Getting A Tow-Hold
May 20, 2015 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Rather than driving a minivan and a big pickup to a distant destination, what are the pros and cons of just towing the minivan by the big pickup?

Details: We've been looking for a towing vehicle for a few years, and finally settled on a Ford F-250 with the V10 Triton engine after finding a nice price/miles ratio, so here's the scenario: we sell at several flea markets a year, and just the minivan isn't enough inventory most of the time.

So, we got a truck for carrying bigger pieces of furniture and such, and have been considering getting a trailer. However, having two vehicles when we get to the flea market is a nice benefit -- but driving a truck pulling a trailer and the minivan, or just the truck and van, is a lot of fuel.

So, thinking out of the box, we realized: what if the minivan is the trailer? Load up the minivan with inventory, hook it to the truck, and off we go. So that's the question -- what are the pros and cons of:
  • Getting one of those two-wheeled trailers, where you strap it to the front wheels of the towed vehicle;
  • Hooking onto the front of the towed vehicle, where it has all 4 wheels on the ground and in neutral, like we see pulled by Nimitz-class motorhomes mostly;
  • is it more trouble than it's worth and just driving both vehicles would be easiest?
  • Or is one vehicle and a trailer more efficient in the long run?
The cost of gas is the big consideration, but safety and ease of driving are also important parts of our analysis. I did the math and the truck should have no problem towing this, and I've driven larger things towing larger loads so the skill required isn't an issue.
posted by AzraelBrown to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total)
Best answer: One concern is the transmission of the towed mini-van. Leaving the drive wheels on the ground ("Flat Tow") is going to keep all that stuff turning inside your transmission without proper lubrication. The Family Motorcoach Association has some suggestions for workarounds, too.
posted by notyou at 6:51 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The fuel usage in bigger truck motors (like the V10) typically aren't affected as much by towing as smaller ones. That is, you should get only a little less MPG towing than just driving around town.

Directly towing the van (not on a dolly) without damage might not be possible. it depends on the design of the transmission. true 4 wheel drive vehicles are usually ok because the transfer case can be completely disconnected from the input. you should be able to tell if this is ok by looking at the owner's manual of the van.
Also, you may want to consider making the brakes on the van actuate with the brakes on the truck.

a useful search term is "Toad" as in "towed vehicle"
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:06 AM on May 20, 2015

Best answer: You would come out better getting a trailer. It won't weigh as much as the van. Towing the van that much can wear it out in ways that it was not designed to wear. I'm assuming your van tires are more expensive than a trailer's would be, so that is something else to consider.

You will look more professional if you have professional gear. Buy the trailer.
posted by myselfasme at 7:57 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can't tow a minivan like that (flat tow) unless it is a manual or the driveshafts are disconnected, which is a massive hassle. Towing on a dolly (front wheels elevated) is pointless as you may as well have a trailer.

A trailer is much more stable and easier to turn corners with than a flat towed car. I'd be surprised if the truck has enough leverage (ie not long enough wheelbase) to drag that minivan around corners without adverse effects on the stability of the truck (especially on big tyres and with such a high centre of gravity). So I'd vote flat towing the minivan as pretty sketchy at best. Don't do it. I have done some dodgy things in my time and I'd not even attempt that, let alone do it regularly.

Towing on a dolly has similar issues because the dolly + minivan still doesn't track as easily as a full trailer (which has the wheels nearer the middle of the bed). There are no gains over a full trailer other than initial cost, and losses with drag (more wheels touching the floor) and stability.

Both options would be a complete arse to move around when you park, incidentally. Parking a trailer is easy when you get some practice, but dollies and flat tows are really hard/impossible.

Towing the minivan on a car trailer would be fine and would give you two vehicles and the best solution for stability and fuel economy. Finding a trailer that an F150 can tow easily with a minivan on should not be a problem. Fuel economy shouldn't be a major hit towing a decent sized trailer. Use a stabiliser on the trailer, because the relatively high sides of the minivan will be an issue in cross winds.

is one vehicle and a trailer more efficient in the long run?

Of course. You just balance your inconvenience when you get there from having two cars with the extra cost of towing the minivan on the trailer. You could have towed a box van the size of the truck bed with the minivan in the first place, so I'm not seeing the advantage of any option involving the truck AND the minivan. With truck and box trailer you have much, much more room than Truck+car trailer+minivan, too.
posted by Brockles at 8:31 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Unlikely you can flat tow (check owners manual) so you're looking at buying tow dolly which will probably cost close to the price of a 5x8 trailer.

If you can flat tow, backing up the truck with minivan attached is pretty much impossible due to the minivan front wheels not being locked straight. You'll have to detach if you want to reverse.

Towing a 3500 lb minivan will probably drop your mileage to the ~12 MPG range. Aerodynamics being a bigger factor than weight. (I'm estimating this from towing a boat of similar weight with a F-150 with the 5.4 liter Triton engine.)

Rocks kicked up by the truck will hit the minivan chipping the paint and windshield.

RV forums are a great resource to read about vehicle towing.
posted by LoveHam at 9:49 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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