Having returned from out of town I have dug out my notes on what I learned when going about the process of selecting, buying and refurbing an enclosed bike trailer.
It goes something like this:
Many of us have found the need for transporting bikes from time to time.
This can vary from a competition bike not suitable for the road to a barn find to a basket case.
Sometimes ones day to day vehicle can be used but often more space is needed and this is where a trailer can come in very useful.
I have owned a small open trailer for about 12 years and have just bought and refurbed a small enclosed trailer.
This short note details some of the things that I have learnt over the years in the hope that it might help other bike owners finds their way along the trailer owning route.
It is written in the context of living in US but some of the principles involved have I think wider application.
2. WHY A TRAILER?
If you need extra space over and above that provided in ones every day car/pick up etc then of course you don’t have to buy a trailer.
You could buy a van.
Which is best?—impossible to be categorical as it depends on ones personal situation and priorities but some of the factors involved are:
With a van you just have one vehicle.
With a trailer you are restricted in some states in terms of not using parkways—for example New York State.
With a trailer you can possibly retain your existing vehicle and tow with that.
However if you have decided to get a trailer---then read on.
3. OPEN VS. ENCLOSED TRAILER
The advantages of an open trailer are:
Lower cost----an open trailer normally costs three figures—an enclosed trailer is normally in four figures.
Storage. Any trailer is normally not in use for over 95% of the year. Some open trailers can be folded and stored upright –for example at the back of a garage over the winter.
I have had an open trailer for about 12 years. It is 8’ X 4” and purchased from Harbor Freight for about $250. (HF do not sell trailers these days but do sell trailer accessories). I bolted on a split hardwood deck (split so that it would still fold), and bolted car exhaust clamps through the deck and frame for bike securing straps to fit to. I also drilled the bed for three wheel chocks (HF) so that this pretty cheap trailer can transport 1, 2 or 3 solo Brit bikes or one sidecar outfit. I also fitted a trailer box at the front to store securing straps, jack, axle stand etc etc.
The disadvantages of an open trailer are:
You need ramps to get bikes on and off and then you need to take the ramps with you so that you can load/unload bike(s) at your destination.
While open trailers are OK for transporting complete bikes they are not so good for transporting basket cases—parts in boxes etc.
The open trailers contents are by definition open to the weather.
An open trailer by definition is not secure—the bikes on it are visible and easy prey for thieves if you have to leave the trailer –for example in a hotel parking lot overnight.
Once you have a trailer you will probably find that it is useful for more than bike transportation. It tends to be called on for general household transportation jobs—moving furniture etc. Here again the open trailer has the disadvantage in that the contents are open to the elements.
The advantages of an enclosed trailer are:
Protection of load from the weather and from possible theft—particularly as the contents are not visible.
Straps and other items can be left partially attached ready for a quick reload.
Storage when not in use needs space. However this is offset as the enclosed trailer can be used to store stuff. For example it might be used during the winter to store 2 or 3 bikes thus giving more space to work on other bikes in the workshop.
The enclosed trailer can be used as sleeping quarters for weekend shows etc.
The disadvantages of an enclosed trailer are:
Cost—normally much more expensive than an open trailer.
Increased aerodynamic drag—thus increasing fuel consumption of the towing vehicle.
4. NEW OR SECOND HAND?
The advantages and disadvantages of new or second hand for a trailer are similar in principle to those concerning any other vehicle.
The advantages of buying new is that you can tailor the specification to your personal preferences and you know that no one before you has used or misused the trailer.
The disadvantages of buying new are primarily related to cost. When you buy secondhand you don’t have the large initial depreciation that happens when you buy new. When you buy new there will be a lead time for delivery which may not be compatible with ones plans for using the trailer.
Personally I do not buy new cars or new bikes –so why buy a new trailer?
I suspect that many readers of this note will think the same so there follows a brief paragraph on buying a second hand trailer.
5. BUYING A SECOND HAND TRAILER
My experience of living in an urban area is that any local trailer dealers will be based in small premises and will primarily take orders for new trailers from brochures.
If buying second hand then you need to get out well into the country side where land is cheaper as a good second hand trailer dealer needs several acres to stock the trailers. In my own case living in northern NJ and quite close to New York I had to travel over 60 miles west to find a good second hand trailer dealer.
Once you are at a dealers then look carefully at trailers which match the size you are looking for (of which more later).
In particular look at:
The trailer frame underneath particularly looking for corrosion and physical damage (bent frame members etc).
Check to see if lights work, doors swing freely and close properly (and that doors have not sagged).
If fitted with brakes—check to see if they work. If not get a good discount and repair them yourself—if you can maintain a Brit bike you can repair electric brakes—they are not made by Joe Lucas
Check on previous usage. If a landscaper-then move on. Landscapers give a trailer very heavy 6 days a week usage for 8 months a year and are not treated well. They also tend to be blunt fronted . If a horse trailer then that can be useful---they sometimes have built in bunk beds for use by the horses groom. However horse urine is very corrosive so check the floor carefully. Ideally the previous owner will have used the trailer for personal power sports usage---ATVs or motorcycles etc. This means that the trailer will probably have been used only at weekends and on a seasonal basis only. Also people who buy a trailer new for that purpose often will buy a high specification trailer when purchased new.
Check the wheels and tires. Trailers are normally left outside and although the tire tread may be OK very often the tires are old and the sidewalls cracked. You do not need a puncture when towing a loaded trailer at speed! Don’t ask me how I know! If in any doubt then replace the tires. In fact I have found that you can buy complete new wheels and tires on the internet cheaper than getting a new tire put on an old wheel at your local tire dealer. I have used www.etrailer.com
for this purpose to good effect.
6. FRAME MATERIAL
The basic choice here is between steel and aluminum.
The advantages and disadvantages are basically as per:
Steel is cheaper but heavier and corrodes more
Aluminum is more expensive but lighter and corrodes less.
The weight difference is important in terms of determining usable payload.
Typically a single axle will have a load rating of 3500 lbs.
A 10’ trailer with a steel frame will weigh about 1200-1250 lbs.
A 10’ trailer with an aluminum frame will weigh about 1000 lbs.
The usable payload (the weight that you can carry in the trailer) is the difference between the axle rating and the weight of the trailer.
So in the example quoted above the steel framed trailer can carry 3500 – 1250 = 2250 lbs whereas the aluminum framed trailer can carry 3500 - 1000 = 2500 lbs.
How important is this?
In terms of transporting Brit bikes—probably not very important.
A 10’ trailer would hold probably three bikes maximum. At 400 lbs per bike that adds up to 1200 lbs. with ,say, 200 lbs for tools etc the total load is 1400 lbs—well within the load capabilities of either a steel or aluminum framed trailer.
However if the use of a trailer once purchased extends to transporting other goods and materials then the larger load capability of the aluminum framed trailer may well be significant.
Personally I prefer the aluminum framed trailers but when buying second hand you don’t necessarily get a choice.
7. TRAILER MANUFACTURERS
This is not an exhaustive listing of manufacturers but just a very general description of the impressions I gained while investigating a trailer for myself.
It seems that in US there are three categories of trailer manufacturers. These are:
Georgia, Alabama, Mississipi etc---manufacturers of steel framed trailers. Perhaps because of their southerly location the corrosion resistance is not too good. Best for a cheap trailer with limited life in my view.
Iowa, Indiana etc--- manufacturers of better quality steel framed trailers with reasonably good corrosion resistance.
Georgia, New Hampshire--- manufacturers of aluminum framed trailers. Perhaps the “Rolls-Royce” of US trailers are made by Proline in New Hampshire--- aluminum framed with high specifications.
8. TRAILER DESIGN
Here there is basically a choice between a blunt nose or a V nose. Blunt nose trailers tend to be a little cheaper than V nosed trailers but in the second hand market this is often obscured by other factors such as age, condition, specification etc.
The V nose design has advantages over the blunt nose design as per:
The V nose is a much better shape aerodynamically with significant savings in fuel for the towing vehicle, The blunt nose design is like towing a barn door.
The V nose design gives more internal space than the blunt nose design. The V nose part uses a part of the trailer footprint which is not used in the blunt nose design.
The V nose is particularly useful for transporting bikes. A bike can be located centrally with its front wheel going into the point of the V and other bikes located on either side and partially to the rear of the central bike. Often therefore the V nose design can accommodate one more bike than the blunt nose design of the same nominal size.
On balance a V nose design is much to be preferred to a blunt nose design.
9. TRAILER SIZE
Common widths are 5’, 6’ , 7’ and 8’
Up to and including 7’ widths have an unobstructed internal load space. However most 8’ width designs have wheel arches intruding into the load space.
Unless there is a special reason to go for a narrow width (only ever one bike, a bargain etc) then I would recommend going for a 7’ width. Certainly anything less than this width and the trailer could not accommodate a sidecar outfit.
Lengths start at 8’ and normally go up in 2’ increments all the way up to 30’ (the latter for car transporters etc). However from a Brit bike trailer point of view the lengths of 10’—16’ are most likely to be of use. It is worth noting that the convention is to describe the length of the trailer as the length of the rectangular part---ignoring the extra space in the V nose. So a 7’ X 10’ V nose would have an external length to the point of the V of 12’6” to 13’.
Normally up to and including 10’ trailers have a single axle. Depending on manufacturer 12’ trailers might have either one or two axles. Trailers of 14’ and up usually have twin axles. Typically twin axles give a 7000 lb total trailer weight.
While heights of less than 6’ are available it is probably best to have a trailer with an internal height of at least 6’ so that you can move around in the trailer without getting a crick in your neck.
10. TRAILER FEATURES
Two significant features worth mentioning are doors and brakes as per:
The choice is between “Barn” doors and a “Ramp” door.
The Barn door has two doors hinged vertically and opening out to gain access to the inside of the trailer.
The Ramp door is hinged horizontally and swings down to gain access to the inside of the trailer.
While some people prefer Barn doors as they can hang tools, containers etc on the inside of the two doors in my view the Ramp door is to be preferred for transporting bikes as the door provides a ready made ramp to wheel bikes up into the trailer. With a Barn door you need separate ramps to wheel bikes up into the interior of the trailer.
Some ramps have a check wire on each side to control the ramp in the down position. Other ramps have torsion springs along the door hinge at the bottom of the door. These help with lifting the ramp door back into the closed position and are a very advantageous feature.
It is worth noting that you need to check the width of the door aperture if you are thinking of transporting, for example a sidecar outfit. The width is at a minimum at the door aperture and may be 2-3” narrower on each side compared with the internal width of the main body of the trailer.
Depending on manufacturer trailers up to and including 10’ length may have no brakes on the trailer. However others start fitting brakes at 10’ trailer length. Usually trailers of 12’ length and above will have electric brakes fitted.
The design of electric brakes is quite straightforward and they are quite easy to work on. If you can build and maintain a Brit bike then you can refurbish and maintain electric brakes. There are good descriptions of how they work on the internet.
I would recommend buying a trailer with them fitted and then connecting them and using them.
They have to be connected into the towing vehicles electrical system and you need to have a brake controller in the cab of the towing vehicle. Many large SUVs and pick ups come ready wired to connect in a brake controller.
11. MY NEW TRAILER
After tramping around the stock of used trailers at a big trailer dealer located about 60 miles from where I live I found a 2007 aluminum framed V nosed trailer 7’ X 10’ with a single axle and electric brakes. It also had a ramp door with torsion springs. I wanted the trailer to be able to transport either up to three Brit bikes or one sidecar outfit. Originally I was looking for a 7’ X 12” trailer but the 7’ X 10” one was closest to my requirements in all other respects.
I measured up the internal dimensions of the trailer and drew it up to scale on graph paper. I then measured up the overall dimensions of a typical Brit bike. I then drew up three bikes to scale and cut them out. I could then place the bike cut outs on the trailer diagram and see if they would fit. Thanks to the V nose I could get three bikes in OK. I also checked the width of the sidecar outfit to make sure that it would go through the ramp door aperture of the trailer.
Having reassured myself that things would go in OK I returned to the dealer and negotiated a deal for the trailer. The price recognized that I needed to do some work on the trailer to get it to a state with which I would be happy.
After towing it home with the brakes inoperable I refurbed the trailer as per:
Three new wheels and tires as the old tires had cracked sidewalls and there was no spare wheel.
Cleaned and regreased the wheel bearings
Installed new double lipped grease seal on the axles
Completely refurbed the electric brakes including new electro magnets.
Rewired the trailer electrical system from vehicle connector to fuse box, fitted a new breakaway battery and rewired the brakes.
Painted the trailer floor and ramp with bed liner paint
Installed E track on the floor to give great flexibility in lashing points for securing bikes.
Installed a shelf in the V nose at above bike handlebar height for storage of straps, tools etc.
Installed spare wheel mount within the trailer on one side of the V front.
In tackling my project of buying and refurbing a “new” second hand enclosed trailer I was basically learning as I went along.
Hopefully these notes may help others treading the same or a similar path to get to the end point rather more quickly.