Long distance towing made easy – Report by Chris Mullett
Delivery Magazine recently had the opportunity for a simple drive south, from Airlie Beach in Far North Queensland to the bushfires encroaching on southern Sydney.
The reason for embarking on a 4400 km road trip in the week running up to Christmas was the need to haul a trailer carrying three six-person outrigger canoes belonging to Club Outrigger Whitsunday to their new owners, the Pacific Dragons Dragon boat and Outrigger Paddling Club based in Blackwattle Bay, Glebe in the heart of Sydney.
Individually, these outrigger canoes are not particularly heavy. However, mounted on a custom-built trailer and coupled to the tow vehicle the total length of 18 metres does make for some challenges, requiring experience of driving longer overall combinations than the average car and caravan or boat trailer a valuable attribute.
Despite the timing of approaching Christmas, the job of getting the canoes and trailer safely to Sydney proved to be an ideal way to evaluate the towing supremacy of Delivery’s RAM 1500 Laramie. The timing also provided a perfect reason for focusing on the safety requirements surrounding the towing of trailers at a time when many boat and caravan owners are heading onto the road network for their annual holiday.
Before even turning a wheel prior to the start of the road trip, it’s necessary to have a good understanding of your responsibilities regarding towing. In this feature we discuss Queensland legislative requirements, but with each State or Territory being different, drivers and owners need to know what is applicable in their own neck of the woods.
Ironically, despite the 18 metre overall length of these combinations – as also seen with two-axle or three-axle trailers carrying boats, horses or hauling caravans and goose-neck trailers – they can be legitimately driven by the holder of a standard car licence.
In Queensland it only needs additional long vehicle signage if the width exceeds 2.5 metres and the overall length is under 19 metres. It can be legally driven by a learner or P-plate driver if that person is authorised to drive the category of vehicle used for towing, but this approval is limited to the combined weight of the towing vehicle and trailer not exceeding 3500 kg.
Here’s another anomaly. If the ATM (Aggregate Trailer Mass) exceeds that of 750 kg (the maximum gross weight of an unbraked trailer), the trailer needs a roadworthy certificate. This applies when the trailer is offered for sale or gifted when registered, re-registered after being unregistered, or transferred from interstate registration.
Trailers with an ATM greater than 3500 kg need a current certificate of inspection at all times, unless exempt. For those under 3500 kg there is a responsibility to maintain it in a roadworthy condition, but there’s no requirement for an annual roadworthy check.
For passenger vehicles manufactured after January 1, 1992, the tow bar must be marked with the load capacity and tow vehicle model, and here the driver needs to check the marking and ensure the tow bar is rated to cover the laden weight of the trailer.
There is an expectation that all utes are rated to tow at 3500 kg and this is definitely not the case. Some are 2500 – 3000 kg, others are 3200 kg and only some are 3500 kg. Passenger cars are often rated at much lower tow weights, with a range that covers anything from a typical box trailer at 750 kg unbraked, to a laden trailer of 2000 kg and not necessarily peaking at 3000 kg or 3500 kg.
A combination (tow vehicle and trailer) that’s 7.5 metres or longer may be fitted with rear marker plates displaying ‘DO NOT OVERTAKE TURNING VEHICLE’. This is mandatory if your vehicle needs to straddle two lanes when making sharp turns. Other warning or identification markings relate to all motor vehicles over 12 tonne GVM and for all trailers over 10 tonne GTM.
When towing on the highway any specialist knowledge of weights and restrictions becomes extremely important, so prior to running this trip we headed for the local weighbridge to confirm individual and overall weights.
The RAM 1500 Laramie powered by the 5.7-litre V8 petrol engine and fitted with an eight-speed automatic transmission has a kerb weight of 2650 kg, with a rear diff ratio of 3.92:1. It’s rated to tow trailers with a maximum gross weight of 4500 kg. The GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) is 3450 kg with a maximum tub payload of 800 kg.
In the world of utes and 4WDs the uniqueness of the RAM 1500 maximum towing ability of 4500 kg, is a major influence when it comes to driving sales against competitors such as the Nissan Patrol and Toyota Landcruiser. It should be remembered though that when towing maximum weights of 3500 kg you need to run with a 50 mm tow ball and a 3500 kg rated hitch tongue insert, whereas a step-up to 4500 kg demands a 70 mm towball and a 4500 kg rated tow hitch tongue insert.
When on the weighbridge the gross combination mass of tow vehicle and laden trailer came in at 4440 kg, from which is deducted the 1500 Laramie kerbweight of 2650 kg, plus a payload in the tub of 50 kg and a towball downforce weight of 350 kg to produce a laden trailer weight of 1390 kg. To that figure should be added the combined weight of two drivers of 160 kg. When towing at 4500 kg with the appropriate 70 mm ball and tongue hitch the ball weight can increase to 450 kg.
A word here about trailer maintenance and the necessity for a safety check prior to starting a road trip, especially one such as ours with a round trip total distance of 4466 km to be completed within five days on-road time.
Trailers, like anything mechanical, need regular maintenance. Thanks to our resident mechanics at Cannonvale Auto Repairs the local Repco Authorised Service Centre, we have regular trailer bearing condition and braking system checks completed twice a year to ensure that roadside breakdowns are something that happen to other people. These are backed by individual regular examinations prior to each outing to check on wheel nut tension, bearing greasing, spring hangers and mounts, tyre pressure and condition, spring U-bolt tension and the condition of the towing hitch and all lights.
It’s easy to forget that tyres have a definite life cycle and although the tread may not wear down to a minimum depth, tyres need to be replaced through age even when not excessively worn as the casing can fail over time. Work on a maximum of five to six years to avoid on-road problems.
With multi-axle trailers it’s also good practice to check the distance between the axles on each side is identical. Run a steel tape measure from the rear outer edge of the wheel rim through the axle centres to the front outer edge of the front wheel and compare this with the same measurement from the other side. If there is a difference it means the axle alignment needs correction or excessive tyre wear and possible bearing failure can occur.
Trailers that are less than 2000 kg Gross Tare Mass (GTM) must have brakes that operate on at least one axle and the systems can be either a mechanical override or electric intervention brake that is operated by a control unit within the tow vehicle. If the ATM of the trailer exceeds 2000 kg, the only permissible braking system is the electronic version and this requires a breakaway emergency application system with an independent power source of a battery within the trailer to apply the brakes.
Trailers that do not exceed an aggregate trailer mass (ATM) of 2500 kg must have at least one safety chain fitted. Trailers more than 2500 kg and not exceeding 3500 kg ATM must have two safety chains of 3500 kg designation fitted and trailers more than 3500 kg ATM must have two safety chains made from steel of a minimum 800 MPa breaking stress. Each chain must be sized such that the minimum breaking load exceeds the ATM. Our recommendation would be to always include two chains of maximum strength that cross over beneath the tow ball mounting and provide maximum security.
With a collection of custom-built canoes valued at around $80,000 the importance of load security cannot be overlooked. How the individual canoes are mounted and secured comes down to adding high density foam cushioning between the canoes and the mounting pads, then adding tie-down straps that ensure the integrity of the canoe onto the mount and further tie downs that restrict the potential for any fore and aft movement of any of the load.
Having considered all the above factors relating to towing trailers, both from a legal perspective and from a safety perspective, we can now focus on the actual details of the return trip from Queensland to NSW.
Our team of two-up drivers comprised a MC licence holder and an HR licence holder, both with many years of experience of long-distance driving and the necessary patience that goes with it to deal with watching the stupid and often highly-dangerous qualities of general drivers encountered during the trip.
When things go wrong when towing trailers, they happen quickly and are potentially fatal. We passed two examples of caravans still coupled to their small SUVs, that had self-destructed into the bush over the fog line, distributing clothes and cooking pots into the scrub.
That vision was obviously insufficient to dissuade two utes towing identical twin-axle caravans travelling at 120 km/h in their overtakes, plus a family in a SUV hauling their holiday home that overtook while contravening a solid white centre line again at similar speeds against oncoming traffic, only to pass them some 20 minutes later parked up for a coffee.
The one thing about driving the RAM is that you don’t have to prove anything. In the same fashion as driving a T950 Legend, you can sit back and enjoy the drive, finding an inner sense of patience when viewing those around you.
The statistics of the trip are easy to follow. The 4466 km round trip was covered in five days on road, consuming 854.87 litres of standard unleaded petrol at a cost of $1259.35.
Where possible we used E10 unleaded fuel with an octane rating of 94, but often had to fall back on to 91 octane. The cost of fuel varied between $1.379 c/l for Shell E10 at Coles Express Cannonvale, QLD and $1.399 c/l at the Puma station at Carmila, south of Mackay, QLD, peaking at $1.719 c/l at The Foodery, Chinderah, averaging $1.462 c/l throughout the trip.
Speed makes a huge difference to average fuel consumption and the sweet spot for the RAM occurred at 95 km/h and around the 1500 rpm mark in top gear (eighth), which is an overdrive ratio of 0.67:1. The seventh gear ratio is also overdriven at 0.84:1 while direct drive of 1:1 is achieved in sixth gear. At these cruising speeds peak torque of 556 Nm comes in at 3950 rpm, with maximum power of 291 kW produced at 5600 rpm.
It’s relatively easy to maintain a fuel consumption figure of 15.4 – 15.8 l/100 km while towing, and when running unladen we’ve seen that improved to 10.6 l/100 km, helped by the engine computer management system that shuts down four of the eight cylinders when maximum effort is not required.
The advantage of a RAM ute, either in 1500, 2500 or 3500 mode for towing is immense. With a longer wheelbase, heavier mass, improved stability and heaps of power and torque on tap, the driving experience is substantially better than its competition.
A large output engine, spacious interior and high level of trim all make for a more relaxed drive with a reduction in fatigue onset.
But whatever you choose to tow your trailer, take the time to do the maths, work out weights, establish a strict maintenance-based approach to avoid on road mishaps and compare the advantages. As a passing driver remarked in an underground carpark during the trip: “RAM Trucks. Ah yes! They eat normal utes for breakfast don’t they?”
GTM – Gross Trailer Mass: The mass of the trailer loaded with the maximum weight recommended by the trailer manufacturer, as it sits on the weighbridge, coupled to the tow vehicle.
GVM – Gross Vehicle Mass is the Kerb Mass plus all accessories (bull bars, roof racks, winches etc) and payload. And if you’re towing something, GVM includes the Tow Ball Download.
ATM – Aggregate Trailer Mass minus the mass of the trailer is the maximum load you can legally put in the trailer regardless of the carrying capacity of the trailer.
GCM or GCW – The maximum weight allowed for your vehicle and trailer combined, as specified by the tow vehicle’s manufacturer. The combination of the vehicle’s GVM and the trailer’s ATM determines the GCM and one directly affects the other.