plates, along with specialized bolts as well as both quik clips & bolts with long rods welded to them to make installation easier. The tech used the quik clips so I have the bolts left over.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Just about done, and the tech discovered he’d mounted the plate too low so he had to reposition it and drill four new holes in the frame. Doh!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But finally, the tech finished up, the plastic fenders and bumper are reattached.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The shop owner figured out what I owed and I was pleasantly surprised at his asking for only $155. Just charged me 3 hours at $50/hour and 3% for using my credit card. The initial quote was $65/hour but I wasn’t going to force him to charge more. I think they felt bad about the 4 extra unnecessary holes they drilled in my frame. So far I have $516 invested in the project with a couple hundred to go. I do recommend this shop. But be sure to call them first, as I said, they were interested in doing a base plate install, but I don’t know if they want to do them on a regular basis. 


After the base plate was installed, it was time to work on the brake system and learn a little about it. The auxiliary braking system I have is an obsolete Blue Ox model BX8819, Luxor, that came with the RV when I bought it. I installed it in the car to check fit, turned it on, and it started pumping to get the air pressure up, which was a good sign. And a couple minutes later, I press the ‘test’ button and it pushes on the brake pedal like it’s suppose to. OK, so far so good. Only apparent problem is that the backside of the unit is pushing against the plush front of the drivers seat making it seem unstable to me. And I can’t find a nice solid place to have it push against anywhere in the area on the front of the seat. Dang. Ok, so I’ll work on that and report back. Probably will need to find a piece of plywood it can push against. Here’s what it looks like in the trunk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And the next picture shows the brake system after installation in the driver’s area. It plugs into the 12 V cigar lighter socket so I’ll have to set up a way to power it. You can’t really power things from the car battery without some kind of auxiliary charging system, since the Saturn’s engine won’t be running while towing and typically the battery would go dead after a few hours of towing. My thoughts are that I’ll install a 6-way connector & use a 6-wire cord on the Saturn so I can charge up the car’s battery from the Journey’s alternator. Like this one: 7-Way to 6-Way Trailer cable. That setup will give 2 extra wires in the cable (compared to the standard 4 wire connector often used in towed vehicles) which I can use to charge the Saturn’s battery. I’ll also need to wire in a connection from the RV’s battery set directly to the 7-Way plug so it’ll keep the car’s battery charged while traveling. This will keep the battery topped up so when power is required to operate the braking device, it’s available. I don’t want to have to worry about the battery dying either.

Here’s one of the ‘designers choice’ items. The power for the running, braking, and turn signal bulbs comes from the RV. The brake box device shown below, requires 12 volt and comes with a coiled cable and cigar lighter insert. I could cut off it’s cigar plug and wire the brake box directly to the 12 volt pin provided by the 7-wire to 6-wire setup, running a wire to it directly, or I can trickle charge the car’s battery while traveling. I choose the trickle charge route, just because I’ve read so many people complain about their toad’s battery running down while on a long journey where they might not unhook the toad for days. Many modern cars have electronic devices that need juice to maintain what’s stored in their memories. Examples of this are transmissions, engine ECU’s, even the car radio presets. This phantom draw on the battery is there even with the key removed. There’s even more draw when the key is turned to ‘ACC’ (accessories) for towing, it might be in that position for days during a long trip. I wanted to avoid having the battery die on me, so I’m installing a trickle charge system from the RV’s charging system to keep the battery topped off while traveling. That way I won’t need to periodically start the engine and wastefully idle it for several minutes once a day during a trip.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next, I started working on the lighting system. According to what I’ve read in several places, the legally required lights on a toad (named that as a joke as it’s actually ‘towed’ vehicle) are running lights, brake lights, and turn signal lights. My Saturn has type 3157 running & brake lights (one bulb with two filaments) that combine those function in one bulb, with additional and separate turn signal lights (same type bulb but both filaments are lit at the same time when operating) and there is an issue as it appears the RV combines those functions. There is a towing product that separates out those functions here: 2 – 3 Converter

I’ll do without it for now, but I like the brightness of the Saturn’s separate turn signals, it would be more obvious to fellow drivers that I’ll be turning, so I’ll install that device soon. [On Edit: I discovered that I didn’t need to add the 2 – 3 Converter, see below].

I was also thinking about what I should do with the RV’s electrical and decided to do some checking on the 7-way connector on the RV’s back bumper. And it turns out that it’s not original to this RV model. Originally there was a 6-way connector and associated wiring. And all the Winnebago schematics reflect that. But somewhere along the line, the PO changed it over to a 7-way. So, grabbed my DVM, turned the key on, turned on the running lights, set a blinker blinking, and ran back to measure voltages I fully expected to be there. Nothing. No voltage on any pin. Moved the ground wire to a chassis metal piece, still nothing. Next I start the engine and this time I get voltages where I expect them. And it looks as though that even though the PO replaced the 6-way with a 7-way, there’s only 3 pins powered plus a ground. Finding out what’s happening here will remain on my agenda.

Meanwhile, I ordered a bunch of LED replacement bulbs for the car in order to decrease the required current being drawn as LED’s are very efficient. This helps keep the wire sizes in the multi-wire cord down to manageable size and prevents overheating. After receiving the LEDs, and installing them, I quickly ran into a new problem. The running/brake two filament bulb in the Saturn, type 3157 as mentioned, had 14 Volts on one filament as you’d expect while the car’s running lights are on and engine running, but also had a strong 11 volts on the inactive filament lead. This meant it quickly burnt up the 27 ohm resistor used as the running light dropping resistor. In fact, smoke would curl up from the LED when I plugged it in during testing. This seems to me to be a engineer design fail. I don’t know where that sneak voltage came from and I wasn’t going to spent a bunch of time trying to find out. Much easier to just use my skill, equipment, and electronic parts stock to pull apart and fix the LED bulbs with a slight redesign.

Even if everything was perfect with the car’s lighting system, the resistors wouldn’t last long, because as running lights, the 27 ohm resistor was just under the typical wattage that was going to be across them anyway so would overheat and burn up fairly quickly if I drove much at night with them on continuously. So I had to add a diode to the leg without the resistor to prevent any reverse current there. Inside the LED bulbs case. Which fixed the sneak voltage issue. Then I removed the single 1/4 Watt resistor and replaced it with two 1/4 Watt resistors wired in parallel at twice the resistance thus giving 1/2 Watt at the same resistance. Did this to each of the 6 LED bulbs I have, instead of just at the two places in the car where there is a problem. That’ll work out better in the long run if I move those LED bulbs around to other positions in the car.

After all the LED replacement bulbs were modified and installed, discovered that the turn signal flasher (blinker) developed the problem of flashing too fast when LEDs are used. Pretty common occurrence when people switch over to LED running, brake, and turn signal lights, as I found in my web search. I did have a problem of finding the physical location of the flasher as the car’s user’s manual doesn’t tell where it is, but I read on a Saturn online forum that it’s on the back side of the fuse block, and is accessed by pulling off the plastic panel just to the right of the driver’s right foot. It’s a 1″ square cube with 3 pointed pins that plug into a mating socket on the back of the fuse block.

In order to access all the rear lights involved with towing a Saturn, you only have to remove these 2 screws on each side and the lighting assembly just pulls off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The far left rotating and latching socket is really the only one involved for towing but I also removed the middle one and installed LEDs there. That’s the flasher. All the sockets are twist to lock style using push in bulbs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After installing the LEDs, I found that I had the ‘flashes too fast’ issue with the turn signals. A quick search online shows that many people have had this problem and that it comes about because the flasher in the car is designed to detect when a bulb filament burns out. When that happens, it causes a decrease in current that is sensed by the flasher. LED bulbs have a naturally lower operating current, usually on the order of 5X lower so a LEDs normal operation triggers the flasher to flash the dash blinker lights too fast as a ‘tell tale’. Usually the fix is to buy a special flasher.

There are many aftermarket adjustable flashers available to fix this ‘flashes too fast’ problem, from $10 to an unbelievable $89, but I found a handyman solution more to my liking. And that was to pull the cars existing electronic flasher, open it up (easy) to expose the electronic circuitry, find the IC part number, research it online until I found the exact schematic of the circuit and how it’s used in my car. That gave me the information I needed to find and cut the trace to pin 7 of the IC so the circuit would ignore the lower current drawn by the LEDs compared to the incandescent bulbs I am replacing, which slows the flash rate since it is now ignoring what it use to detect as a burnt out bulb filament. This means I need to check them for proper operation more often of course, but the fact is, LEDs are much more reliable than incandescent so they should be fine for quite a while. Years even.

Than I ordered replacement running lights, #168. Again, these are carried by Amazon and I got 10 for $12 and free shipping with Prime. The side markers are easily changed by removing one screw and rotating the bulb holder until it comes out of the housing. Pull the bulb, replace it with the new LED but don’t reinstall until you turn on the running lights to check you got the bulbs in correctly because they are polarized. If one or both don’t light, reverse them in the sockets.

Since I have the equipment, I also removed the circuit board where the upper brake light 6 bulbs mount (the brake light assembly in the back window like in most cars these days), moved it to my workbench to modify it. The cover snaps off, and the assembly is held in place with two screws and there’s a connector to remove. On the bench, I first removed the 6 twist PC-175 type bulbs that are equivalent to type #168, then took the new #168 LEDs, straightened their leads, and soldered them in place on the generous solder lands on the back of the brake light PCB assembly. Did have to add short pieces of wire and solder them from the ground pads to the LEDs ground wire in order that the short wires from the LEDs would reach the land but it’s not all that hard with the right equipment and supplies. I did have to find the +/- orientation of the bulbs and marked them. The only PC-175 LED bulbs I found online were $6.95 each, and by doing this modification myself, I saved myself $34.

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So to recap, I replaced with LED automotive bulbs the combo tail and brake lights, side markers, upper brake lights, and turn signals. No need to replace the backup lights because the RV will never be backed up with the car attached. Or the headlights. And this car has a set of smaller headlights that are on whenever the car is running, but not when it has its headlights on but I didn’t replace those with LEDs either because they don’t come on in the ACC position used when towing.

I’m not all that pleased with the design of the LED 1157 lights as the resistor wattage is just barely acceptable. In fact, after using the LEDs just for 2-3 trips at night, I found the resistors evidenced that they’d badly overheated, even though I’d replaced the single 1/4 watt resistor with two 1/4 watt devices, giving a total of 1/2 watt. So back to the drawing board, I replace those two I’d installed in two of the LEDs, used for tail lights, with three, so now I have a total of 3/4 watts in that small package. Note that I changed the single 1/4 Watt resistor to 3 resistors 3X the value wired in parallel so the TOTAL resistance stays the same. Three 81 ohm resistors in parallel gives exactly 27 ohms resistance. The wattage increases 3X though, so since each resistor is 1/4 watt, the total is now 3/4 watt. I’m out of room inside the LED package so can’t put any more or any larger resistors in there. Take another look at the LED bulb packaging here: LED 1157

You can see that once the black plastic cap is pulled off, there wouldn’t be much room inside for a larger wattage resistor or more resistors. If the 3 resistors I’m using now overheat, I’ll just give up and put an external, high wattage resistor in the supply lead. That’ll fix it. I think what’s going on is that when the cars running, there are high voltage spikes that are pretty common due to the car’s alternator. That overheats the resistors, causing them to slowly, over time, disintegrate. Rendering them useless. We’ll see though. I’m trying to stick with these LEDs because they’re the lowest costing LEDs available right now. $2.95 each and free shipping for me. And there only seems to be an overheating problem in the running light positions…the other LEDs don’t exhibit the overheating I’m seeing in the tail light position.

[On Edit: I gave up on those LEDs…too cheap and a poor design. I’ve removed them from the Running/Brake light sockets where they were on nearly 50% of the time normal driving time, and 100% of the time when towing. I replaced them with standard 1157 bulbs. Those will stand up to the rigors of being on most of the time whereas the LEDs won’t. I’m still using LEDs everywhere else mentioned above and those are handling the operation. That keeps my overall current low, but gives me bright lights where I need them, when I need them.]

There’s only 4 wires required to run those legally required lights, along with a ground and the 12 volt supply I want to trickle charge the battery so that’s why a 6-way plug was chosen.


Moving on…

I had to find a place to mount the 6-way socket somewhere on the front of the car. There is, on my car, two optional snap in plastic plugs where the fog lights would go if the original purchaser of the car had ordered them as they are optional. One on either side. I picked the one on the drivers front as where I’d mount the 6-way because it would line up with the 7-way connector on the RV. Making the length of the electrical cord a couple feet shorter then if I choose the passenger side to mount it. This plan made it logical to run the wiring back through the compartment on the drivers side. There’s a convenient hole in the firewall with a rubber insert already so that’s where I ran the 4 wires back to the rear lights. The coil of red wire is what I’ll use to trickle charge the battery. I’ll add a resettable 12 volt circuit breaker, maybe a diode, and shorten the wire of course but for now it’s in place. Then I’ll dress the wiring and zip tie it to the frame here and there. The previous owner had one of those powerful music systems installed, left the wire and I didn’t want to waste it. The 4 color bonded cable I bought at Amazon. It’s a Reese 85205 product. It’s a little bit of overkill in that the gauge is larger than I need but I felt if one of the LEDs burnt out, I could still use a regular bulb or two without stressing the wiring.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hid the cable routing under the plastic molding that snaps into place on the driver’s left side, and also along the left frame rail, again, under the molding. It took some effort to remove that molding along the floor, some grunting and tugging along with prying with a putty knife. It’s really in there good, at least on Saturns.

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Here it will run along the left frame rail then under the rear seat. Eventually making it’s way into the trunk. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd in the trunk, I’ll stuff it under the molded carpet and tape it in place where I can. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the wires were run, I needed to add diodes so that the RVs electrical can’t interfere with the car’s. I went downtown to United Radio Supply and bought 10 – 100 volt, 3 amp standard diodes for $0.15 each. So $1.50. I already have male and female spade 1/4″ connectors so used those to interconnect everything…

This is how the tail light assembly looks before the diodes…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And this picture (below) is after…

I used heat shrink to protect the connections from shorting. There’s plenty of room to sort of stuff them up under the turn signal housing. There’s the brake and running light leads that come from the RV so there are 4 diodes, two for the RV, two for the car. Four more used on the other tail light/brake light. I really didn’t need to replace the turn signal lights with LEDs, but, I was on a mission to reduce the current requirements and nowadays it doesn’t cost all that much. I also replaced the front turn signal bulbs with LEDs. The green and yellow wires are the new additional wires from the RV.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, onto the other end of the wire bundle.

First, I took the four wires and connected them to the battery to test and make sure they worked right and that I had the right wire colors on the correct filament. Then I had to work 40 odd minutes teasing this plastic cover piece out of the plastic bumper. It’s there simply for cosmetic reasons because the first buyer didn’t opt for fog lights. I’m happy they didn’t as it gave me a convenient place to mount the 6-way connector. I didn’t want to break it so I tried several prying methods but finally it snapped out by using two plastic putty knives. Drilled 3 holes to mount the 6-way. It’s dome shaped on the front and inverted dome on the back but it’s just flat enough. I did use two flat washers on the front so there would be less gap between the connector body and the face of the plastic insert. The two on the back, shown here, give added strength. The bolts and connector screws are dabbed with fingernail polish (it’s cheap at thrift stores, much less than what they want for thread seizing products) to prevent the bolts and screws from loosening.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI jacked the car up to make it easier to work on the project. In addition, because of all the smooth molding of the bumper, I wasn’t exactly sure I’d have room above the spring loaded door of the connector to open it all the way, so I rotated it 180 degrees so it’s little door has more room when I open it and insert the connector. The spring is strong enough for years of service and the little door does a great job of sealing the connector pins and protecting them from road grime. And where the wires enter the back, I used that rubber cap shown in the picture along with several layers of vinyl tape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd here’s how it looks reinstalled. Again, took quite a bit of effort to get that plastic insert with the installed connector back in the bumper. I’m confident that it would take a wreck to get it to pop out. The small amount of tugging I’ll be doing when I insert and remove the wire cable won’t budge it, I’m sure of that.

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I did a quick check of battery current, without the brake box, and it came out to be as follows:

  • Off – 0.3 Amp
  • Acc+Radio – 0.5 Amp
  • Acc+Radio+brake – 1.1 Amp
  • Acc+Radio+Running lights – 2.5 Amp
  • All above + Brake lights – 2.9 Amp

Note that since I’ve removed and replaced the LED bulbs in the two Running/Brake lamp positions the currents are now another 2 amps when the brake signal is on. But still, all the LEDs I’ve installed lower the needed current quite a bit. I’m happy with the results. I’ll run another test later with the brake box running.

I bought this Hopkins Flex Coil at Amazon. It’s got a LED light molded inside the 7-way and 6-way handles so you can tell you have power. Neat. The red connectors have a molded in ramp that locks it into the female part so it won’t be just falling out on the road. The coil will stretch 8 feet but I’m pretty sure it’ll never be stressed that far. The coiled cable is really popular with RVers to prevent the required electrical cable from dragging on the ground and it’s not exactly easy to store on the front of the car or back of the RV, so that’s why it’s totally removable. I’ll just toss it in the car’s trunk when I’m not using it.

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Back to the rear of the RV, I still have some stuff to do there, like wire a heavy 12 volt lead to one of the pins of the 7-way connector. The Winnebago Journey has the battery compartment near the back so it won’t take much to add a heavy wire. My earlier test showed that I do have turn signals and running light voltage. I still have to test for proper brake lights but it’s probably fine.

 

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I’ve inserted the Blue Ox tow bar into the 2″ receiver, being careful to also install a locking device to make sure it’s going to stay there a while, and then bought two sets of safety cables. Each set came with two 40″ cables, and with the two pieces connected together and adding a link (which were with the RV when I bought it) that joins the two sections, that gives the 7 feet I needed. Two packages gave me two 7 foot long cables, and saved me $25 over buying from Blue Ox…they’re the only ones that seem to have the 7 foot safety cables when I was looking for them recently.

The safety cables are required by law and I bought them at Amazon…they have a clear plastic coating to prevent scratching the tow bar, they’re coiled so not likely to drag on the ground, and I made sure that they have the rating I need for my 2300 lb Saturn. They’re Master Lock brand. I would have liked them better if they had a nice colored vinyl coating but then I thought that if they appear to the casual observer to just be steel cable, they might be less of a theft target. They just unclip from the vehicle so easy to steal.

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And then I happened to find a big ol’ folding party cooler at the RV’ers give away station here in the park. I didn’t need the cooler so gave it away, and saved this waterproof, ripstop nylon bag to cover the tow bar to keep it clean and dry. It does tighten with a pull cord better than it appears here, and I’ll throw some bungie cords around it if I drive anywhere with it. But mostly, I’ll be towing and it won’t be on so it’ll only be used at RV parks. Saves another $48 over buying one from Blue Ox that’s specifically designed to cover their tow bar. I think a camper chair bag would fit too, and most of those are ripstop nylon as well.

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And so far, everything I’ve shown you related to towing, and some minor items I haven’t mentioned, all came to $656. That includes the $155 labor charge to install the tow plate. I did all the other labor myself. Quite a savings over what it would have cost to have all this done professionally. Especially if you have it done at a RV dealer or at Camping World (not recommended).

And I paid at least $2,000 less than those RVers who didn’t have the tow bar and brake system included with their RV purchase like I was lucky enough to have happen. So if you’re going to have to get everything at retail, and have it all installed for you, budget $3,000 and be happy if it comes in under that. You can find some of these items on eBay used and if I’d not had those two big ticket items included with the RV, that’s where I’d have gotten them. I did happen upon a radio transmitter/receiver set on eBay that tells you when the brake in the toad is pressed (I only have the receiver that came with the RV) but I was too slow and didn’t get it at the $25 price. Now trying to find another one at a decent price. So add that into my total. I don’t work very fast any more because I don’t have to but I putter around, trying to get a handle on what needs to be done before I dive in. This time, on this project, I’m sort of stuck here in Portland waiting to have my 5 year colonoscopy so I have plenty of time. My point is that my guesstimate of the time it took me to do the labor on this would be 12 hours tops. Both the actual work, and online searching for both facts and parts. But not counting the time for having the tow plate installed in the car plus the lead time for that.

I have been considering a toad screening device to help keep the rock chips on the front of the Saturn at a low number:

  1. KarGard II Towed Screen: Blue Ox #88255
  2. Protective Screen: Protect-a-Tow
  3. Then there’s the Front of the Car type: Roadmaster Guardian

But they don’t look all that easy to use, except maybe #2, the Protect-a-Tow above. And they are really expensive. Looking at them, I think I could make my own for under $30. I’ve read several times that if you don’t have one of those full width rock guards on the back of your RV (I don’t), the toad stays chip free, even without a chip guard. Others state that the 3M clear film will protect the toad but I’ve read so many bad stories about that product ruining the paint, I wouldn’t buy that stuff. There’s nose bras for cars, some after market but also OEM type but the complaint about those is that dirt gets under them and as a result they scrape/scratch the toad’s paint too much.

I’ve been thinking I’ll just get one of those rock guards that go on the hood of the car. I’ve used them before on my cars in the past when they seemed to be susceptible to rocks hitting the windshield. No real statistics, just a feeling and a few direct observations of rocks hitting the windshield without one, and bouncing over the top of the car with one. Can’t find one online though, not sure they make a generic one. I’ll keep searching.

I’ve kind of decided to not bother with  a rock guard for now. I like the design of the Saturn with it’s sharp angled nose and steep sloped windshield that I think will naturally help prevent rock damage. But I am going to get a 3M Clear Bra to cover the plastic headlights. At a mere $17 for a roll, it’s worth it and should prevent breaks in those expensive items from the occasional rock. From reading the 90 odd customer reviews of that product, I think I can install it myself fairly easily. If it works out and does the job, and if I eventually find any rock chips in the paint of the hood, I’ll buy more and use it as a bra on the hood. I’m not all that worried about the bumper and fenders as those are relatively soft with a lot of give so would probably shrug off a rock hit without much damage, if any.

I’m convinced that a side to side mud guard type device will likely cause more rock damage then it prevents. That comes from my reading on various RV’ing forums, and from back before I bought my first Class A, when I use to follow them just to watch them for a while, since I’d never driven a big vehicle, I was curious. I soon discovered that in the rain, I’d get sloshed with buckets of water, and pelted with rocks on dry roads. The mud brooms also sloshed my car with large drops of water in the rain, different then the periodic and repetitive sheet of water caused by the guards. And on dry roads, the rocks would pepper my windshield but they’d be smaller than with the guard, more like pebbles. Where that phenomenon didn’t happen was with Class A’s that only had the mud flaps behind the rear wheels. I could follow a Class A in the rain or on dry pavement without worry of having my vision clouded by sheets of water hitting my windshield, or my windshield damaged by stones.

I will replace my Winnebagoes missing passenger side mud flap behind the rear daulies…seems as though it got ripped off somewhere along the line. That can help prevent any tread captured rocks from being kicked back, I hope.

So that’s it for now. I’m ready to hook it up to the RV and give it a road test. I’ll come back and report on how that goes. Probably in a few weeks.

UPDATE: Towing up to Burns, Oregon Aug. 2017

Since this is the towing section of my blog, I won’t go into to much as far as travel details, but suffice to say that I towed from Mexico all the way up to Burns, Oregon in the mid-eastern part of the state, fairly close to the Idaho border. The only thing to report is about a ‘rock guard’ that is popular with some folks. Me, I’ve read enough on various forums to have formulated a theory that the RV wide mudflaps sold as an after market add on, do more harm than good.  And I had the opportunity to test that accidently when the GPS sent me on a 4 mile excursion along a gravel covered dirt road outside of Bend, Oregon.

I thought, because the map showed me as much, that the dirt/gravel portion was very short. Turned out that the GOOD section was very short. So I slowly picked my way overland on this gravel road fully expecting there to be some damage to my car when it ended since I only have the mud guards behind the duals. But, nope, car nose and windshield were both perfect when I arrived at my RV park.

Now, I’m sure that different models of car might have a different experience but since I only have the Saturn, that’s all I can attest to. And it seems as though the design of the car, coupled with the mud guards I’m using keep it relatively safe from rocks. I like that that rock strewn roads don’t seem to damage it. And as I’ve mentioned, I only have the mud guards behind the duallys I don’t have the RV wide aftermarket type. And glad of it.


UPDATE: Towing road test Sept. 2016

Mid month and it seemed like the best time to test the towing setup, so I took a day to set up and practice towing. I am staying at a pretty nice RV park that has wide, paved, and flat streets, which makes it much easier for a novice like myself to hook it up and unhook it when I return from a test drive. The first thing I found was that practice will be needed to consistently position the car in the right spot for hook up. Took me two tries to get it where I thought would be best. I see that you pretty much MUST be on a flat and level road in order to hook up safely. I work alone, no co-pilot, so I have to consider doing this sort of stuff without help. In this case, the road was level so I was able to muscle the car in place with it in NEU without worrying it would roll downhill.

I did fumble with the tow bar connections a bit, as it was my first time hooking up, but after figuring the proper orientation, the couplings slid together nicely and the pins went in easily. I can see how easy it would be for a thief to uncouple and steal the car, so I’ll have to keep the car doors locked when I’m on the road. And when I’m parked overnight and don’t unhook, I will disconnect and store the electrical cable so that doesn’t walk away.

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You can see there’s a slight drop from the RV hitch to the car’s tow plate. It’s almost exactly 4″ and that’s what Blue Ox says is the maximum allowed for safe towing. I’ll have to be careful when making turns to not bind anything. When I find a 2″ or 4″ drop hitch at a decent price I’ll get it. That will cause the electrical cord to be too short, but I have a plan to unscrew the 7-way from the RV bumper and mount it on the side of the drop hitch. Doing so will give another 12″ of slack to the cord. The PO left me a drop hitch, but it has a 6″ drop so I can’t use it as having the tow bar lower than the cars tow plate is forbidden. A sudden stop could flip the car’s back end up and over.

The length of the electrical cable is just perfect right now. It does have a slight droop so I bungeed just to be cautious. The safety cables turned out just right too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then with the tow bar, the safety cables, and the electrical cord all connected, it was time to test the lights…and I see that I have running lights, but no turn signals. And since I’m alone, I couldn’t test the brake lights. Sigh. Well, no worries, my RVs stop and signal lights are huge and high up on the back of the RV so I’m sort of safe. I’ll take a chance and take a test drive anyway. I could have found someone in the park to watch the brake lights for me, but, I was excited about doing the test drive and didn’t want to delay trying to find someone not busy. I haven’t towed anything for 30 odd years and it was never a habit so this trip was a bit nerve racking.

I carefully began my very first towing trip just by driving super slow out of the RV park…and drove over some offset speed bumps which caused the RV to whipsaw enough that several dishes flew out of the cupboard and smashed on the floor. GAH!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Well, damn. I just kept driving, and soon was on the freeway headed East into the Columbia River Gorge. All the while keeping my eyes on the rearview mirrors and the backup camera screen.

I thought the best place to turn around and head back was at Multnomah Falls as their parking lot is designed with a 180 degree turn so Portlanders can return to Portland after visiting. It felt like a very sharp and narrow turn, and I nervously eyeballed the car in the mirrors and backup monitor throughout. But all seemed to go well and from what I could tell, it never came close to binding up. When I got back, I’d driven 35 miles for the test and I could hardly tell the car was back there. I’ll have to remember not to get complacent about it though. I’m not up to testing the brake system yet as there’s another set of problems and a learning curve with that as well. Think I’ll work on that when I find a long lonely road in Arizona somewhere.


Week or two later:

When I got around to testing the circuits for the turn signals and brakes, I discovered some discrepancies between the standard wiring and what I’d assumed was available at the RV and only partially tested earlier.

First things first, I built a lighted test fixture for the RV so I could test the trailer connector wiring, alone, up in the driver’s seat using the backup monitor. Once that pointed to some wiring issues, I took the 7-way apart on the RV and chased the wiring, found the unconnected ‘Brake’ wire provided by the chassis manufacturer had been disconnected and connected that up, that meant the 2-3 converter I’d bought for the car would be returned for a refund. Luckily I hadn’t yet installed it. Not having that converter did require some more mods to the car, and to accommodate the addition of a ‘brake’ light wire, had to add two more diode isolators so I’ve now used a total of 12 diodes. But like I said earlier, a typical electronic distributer will have 3A, 100V diodes for $0.15 to $0.50 each. Amazon has them, and those 50 pieces at the link are less expensive than a single commercial isolator. I just crimped them into wire terminals to connect them into the car’s wiring. So now the cars Running/Brake/Turn Signal lights are all wired up to be controlled by the RV’s system. I did not need to run another wire though, as there are enough with the 4 wire cable I’d purchased. But I did have to splice wires on one side to run to the other side of the trunk, so as to supply a new dedicated ‘Brake’ wire.

So when I finished everything, I had this wiring from the 6-way socket to the engine compartment and back to the trunk of the car. The four middle wires were handled by the 4-color bonded cable. The black ground and red 12V wires were originally to power a sound system and were handily left for me by the car’s previous owner, which I put to new use :

  • 12V power
  • Left Turn Signal
  • Right Turn Signal
  • Running lights
  • Brake lights
  • Ground

What I found with the RV’s 7-way connector wiring is that the RV had been mod’ed for a trailer brake controller which was installed under the dash when I bought it (I’ve since removed it and it’s for sale). And though many functions are similar to towing a car 4 down, the brake wire from the RV, provided by the chassis manufacturer, wasn’t used. I restored that.

Also had to run another wire from the house batteries to the 7-way in order to supply the car’s battery with a charging source while driving. I’ve ordered a heavy duty diode that will isolate the systems so I can start the car if need be without unhooking.

So now that’s all done and I’m fairly confident that the next time I hook up to tow, all the lights and the charging system will be working.


October 2016: Travel to Mexico towing the Saturn

My 2nd towing expirience was going to be a long one. Around 1300 miles. My last week in Fairview, Oregon I wired up the power diode in the engine compartment using a fuse holder. You can see it there poked up a bit:

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Here’s a better shot (below) of the diode package plugged into a fuse socket. It’s rated at 50 amp and since I converted to use LEDs in all positions except for two bulbs, it won’t be stressed much. I’ll check it occasionally to see if it’s overheating and if so, I’ll find a heatsink for it. I used an automotive fuse holder for it. Crimped on a couple spade connectors and plugged it in. I’ve wired a LED across the fuse holder and if I ever find it’s lit, I’ll know the diode is blown and needs replacing. On the RV, I wired in a 20 amp resetting circuit breaker from the positive of the house batteries back to an unused pin of the 7-way connector. It was handy the previous owner of the RV had changed the 6-way to a 7-way, but either type would have worked. With this setup, the car’s battery receives charging current from the house batteries in the RV, which are being charged by the RV’s alternator whenever the engine is running.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 2nd towing day, I made a wrong turn trying to find a RV park and had to unhook the toad to turn around, it was too far to back up. On hooking the toad up again, I proceeded to drive away with the car in park instead of neutral. Gah! But I spotted it in the mirror as I made a slight left turn. The front wheels were skidding in the gravel. Lucky it was gravel and I was turning left so I could see it right away. I’ve got to come up with reminder devices so I don’t ruin the car someday.

Procedure for towing:

  • Move RV and car to a flat area,
  • position the tow bar  up, so it’s visible from inside the car; position the car,
  • put the car in NEU if necessary to push it into place, be careful it doesn’t move after positioning by jambing chocks under a tire,
  • connect the safety cables from the RV to car, crossing them under the tow bar,
  • connect the tow bar, make sure the directional pieces are in the right position,
  • insert and operate the safety linch pins,
  • connect the power cable,
  • wrap a bungee cord around the power cable and lash it to the tow bar arm so the power cord won’t scrape the ground when traveling or turning,
  • turn the car’s ignition key to ACC,
  • check that it’s shifted into NEU,
  • switch the cars running lights ON so the side marker lights are on,
  • close and lock all the car’s doors, (check your spare keys are in the RV),
  • start the RV, switch emergency flashers on, walk back and check that the car’s lights are also on and flashing,
  • slowly travel a few feet turning to the left and watch in your mirror that the car’s tires rotate & turn as you do.

Done! If everything’s a go, you’re off and traveling with a toad. That’s a lot to remember. I’ll have to get myself some kind of aid to remember all that every time.


Dec. 2016

Continuing on the trip to Mexico, where I could, I stayed at a RV parks that had pull through spaces long enough that I didn’t need to unhook, that’s handy and I’ll be looking for that type of park from here on out.

I towed to Rosamond, than to Thermal, California, on the west side of the Salton Sea. Again…to a RV park that had long enough sites that I wouldn’t have needed to unhook the car if I hadn’t decided to stay for two weeks. And finally, into Mexico where I am now, San Felipe, Baja. Takes about 2 hours after crossing the border to get here.

Had no real issues with towing. I’m starting to feel fairly confident, and I’m developing the habit of checking everything several times before I start towing. Hooking and unhooking only takes around 5-10 minutes depending on site levelness and weather conditions. Than once it’s all connected, setting up the Saturn to tow is simple, just turn key to ACC (no need to start engine), step on brake, shift to N, turn on running lights, lock and close the door. That’s it!

2 Responses to History and setting up to tow…

  1. Paul Meade says:

    Thanks for the great write up on the towing and the cost information. This will help when I get ready to tow with my MH. Always enjoy your blog.

    I appreciate the kind words, Paul. It’s always great to hear from readers when they get something out of my writings…

  2. hafcanadian says:

    The Guardian really works, Jim.

    Our Beaver has a long flap underneath, but our first trip in the new coach in 2006 really tore up the Explorer’s front – bumper, grill and hood. Late Fall and Winter are worse due to latent road gravel. I put the Guardian on the following year and stopped having to dig rocks out of front body seams. I’ve even considered as additional protection the Roadmaster screen that attaches underneath the towbar, but the Guardian seems to do a pretty good job on its own. I can say you definitely don’t want to hit the road with nothing at all protecting your new clean Saturn’s front end paint.

    The rocks in question don’t threaten the windshield that much; more the front end and hood edge – so a hood diverter has limited value in this instance, the threat there is still the same as when not towed… passing vehicles.

    And you’re correct, plastic film is not a good idea; it will protect against all but the largest rock chips, but will eventually discolor, micro-scratch from washing, and is a bugger to ever try and remove. It’s better to use on the coach front.

    I’m sure the Guardian does work great, Joel, but I don’t think I’d like to have to muscle it around whenever I stop and need to check fluids or take the car for a drive. And at $449, whoa, think I’ll try to find something a bit more economical. Also, they seem to be made for the Roadmaster brand of base plate, and I have the Blue Ox, so there’s the added expense of modifying to consider. Third, they’re bulky and difficult to store.

    Ya know, I’m right here in Portland, home of Roadmaster…I think I’ll run down there today and check out their sales floor.

    On Edit: I went down to Roadmaster and they have no sales floor! So a guy had me follow him over to the plant in Vancouver where they have something of a showroom in the warehouse. But nothing I was interested in was displayed. They did open a package so I could look at one product, and it’s just way too much money for something I consider too complicated. Not what I want.

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