Trailer Buyer's Guide

Trailer Buyer's Guide

Finding your next classic car project can be a lot of fun, but getting it home can be a challenge. Many great deals are for non-running cars. You can always pay a professional tow company to retrieve your next diamond in the rough, but it's much more convenient if you have your own car trailer. A single trip from a farmer's field to your garage doesn't justify a trailer purchase, but over the course of a restoration project you'll find dozens of uses for a trailer. And, as a trailer owner you're bound to expand your circle of trailer-less friends.

Types Of Trailers

Car trailers come in a wide variety of styles and shapes, but for space and simplicity we'll just cover the ones most relevant to the average automotive enthusiast.

An open bed, bumper/receiver hitch-style car hauler will best serve most first-time car trailer owners. An open-bed trailer with a wooden deck is the most common, least expensive tandem axle trailer (avoid single axle car trailers). Full decks make them excellent for non-automotive uses. That increases their functionality, and makes them easier to justify financially.

Treated wooden decks are versatile. They handle abuse well, and temporary blocks (as well as other items/structures) can easily be attached. Trailers with side stake pockets can be adapted for landscaping/remodeling tasks.

Metal decks are neater, and easier to clean or degrease. Heavy car parts slide easier on metal decks. Aluminum decks look good and are easy to maintain. They weigh less than steel, which lowers the overall trailer weight.

There are trailers that are totally made of aluminum. They cost substantially more than steel trailers. Their lighter weight saves fuel when towing empty, and allows heavier vehicles to be carried. It's the combined weight of the trailer and its cargo (GTW, gross trailer weight) that counts.

A tilt-bed trailer is a plus for loading low cars and not having to deal with ramps. A trailer with a rollback bed is even nicer, but much costlier. Some trailers have the last couple feet of bed on a slant. This design is known as a beavertail or dovetail bed. The slant makes loading and unloading easier.

An enclosed trailer is the easiest loading of all, since the fold-down rear door doubles as a ramp. Rear doors are quite heavy, so power doors are a big bonus. Non-power doors usually have some type of spring assist.

An enclosed trailer can weigh substantially more than an open trailer, so keep that in mind relative to your truck's towing capabilities. Protection from the elements and their added security make enclosed trailers a good choice for only a couple thousand dollars more than similar-size open trailers.

Desirable Features

Of particular importance when considering a trailer are the following items: Deck material, deck height, deck length, load capacity, ramps, and brakes.

The least expensive open trailers have wood decks. A steel deck is better and an aluminum deck is even better, although aluminum trailers are much more costly. Trailers with just two tire tracks and an open center are fine for cars, but lack flexibility for non-automotive uses.
Ramps for open trailers vary in design and length. Longer ramps are better for low cars. Solid ramps are easier to roll a non-running car up. Battery-powered, 12-volt winches are inexpensive and great loading aids. A winch with a remote control is best.
A good trailer has four-wheel electric brakes. Electric brakes are better than surge brakes. Some cheap trailers only have brakes on one axle. Many states mandate four-wheel brakes. Trailer-specific wheels and tires are better than passenger car wheels and tires.
Getting in and out of the car while loading can be a problem, especially with low cars. A hinged or removable left fender will give added clearance. On enclosed trailers, a left side door is a welcome feature.

A low deck height is desirable for car trailers. It makes towing easier, because the overall center of gravity is lower. A low deck usually involves more expensive dropped axles.

Deck length is a key consideration. Common car trailer lengths vary from 14-24 feet, usually in two-foot increments. Enclosed trailers can be much longer. A 16-foot trailer is an excellent compromise between accommodating most cars, and not being unwieldy to tow. Flatbed trailers are most commonly 16-20 feet long, and enclosed trailers are most apt to fall in the range of 20-24 feet.

More important than length is the total load capacity. Load capacity is based on axle ratings. The two most common, consumer-style car trailer axles are 3,500-pound and 5,000-pound. That equals capacities of 7,000 and 10,000 pounds. Capacities go up for larger, more heavy-duty trailers.

In order to determine which capacity you need, you must know the weight of the empty trailer. An average flatbed trailer weighs around 2,000 pounds. It's best to have a margin for error. A 7,000-pound trailer will handle most cars, but a 10,000-pound capacity is nice to have.

New Versus Used

There's a lot of competition among trailer manufacturers, which means new-trailer prices can be quite attractive. If all you need is a basic hauler, it's hard to beat the cost of a new, mass-produced trailer.

A downside to the least expensive new trailers is that many are built as loss leaders. That is, they have the minimum features necessary to compete for customers who are strictly shopping prices. Once you get to the sales lot, the staff will surely point out numerous upgrades. The challenge is to separate the upgrades you truly need, versus those that would simply be nice to have.

Even if you're looking to buy a used trailer, it's a good idea to shop a couple new trailer outlets. Look at what they have to offer. Take notes on what the upgrades are, and how much they cost. When used trailer shopping, you may find upgraded ones priced only slightly higher than base trailers.

Two big advantages to new trailers are: knowing exactly how the trailer was used, and having some type of limited warranty. With a used trailer you have no idea of what crazy abuse might have been visited on it. You can get a general idea by the trailer's appearance, but it's tough to tell how overloaded it might have been, or what torturous roads it may have traveled.

Price is the biggest advantage of buying used. It seems like the best deals are on used, enclosed trailers. Open bed trailers hit a plateau where their functionality maintains prices, but enclosed trailers have more room for depreciation. We've seen lots of barely used enclosed trailers priced at only slightly more than deluxe open bed units. An enclosed trailer is potentially a bigger spousal eyesore, which can exacerbate the push to sell it. The added weight of an enclosed trailer may be more than the towing capacity of the seller's truck, and rather than buy a bigger truck they opt for a smaller, lighter trailer.

Trailer Safety

Published Dec 7th, 2015
We use cookies and browser activity to improve your experience, personalize content and ads, and analyze how our sites are used. For more information on how we collect and use this information, please review our Privacy Policy. California consumers may exercise their CCPA rights here.