The Complete Guide To Tow Bars

Whether you want to tow a car, boat, caravan, trailer, bike rack or anything else, you’ll need to fit a tow bar to your car. Within this article, we discuss everything you need to know about tow bars such as the different types, fitting, electrics and so much more.

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Tow Bar
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If you are new to the world of tow bars, you may be slightly confused to which tow bar is right for you. There are multiple different types, designs, fittings and factors that you’ll need to consider before installing it to your car.

However, to guide you through everything you need to know, we’ve written the below guide based upon our experience of using and fitting multiple over the years as well as plenty of research of the current market.

Detachable, Fixed or Retractable

When it comes to choosing your tow bar, there are three main types that include a detachable, fixed and retractable tow bar. To help you choose the type you require, we’ve discussed each type in detail below.

Detachable

A detachable tow bar is by far the most popular type to have fitted to a car because it can be easily detached when you are not towing. Once removed from the car, the tow bar’s crossbar is barely visible and it’s a great option to consider if you only tow a few times a year.

In terms of how they work, they simply lock into place and can be easily removed (with the key) using the release mechanism. With regards to the electrics, they remain attached to the car and they don’t need to be removed.

The main drawback of a detachable tow bar is the fact that it’s more expensive than the fixed alternative. However, the advantages when compared to a fixed tow bar are certainly worth paying the extra for many people.

To conclude, if you don’t want to ruin the appearance of your car with a permanent tow bar or you only tow a few times a year, we would highly recommend a detachable tow bar.

detachable tow bar

Fixed

The fixed alternative is the original type of tow bar and it’s permanently installed to your car, which makes it ideal for those that regularly tow. Another great benefit of a fixed tow bar is the fact that it’s much cheaper to buy and install and it also requires very little maintenance too.

However, as it’s permanent, it does have some drawbacks such as its appearance and the fact that it could trigger the parking sensors. However, if you are towing regularly, these drawbacks aren’t that much of an issue.

Therefore, for those that tow regularly or have a commercial vehicle that could benefit from a tow bar, we would highly recommend a fixed type. The cost savings from fitting a fixed tow bar instead of the detachable alternative may be more than enough to sway your decision.

Fixed Tow Bar

Retractable

The latest type of tow bar is a retractable type and as you can see in the photo, they are designed to electronically retract behind the car’s bumper. They are by far the most expensive type of tow bar that you can get fitted to a car and for certain vehicles, they can cost upwards of £1,000.

In terms of how they work, most retractable tow bars feature a button to activate the swivelling motion upon the tailgate. It’s a very sophisticated system that offers the same benefits of a detachable alternative but without the need to manually remove the tow bar.

However, they do have their drawbacks such as the cost to have it installed (from the factory or as an aftermarket part) as well as the cost of any repairs if it were to malfunction. Overall, if you have the budget to do so and regularly tow with a premium vehicle, they are a great option to consider.

retractable tow bar

Flange or Swan Neck Types

As well as the different types of tow bars, there is also two different neck types that you can choose from. These include a flange and swan neck where both have their own benefits and drawbacks as discussed below.

Flange

A flange tow bar is usually the cheapest type and also the most common in the UK. It sits directly beneath your bumper and the tow ball itself is bolted on to the faceplate.

A great benefit of fitting a flange tow bar to your car is the fact that many different types of tow ball can be installed. This means you have the choice of either a ALKO tow ball or a ball and pin coupling to best suit your requirements.

Another unique benefit is the ability to install a number of accessories, which can include stabilisers, steps, bumper protectors and so much more. These accessories fit between the faceplate of the tow bar and the flange itself.

In terms of the drawbacks of the flange tow bar, many will agree that they are less aesthetically pleasing. The bulky design also means that they are more likely to trigger parking sensors, which can be very frustrating at times.

Flange Tow Bar

Swan Neck

A swan neck tow bar has a narrower neck to the flange alternative and many people will agree that it’s more aesthetically pleasing. Due to the narrower design, it also benefits from being less likely to trigger parking sensors as you are reversing into tight gaps.

In terms of the drawbacks when compared to a flange, the swan neck tow bar is often more expensive and you aren’t able to add accessories such as a bumper shield. However, when it comes to deciding between the two, most people base their decision upon its appearance and whether the tow bar is going to effect the parking aids of the car.

Swan Neck Towbar

Tow Bar Electrics

When it comes to fitting a tow bar, a lot of people forget about the electrics that are required. The electrical components are needed because they synchronise the car’s electrics with the electrics of your trailer or caravan. For example, when you are braking, your car’s brake lights will turn on as normal but with the tow bar electrics installed, the trailer or caravan brake lights will also turn on simultaneously.

With regards to the electrical components you require, most come as a complete kit and include either a 7 or 13 pin connector. The difference between the two is that the 13 pin has extra functions whereas the 7 pin connector only provides the basics such as the brake lights.

Tow Bar Electrics

How Much Does It Cost To Fit A Tow Bar

The cost to fit a tow bar varies from car to car because certain cars feature additional parts that need to removed or altered. Compared to cars from a few decades ago, when it comes to fitting a tow bar, you now need to deal with extra obstacles such as AdBlue tanks, LPG systems, parking sensors and so much more. The car’s ECU also needs to be altered as there are modules that need to be programmed into the car such as the Trailer Stability Program (TSP).

With regards to the parts required to fit a tow bar, they also make a big difference to the overall cost. For example, detachable tow bars are more expensive than fixed tow bars and the type of electrical kit you use will also impact the cost to fit a tow bar. To provide you with the approximate costs of fitting a tow bar, see the below table.

Car TypeFixed CostDetachable Cost
Small Hatchback£400 – £500£500 – £600
Saloon£450 – £550£600 – £700
Estate£450 – £550£600 – £700
SUV£600 – £700£700 – £800

The above table shows what the prices start from (approximates) but this does vary quite a lot depending upon your car.

We also didn’t include the prices of retractable tow bars because the cost to buy the tow bar as well as the cost of labour varies quite significantly. For example, you can purchase a retractable tow bar straight from Ford for a little over £700 but the Mercedes equivalent for a small SUV is almost £3000. You may also find it difficult to find any local companies to fit it at a reasonable rate and we personally know people that have been quoted extortionate amounts.

how much is a tow bar

How To Fit A Tow Bar

If you are fairly confident when it comes to working on your car, you may want to fit the tow bar yourself. However, it isn’t as straightforward as you think because you may need to cut into the rear bumper and trim, remove the exhaust and AdBlue tank as well as deal with the electrics (as discussed above). It’s also worth pointing out that if its not installed correctly, it may not be entirely safe and it could invalidate any warranties that come with your tow bar.

To make the process of fitting a tow bar go smoothly, we strongly recommend investing into a mechanics tool set. This is because there will be various bolts from the tow bar and bumper that’ll need to be removed/installed. We also highly advise that you use a torque wrench because you’ll need to tighten parts of the tow bar at the correct torque ratings.

Below are the brief steps required to fit a tow bar to your car:

  1. Remove the bumper, boot trim and any other parts that may restrict access (exhaust, AdBlue Tank etc).
  2. Cut into your rear bumper in order to make room for the towing components (neck, ball and electrics).
  3. Clean any surfaces and apply rust treatment to any corroded areas (optional but good practice).
  4. Pass the towing electrics through the entry points and all the way to the fuse box at the front.
  5. Install the crossbar to the various mounting points of the car’s chassis (mounting points vary).
  6. Use a torque wrench to tighten the bolts to the torque settings listed in the instructions.
  7. Connect the tow ball and neck to the crossbar (if swan neck) or fasten the tow ball to the face plate (if a flange).
  8. Wire the tow bar to the electrics and seal around any seams to prevent water from getting in.
  9. Reinstall the boot trim, rear bumper and any other parts that were removed.
  10. Use a diagnostic tool to configure the towing module.
how to fit tow bar

How To Remove A Tow Bar

Whether you have just bought a car with a tow bar installed that you’ll never use or you want to upgrade it, removing a tow bar is certainly something you can do yourself. We’ve removed a number of tow bars over the years that are installed upon cars that simply don’t suit them. As an example, in the below photo you can see that we removed a tow bar from a Mercedes 190E and this is a car that certainly looks better with it removed.

To remove a fixed tow bar, follow the below steps:

  1. Unbolt the tow ball from the face plate.
  2. Remove the rear bumper and boot trim.
  3. Disconnect the loom between the Canbus box and tow bar.
  4. Feed the cables out through the holes in the body and fit rubber grommets.
  5. Use a breaker bar (bigger the better) to remove the bolts holding the crossbar to the rear subframe.
  6. Install a crash bar where the towing bar was installed and bolt it on to the correct torque settings.
  7. Reinstall the boot trim and bumper.

If you have a warning light appearing on your dashboard after the removal, you may need to use a car diagnostic tool to code out/remove the towing module.

How To Remove A Tow Bar

Does It Affect My Insurance?

As fitting a tow bar to your car is technically classed as a modification, it may affect your insurance. Therefore, once you’ve had your tow bar fitted, you’ll want to get in touch with the company you insure your car with to update them. Depending upon who you are insured with, many insurers may not charge an added premium for fitting a tow bar.

Conclusion

Deciding on the most suitable tow bar for your car and personal requirements will come down to a number of factors. For example, how often you’ll be towing and whether you want to spend the extra for a detachable tow bar are two of the main factors we recommend considering. Regardless of the option you choose, fitting a tow bar instantly improves your car’s practicality and it can even increase the value of your car when you come to selling it.

If you require further information with regards to tow bars, feel free to get in touch and we will try to provide our assistance where possible.

YourCar Author Dan

Written By Dan

Dan has been a car enthusiast ever since he can remember and has an extensive range of cars that include classic cars that he has restored himself from a barn find condition to modern performance cars. Whether you need advice on how to install car parts or recommendations on what products to buy, Dan’s first-hand experience will certainly help.

If you want to find out more about Dan, our testing process or the website itself, visit our about page for further information.

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