Towing vehicle modification or upgrade

Philip Lord — 19 July 2017

Some tow vehicle components cop a hard time of it, and need to be upgraded to make towing optimal – and sometimes to avoid the risk of damage that towing can do to a vehicle.


Many tow vehicles are automatics these days, and the automatic transmission comes in for additional strain when towing. This strain causes it to run hotter and, while many modern autos run a transmission cooler, it’s often not enough. Many times, the factory cooler is incorporated into the radiator assembly, and was never designed to keep transmission temperatures down when towing in our hot climate. The most important upgrade for a tow vehicle is a separate oil-to-air transmission cooler.

It’s hard to give generic advice on this one – your vehicle might’ve come from the factory with an excellent separate transmission cooler, although more likely it did not. Best to check with a transmission specialist, a transmission cooler supplier or even on a vehicle-specific forum to see what capacity will best suit your vehicle.

Some vehicles also benefit from an engine oil cooler for towing, although that’s relatively rare these days. You can check with your vehicle’s manufacturer to see if they recommend an oil cooler or factory-fit one as part of an optional towing package.


While you might think that slotted disc brake rotors and high-performance brake pads should be left to sports cars, I can vouch for the excellent braking performance that they offer on a tow vehicle. Sure, if your van’s electric brakes are well set up, you shouldn’t need to rely heavily on the tow vehicle’s brakes, but better vehicle brake performance will still help.


With hundreds of kilograms of towball load pushing down on the rear of a tow vehicle, a rear suspension upgrade can be vital.

A vehicle’s factory suspension suffers on two fronts – the shock absorbers wear as they age, providing less body control, and even when new any spring/shock tuning is going to be a compromise. You can bet that the vehicle’s engineers did not make that compromise to favour towing. So heavy-duty springs and shocks, front and rear, is a really good idea for any tow vehicle you plan to hang on to for while.


Towing burns fuel at a higher rate than when touring without a van behind, and you can be faced with a long transport stage between towns in the outback. A long-range fuel tank can certainly ease range anxiety, and there are Aussie manufacturers such as Long Range Automotive that make large capacity fuel tanks for a variety of vehicles.


While cooling systems of modern vehicles are usually very efficient and cope well with the additional heat the need to dissipate when towing, older vehicles often don’t fare too well. Either their radiators become blocked with corrosion over time, or they never had adequate capacity in the first place. A larger, heavy-duty radiator is a sensible – sometimes vital – improvement for such vehicles.


While not strictly towing modifications, a bullbar, driving lights and all-terrain tyres are all really good improvements when you’re driving for thousands of kilometres in the bush. Wildlife strikes are all too common in the bush, and when you’re towing it’s a lot harder to take evasive action if a roo comes bounding out from the scrub. While you may always aim to drive only in daylight hours, we’ve all underestimated the time it takes to get to the next camping spot. Driving lights start to look like a brilliant idea as you realise that in the inky dark night of the bush, it’s a lot harder to see the road ahead with standard lights.


All-terrain tyres for a 4WD may seem like overkill when you only plan to stick to the major highways. That is, until you find that excellent short-cut you’ve taken has unexpectedly turned to a gravel road covered in flinty sharp stones. Punctures happen all too easily on such surfaces, and so all-terrain tyres (preferably in the stronger Light Truck construction) can make the difference between an event-free tour and one beleaguered with tyre changing by the side of the road.


A UHF radio is a very useful communication device when out on your travels. Not only can you keep in touch with oncoming drivers to see what road conditions are like ahead, if you have an emergency in areas with no mobile signal, the UHF may be your lifeline. A UHF is also very useful when communicating with truckies, giving them the all clear to pass you – or vice-versa.


A power upgrade with an Electric Control Unit (ECU) chip tune can transform your tow vehicle from a slow, stressful vehicle to tow with to something more responsive – and possibly more economical too. Just make sure you go to a reputable tuner and check out what the customer feedback has been like before you commit to the tune. The better tunes are in the region of $1500, so you have to ask yourself if the performance and economy improvements are worth the outlay.

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #564. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!


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