Wednesday, 4 December 2013

How's The Toadmobile?

We get a lot of comments from people we meet about the ability, or supposed inability, of the Toadmobile to handle the Airstream. It's unsafe, it's illegal and it's all going to end in mechanical disaster at any moment.

My previous post was a sort of "what I did on my holidays" so this one is going to "how I coped with the stress of towing with a minivan on my holidays", or more properly "How the Toadmobile did towing".

(A note inserted after I'd written the post: there is a hideous mix of metric and imperial figures quoted, for which I apologise. In an attempt to make things easier for my American and British readers I've used mainly imperial units but, as I'm officially in a metric country, most of the units are shown in metric as well; I trust it doesn't serve to confuse. Just to muddle it further, though, I have used a lot of North American terminology but with English spellings throughout. Confused? You soon will be.)

At the start of the season I did two things to tweak the ride a little. 

Firstly I upped the tyre pressures on the Airstream to within a pound or two of the recommended figure. I'd been running about ten pounds down for the previous two seasons but read some dire warnings about what happens if you run significantly lower than max pressures so thought I'd do the suggested thing. It was also a chance to use my new compressor. 

Secondly, I made a chain shortening adjustment on the spring bars on the weight distribution system. Over time, the spring bars get a little more flexible than when new and slightly alter the weight distribution characteristics. This can make the back of the car sag a little when under load so, giving the whole hitch a slight extra lift can level the car again. Andy at Can-Am RV recommended that I add a half inch bolt or two to each chain, which have the effect of shortening the chain by one third of a link for each bolt. Throughout 2012, I ran with two bolts inserted but this year I removed both bolts and hooked up the chain on the stirrups one whole link shorter. The car was certainly looking pretty darned level by the time I'd hitched up so I have to say that I was pleased with the adjustment. There are disadvantages to shortening the chain, not least when cornering, so I may well get Can Am to "re-tune" the hitch next year by adding a little to the hitch ball angle, which will hopefully allow me to lengthen out the chain again.

Another of the immediate effects of the two alterations listed was a bumpier ride for the Airstream. When travelling, the shirts jumped off the hangers in the wardrobes very easily and some of the cupboard doors came open on our longer trips. Over the season, we also lost an internal skin rivet; just the one, but it's sign of the slighter rougher ride. 

On the I90 near Rochester NY - fully loaded!

Our first couple of trips of the year were short and gave me no time to evaluate the towing performance. The Toadmobile certainly showed no signs of stress but on trips of less than an hour nothing would be likely to show up as an issue.

Our first longer run was to Point Farms Provincial Park, a little over two hours to the north of us. The trip is relatively flat and the roads quite reasonable so again, it's no major test, but at least I had the opportunity to hook her up at 80 Km/hr (50 mph) and feel the ride. The trip both ways was uneventful, with everything working as it should, although the gas mileage was a lot worse than I've experienced on that run before (21 litres per 100 Km, 11.2 miles per US gallon). The reason was the weather, of course, with a stiff northerly headwind wind on the way up and an even worse south-westerly headwind on the way home; how nice of the wind to change over the weekend! The bouncy ride was evident as the shirts were on the floor of the wardrobe both there and back.

Our next trip to Orillia was longer, some 400 kms (249 miles) and was largely on the freeway. The average speed was higher than the local trips as I try to maintain 100 Km/hr (62 mph) on these bigger roads. We must have had the wind behind us because that run, even with a stop off in Mississauga, averaged 17.2 litres per hundred Km (13.8 miles per US gallon). Again, there were no ill effects on the Toadmobile and apart from those pesky shirts on the floor, even the bounce wasn't too evident in the trailer.

Since getting the Scanguage I've been able to accurately clock the engine temperature and this trip up north was in some very warm weather and whereas we usually run at around 87C when towing, we were up around 90C for a lot of the run up there. Heading home from Peterborough, Ontario was a bit of an eye-opener, though. Again it was very hot and for this leg of the journey we chose to head across country rather than make for the highway, at least until we hit Toronto. I had no idea how hilly it is south of the Kawartha Lakes! Certainly these hills were not monsters, were at a low elevation and fairly short in duration, but the engine temperature gauge told the story of the effort expended by the Toadmobile. Heading uphill and the temperature hit the high nineties whilst the horse power calculator hit the 120 mark, but coming down the hills the engine temperature dropped right off again and in a few seconds was back to the day's normal.  Gas consumption was quite steady, too, around the 12.8 mpg (US) point, with the downhill sections making up for the uphill work. I was reminded again, though, that coming down a steep grade with a three ton trailer behind you is harder work for the driver than going uphill; getting in that lower gear and taking it easy takes a bit of discipline, sometimes.

Coming back along the 401 highway west of Toronto, the horsepower was up, the engine temperature was up and the gas mileage was down. This, though, was more to do with the now familiar headwind and the wicked outside temperature; it was up in the high thirties (Celsius), so I suppose we were going to show some increase in the figures. Curiously, the temperature gauge on the dash didn't budge; my readings came from the Scanguage.

Anyway, back at base the Toadmobile showed no sign of any stress, which was just as well because the year's big trip was just around the corner.

The Toadmobile in MIddleboro. MA.

So, for our big trip we set off fully loaded towards Niagara and a border crossing into the United States at the Queenstown/Lewiston bridge. It was an uneventful trip until we hit the back of the line about three kilometers from the actual border. For the next three hours we crawled, yes crawled, to the border. The engine was running, of course, as was the air conditioning, and I feared for both the general engine temperature and the transmission temperature as we rolled slowly forward. The trusty Scangauge, though, told it as it was and everything seemed quite normal. That we were perilously low on gas was another matter!

Once across the border and into New York we hit the I90 as soon as we could and headed east, fortunately with a now full gas tank and no ill effects from the three hour crawl. We came off the I90 at a place called Mohawk and setting our course south, we immediately hit a long, long, climb on NY28. I don't know what the grade was but the climb went on for about five or six kilometers (a little under 4 miles) but the Toadmobile didn't really complain at all; she just kept on going. Coming out of the town at 35 mph, I cranked it up to 45 mph going up the hill and, because it was late on in the evening and the air was cooling off nicely, even the engine temperature didn't rise much above 90C. I felt certain that I could have increased the speed, too, but on a country road in the dusk, I was a little concerned about deer hopping out in front of me. The remainder of our run was good, even with another short but steep climb on the way. Our only problem was arriving at the campground in the dark, which seems to be the norm when we camp in NY State. Once more the Toadmobile seemed fine and had returned nearly 14 mpg, very good for that run but aided, I think, by a strong tail wind.

The next leg of the trip took us through the rolling hills of Upstate New York towards Albany, which was a wonderful trip. The weather was a little cooler and the car took the hills beautifully, which was most pleasing. Back on the I90, we crossed the Hudson and made our way up into the Appalachians, the summit of that particular highway being 1,724 feet above sea level at a place called Becket, MA. It's a long run from the Hudson up to Becket so the car didn't really feel the climb at all and we were able to maintain 55 to 60 mph most of the time, with little impact on either the engine temperature or the gas consumption. Later in the day we rolled uneventfully into Middleboro, MA and our campsite for the next week.
On the road through Franconia Notch

When we did hitch up again, we went due north, or rather described a wide westward arc around Greater Boston to avoid the dreadful traffic there. Once into New Hampshire and on I93 we started the climb back into the Appalachians, making for Franconia Notch. Again, the hills were long (getting up to over 1,950 feet above sea level) but not steep so the car just motored along without trouble. Once through Franconia State Park, the downhill run into Vermont was interesting as I had to work a little to keep the speed down.

We arrived at our campground in Quebec City on schedule and once more, with no tow vehicle problems at all.

Back on the road a few days later and we were motoring down the Autoroute towards Montreal. It's as flat as a billiard table but the headwind was dreadful and, judging by the Scanguage readings, the car was working very hard; horsepower up around the 100 mark (normally it's around 70) and the gas mileage was below 12 mpg. That said, we maintained 100 Km/hr (62 mph) and even sailed through Montreal with only minor hold ups. The wind did abate a little as we crossed back into Ontario and we pitched up at our Gananoque campground in fine fettle.

Resting in Gananoque

The final leg of the trip, down the 401 and 407 to Chatham, was windy and very hot again so the gas mileage was only a little over the 12 mpg mark and the engine temperature remained slightly up on normal most of the way home. Again, I didn't deviate too much from the 100 Km/hr limit and we arrived home safe and sound with the Toadmobile hot, but not bothered.

Back home again we were laid up for a month or so as we first entertained some family over from the UK, then had to stay put for a while longer as I had some minor surgery. Our trips in October were, like the ones at the start of the year, strictly local and proved nothing in terms of how the Toadmobile was working. The ride on the trailer was still in slightly "bouncy" mode but as the car was still level when hitched, I thought it was a reasonable price to pay for a well adjusted hitch. As an experiment I did travel on one trip with a full fresh water tank, which certainly stopped the bouncing, but at a cost of adding 450 lbs to the overall trailer weight I don't know that it was worth it.

So, overall we had another successful season. We hit some steeper gradients than we had seen before but nothing that troubled the Toadmobile; she performed well and gave us not a hint of concern. The weight distributing hitch was a little tighter after its adjustment, but stayed tight over our travels, at least to the point of pitching the shirts from the wardrobe rail almost every trip! The season's gas mileage was down a little on previous years but that was, I think, because we seemed to be in a perpetual headwind this year. 

Over the winter I will get the car serviced and have the shop check it over for signs of abnormal wear, then report back; if there's anything to report of course.

It looks like you can tow that with that after all.