Hitched Up

Jun 7, 2010

When customers come into a restyling or accessories shop looking for a towing hitch, they may not always realize it but they are looking to those shop owners, salespeople and installers as the experts who understand what’s available, what it’s for, who makes it, and how it works. They also might not realize it, but they expect those shop people to know about and recommend all the related items that together become the right hitch package.

For a manufacturer’s perspective of how restylers and accessory shops might deal with those concerns, we asked industry insiders Mike McCann of Rochester, Mich.-based Valley Towing Products, Tom Romero of Plymouth, Mich.-based Cequent Performance Products Inc. and Todd Green of Indianapolis-based Firestone Industrial Products to share with Restyling readers ideas of how they would go about explaining their products to potential customers.

The interview

As straightforward as it may seem, there are plenty of choices of towing hitches, which means that there are plenty of different versions of “the right hitch package”. It starts with the customer interview. The first two questions to ask seem obvious: What kind of vehicle do you have? and What are you planning to tow?

“I’d identify the current trailer to make sure that whatever hitch you install is going to support the weight,” says Valley’s McCann, “because you’ll determine, based on what they’re towing and what it weighs, what class hitch they are going to need.

“The second question I’d ask is, ‘Do you intend to tow something heavier in the future?'”

Cequent’s Romero says, “I always talk about selling for the eventuality. You can spend some real time educating a customer, but the customer will appreciate that you’re spending that kind of time to make them understand.”

McCann adds that people tend to think of purchasing towing hitches at the last minute and for their immediate needs – a new boat or getting their kid to college -” rather than thinking ahead.

“It’s an important question,” he says, “and a good starting point.”

Another denominator in the equation is the situation in which a customer comes in and wants a cheap, low-cost hitch, saying he only needs to tow a small trailer for a couple of miles. “The lure is to give the guy what he wants and call it a day,” Romero says. “But then those very important questions get lost and could spell trouble down the road.”

Romero doesn’t advocate using scare tactics, but does advocate “planting the seed of safe towing in the customer’s mind.” And, as a liability protection, he also recommends including the maximum limits of any hitch’s rated weight capacity and weight distribution information, as well as ratings for hitch accessories such as balls and ball mounts, on the invoice.

“You should also be sure the customer understands what weight carrying (WC) means versus weight distribution (WD). What you’re doing is protecting yourself and your customer from an unfortunate event, which is why the information should be put on the invoice and reviewed with the customer.”

Suspension considerations

Auto manufacturers have a big dilemma, according to Firestone’s Green. “They want to design a truck or SUV to ride well with minimal cargo, but want to make it tow and haul as much as possible,” he says. “So they compromise. And when you add weight, it sags the rear end.”

Green explains that the function of modern air-assisted helper springs is to bring the vehicle back to its original equipment ride height, supplement the stock suspension and point it down the road safely.

“Basically helper springs will maximize the OEM’s rated gross vehicle weight (GVW) and provide safe towing and hauling,” Green says.

He says it’s important that customers understand the difference between “maximize” and “increase” because helper springs don’t increase the GVW capability, which is limited to the size of the frame and the way the vehicle is designed.

“We’re not making that vehicle be able to do more than it’s designed to do; we’re just making it so it’s safer,” he says.

Installation with a lot of air-assist kits is simple enough that Green says people who can change their own oil can do it. A first-time installation may take an hour and a half or so and require only a few simple hand tools, especially with the no-drill kits that simply bolt on between the frame and the axle.

There’s good profit potential in selling the product itself, plus restyling shops also can usually charge one to three hours of installation time.

The main caveat with them is that customers have to remember it’s not just about suspension. “You can put all the suspension you want in the world, but if the drive train is not capable of towing that much weight, you’re going to burn something out,” cautions Valley’s McCann.

Which is where weight distribution in hitch engineering comes in. Cequent’s Romero explains that, fundamentally, in a weight-carrying situation, the load is on the rear axle of the tow vehicle. In a weight-distribution situation, though, the load is evenly distributed between the front and rear axles of the tow vehicle, as well as the trailer axles.

“You always want to tow level,” he says. “In layman’s terms, you’re trying to get rid of that ‘dip’ in the rear end of the vehicle. From our perspective, the best line of defense is to level out the truck and the trailer. To get suspensions back to original positions, we employ a weight distribution hitch.”

While airbags and WD hitches are designed to level the vehicle and, thus, improve safety, handling and comfort, they accomplish that through different mechanisms. If an airbag system is employed, a WD hitch might not be necessary; conversely, if a WD hitch is employed, an airbag system might not be necessary. However, Firestone’s Green points out that they can both most definitely be used together: “If you use a WD hitch and supplement it with an air spring, the air spring will help control the ride better,” he says.

The important thing for shops to keep in mind is that every towing situation is different with respect to weight distribution and suspension.

Electrical packages

Manufacturer application guides are a good source of information about electrical wiring for hitches and can help determine what wiring hook-up the customer needs.

The most common types of connectors these days are simple-to-install plug-and-play devices and represent an important additional part of the hitch package. Depending on the need, they fall into four common categories.

The first is a standard “4-way flat,” which is a flat four-prong connector. The trailer connector has three male connections and one female connection; and the truck connector has three female connections and one male connection. The 4-way is the most common for boat trailers, small utility trailers and pop-up campers.

The next most common is the “7-way,” for the RV market and any trailer with electric brakes. And for the tool trailer and agriculture market, “5-way” and “6-way” connectors are available, which are similar to a 7-way but without a 12V power feed.

Hitch manufacturers usually have a section in their catalogs that will explain each application.

In the course of exploring the electrical connection options, McCann says shops should always ask if the trailer requires electric brakes, pointing out that “federal law states that if a trailer is equipped with electric brakes, the brakes must be operational. So that’s another opportunity to provide the installation of an electric brake control, which is very easy to install. Most towing vehicles are factory pre-wired, so it’s a matter of plug-and-play; and it’s a good revenue maker for a restyling shop.”

Working with dealerships -¨and fleets

Restylers can earn revenue from sales of hitches to all types of dealerships, as well as companies and municipalities with large fleets. It’s important to understand what the dealer sells or what the fleet owner’s business is in order to be prepared to provide the correct products.

“It’s best if you can connect in person with a dealership,” says Romero, “but it’s a soft sell. Let them know what you can do and what your lead times are. You may have to be willing to make them a priority customer and beat to their drum because turnaround time is important to dealers. You may have to deliver that day or the next day. But they can be a great source of revenue.”

In addition to car and truck dealerships, it’s worthwhile to network with RV dealers, motorcycle and ATV dealers, marine dealers and dealers of utility and specialty trailers.

“Some car and truck dealerships have some pretty-high-dollar mechanics and they want them working on high-dollar transmission or engine repairs,” says McCann. “If you can provide a dealer with a complete package – the hitch, the wiring, brake control, if necessary – he can go to the customer and say, ‘For this much extra we can have this thing ready to tow for you this afternoon.’ Then the installer just comes and gets the vehicle, put this stuff on and an hour, hour and a half later he brings the car back, and they finish the prep and it’s ready to go. The main thing with dealerships is making their life easy.”

The season and timing of your contacting dealers also are important, Romero notes, “especially with RV dealers who have short selling times and would need to expedite the hitch installation because they might be under the gun to make a sale,” he says.

Some final notes

It’s one thing to provide the right hitch, but it’s another thing to provide the whole package: suspension kits, electrical connections, brake controllers, tow mirrors and other items that make up a complete package for each unique situation.

Customers should understand that a towing system is only as good as its weakest link, and restylers should understand and be prepared to match the entire system for their customers.

There are a lot of opportunities for restylers who become familiar with the hitch/towing market. Some might even consider becoming licensed to do trailer inspections.

Restylers also should understand the dynamics of cargo management and look at related accessories beyond towing, such as roof racks and cross rails.

If your shop is in a visible location, put up a sign (if allowed) or just a vehicle showing a bike rack, which is to say, “We sell hitches and bike carriers!”

Hitch Types
Industry catalogs and websites do an excellent job of explaining the various types and styles of hitches and how they are rated. All have very intuitive application guides that walk resellers directly to the right hitch, based on vehicle type and load.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has identified four classifications of hitches:

Class I: light duty, up to 2,000 lbs. GTW (Gross Trailer Weight); 1-1/4″ receiver hitch;

Class II: light duty, up to 3,500 lbs. GTW; 1-1/4″ receiver hitch;

Class III: medium duty, up to 6,000 lbs. GTW; 2″ receiver hitch;

Class IV: heavy duty, up to 10,000 lbs GTW; 2″ receiver hitch.

SAE doesn’t specifically rate Class V hitches, which are generally considered to be any hitch with a capacity above 10,000 lbs. GTW. Manufacturers have their own definitions of Class V hitches, weight ratings and receiver size openings (although most utilize a 2-1/2″ receiver hitch).

Class I and II hitches are weight-carrying (WC) hitches. Classes III, IV and V hitches may be weight carrying or weight distribution (WD) hitches. WD hitches are generally rated at higher capacities than their WC counterparts.

WC refers to weight directly on a ball mount, and WD refers to weight equally distributed into the tow vehicle’s frame as well as the trailer frame. WD hitches usually have spring bars that attach to the A-frame of the trailer, which essentially act to send load forces down the trailer frame as well as down the tow vehicle’s frame and out to the front axle.

Another critical measurement is tongue weight, which has traditionally been figured at 10% of gross trailer weight for a bumper pull trailer, but can be up to 25% on some toy haulers or trailers with slide-outs.Vehicle tow capacities vary from model to model depending on how the vehicle is equipped. Specific limits for each vehicle are found in owners’ manuals and on door-sticker weight-rating plates. In any case, owners and installers should understand those limits and be advised to never exceed the tow vehicle manufacturer’s rating or the hitch capacity rating.