Removable tow bar failure while towing caravan

Aug 31, 2014
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We've just experienced a very scary event. While towing our caravan, the 'van came loose while descending a steep hill (out of the camp site). Fortunately, the van ran downhill, hit the rear of our car and into the banking - if it had rolled the other way,it would have gone over the edge of the hill, probably falling to a busy beach below!

The tow-bar had actually come off of the car - it was still attached to the hitch on the van. Because of this, the break cable had not activated (it was still wrapped round the tow bar). It looks as if the bar had managed to unlock itself (although the key was removed, so was definatly installed correctly). It looks and appears to be fully working, no visible damage.

I was not confident to reattach and try again - the incident could clearly have been a lot more serious than it was, so have returned home without the caravan. I plan to take it to the installer tomorrow, and will then need to return to the site to pick up the van.

To be honest, I've really lost confidence in the tow bar. Even if the installer confirms it is fixed and working, who can say this wouldn't happen again.

Has anyone else experienced this? Any advice on what to do?

The tow bar was fitted to the car at the start of this year, and we've had no problems up to today, despite several caravanning trips.
 
Mar 14, 2005
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Hi
That must have been really scary,although i think incidents involving tow bars are rare,I have always used the type that are bolted on, perhaps you should consider changing to that type.I feel with detachables there will always be a risk however small, simply because by it's nature it is 'detachable'
 
Mar 14, 2005
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Hello Simon,

I am really pleased to hear no one was hurt as a result of your incident.

To be honest, this is the first time I have seen a first hand report of a detachable tow-bar disengaging by its self. I personally don't have one, (One was not made for my ancient tow car) but I have seen many in use, and I have seen some owners fiddling a little to actually get them to fully engage before apparently locking them in place, But other manage it quite simply and quickly.

Obviously I can't tell you what has happened in your case, but I strongly advise you get a second professional opinion about your tow bar system, because if you ask the fitter who fitted it for you they may consistently overlook something that others may spot.

I hope you can find a towing solution that rebuilds your confidence.
 
Dec 11, 2009
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Over the years on various caravan forums I have always stated my doubt at the wisdom of looping the breakaway cable around the tow ball and have advocated a carabina type cable connected directly to a dedicated fixing point on the tow bar frame. This is the first time I have heard of a tow ball becoming detached but I am now more convinced than ever of the folly of looping the cable around the tow ball.
 
May 7, 2012
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The tow bar has to be of merchantable quality and if it failed through no fault of yours you should have a claim against the fitter. I assume that your caravan insurer has the claim for the caravan and your car insurer for any damage to that. I would think they will want to check the tow bar to see if there is a problem as they will be looking to see if there is a claim against the fitter for their outlays. If there is you would have a claim for the excess on both policies and any other losses you may have.
If you car insurance has legal cover I would see if that will help.
 
Jun 24, 2005
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I've only ever had detachables and have only ever had one detach once and that was my fault for not putting it on firmly enough. However, I always use the jockey wheel to raise the back of the car once the 'van is attached just to make sure it is attached.
Through experimentation, I've discovered that it's possible to lock the towbar when, in fact, it's not correctly seated so the fact that you can lock it is no indication that all is well. You can fit the tow hitch without locking it - my car dealer told me that the lock is an anti theft device not an aid to ensure that the tow hitch is correctly installed.
Could I suggest that the apparent failure of the OP's towbar "out of the camp site" might indicate that the hitch was not correctly attached and checked?
I agree with other posters that you should never wrap the breakaway cable arround a detachable. I have a heavy duty carabiner attached to the car and the cable is looped through that.
 
Aug 31, 2014
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Thanks for all the above posts. I remain confident that I did install correctly.

Anyway, an update is that the installer has been in contact with Westfalia who have agreed to fit, at their cost, a fixed towbar to replace the detachable one. They will also fund my costs (i.e. return trip to Wales to collect the 'van, and also damage to the van when it hit the car). They agreed to this very quickly. Lets be charitable and put that down to excellent customer service, rather than them admitting a design fault.

My removable bar was held in place by three ball bearings, held rigid when locked by a central steel post. The suspicion is that this may have failed - although how or why remains unclear. It is, by design, the lowest part of the car under the rear, and has on occasion bottomed out over speed bumps etc. Again, design must have been to cope with that sort of ground contact without breaking. I've spoken to some other 'van owners, with different types of removable bar (for example, where you insert, then rotate it into vertical position), which seems a better, more robust design. However, my bar wasn't cheap, was a reputable manufacturer, and still failed.

All the posts above regarding attaching break cables is also valid. There is no other option on my current setup.

Ultimately, each user needs to make up their own mind. I personally will never use a detachable tow bar again. A simple, robust, fixed bar is the only type I would consider in future.

So - hopefully my new tow bar will be fitted tomorrow, and I can return to recover my caravan over the weekend, and the issue will be closed. Thanks for all the posts and comments on this thread.

Simon
 
Nov 6, 2005
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That must have been extremely scary?
Quick question? Had you removed it when arrived on site and refitted it when you left?
I have had detachable towbars on my last 5 cars and you had a wheel to turn to release and to fit, but it had a lock mechanism and you couldn't remove the key without it being in the fully locked position a type of fail safe.
I have always wrapped around the towball as i have never had a point on the towbar as this was hidden away , could have welded a point i suppose but that then changes the spec of the towbar? Alko recommend the attaching around the towball
Westfalia removable bars are all the same , i had them fitted on my cars and the wheel would not return or lock unless it was fully located.
Just a quick note to add if it wasn't locked someone may have tried to have a play with it? Always see them for sale on Ebay?
 
May 7, 2012
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Good to here of the excellent customer service and looks like a happy ending but the speed at which this was dealt with does make you wonder what is going on.
 
Mar 9, 2008
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Lets hope this is a one in ten million occurrence , or greater , but also lets remember ANYTHING mechanical or electrical can go wrong . Westfalia is one MAJOR major manufacturer of heavy , light and electronic engineering throughout the world , I think they have reacted very well indeed , no arguments , fuss and very speedily . As we know there is a number of internal components within a detachable towbar assembly and maybe one of these small parts failed for some reason , perhaps metal fatigue ( for instance , due you bottoming out ) then the towbar manufacturer is not saying they are to fault but ensuring customer happiness and confidence , again I think the company will be in touch with the OP to check out the possible fault and give guidance . Please remember if a nut or stud becomes loose we usually rectify by retightening and maybe locktighting , but certainly not over reacting and welding the item together , example :- caravan loose wheel nuts . If we customers with detachable towbars take all the care we can making sure we always fit the products correctly and check, plus do all the necessary maintenance recommended , ie cleaning , testing and lubrication , then we minimise all problems . I am not blaming the OP in any way and totally understand his position but lets see what Westfalia do and say .
 
Mar 9, 2008
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As previously mentioned on this subject you do see a lot of detachable towhooks ( Westfalia's name these items as ballbars ) for sale on e bay . I do go on another car forums for my vehicle and very informative they are too but one subject was caravans running to high /low of our vehicles when using detachable towbars , usually Westfalia . I know of two members that have purchased another ballbar to fit to there towbars to correct this height difference , this is were a major issue comes to light . I do know this is correct as I phoned Westfalia central technical department in Germany to asked questions . ONLY your ballbar for your towbar vehicle is type approved for that said vehicle , meaning , you cannot legally fit ANY ballbar to your vehicle or you risk legal prosecution AND car insurance being declared null and void if found out . Maybe if you are ever stopped whilst towing then the ministry men could check on these stamped in towbar/ballbar information with possible nasty results . Westfalia are absolutely adamant that non type approved ballbars be fitted and are seeking official backing . Please do not take this as scare mongering , just a warning of how serious this manufacturer is .
PS :- Westfalia will not sell you a ballbar without you giving them the correct towbar stamped information for that type approved unit , meaning , only the ballbar approved for your vehicle will be supplied .
 
Feb 3, 2020
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I know that I’m resurrecting an old post but I’ve just had exactly the same happen as above. I’ve found the cause and the cure. Has anyone else had a similar failure?
 
Nov 11, 2009
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I know that I’m resurrecting an old post but I’ve just had exactly the same happen as above. I’ve found the cause and the cure. Has anyone else had a similar failure?
Interesting post. What were the cause and cure ?
 
Feb 3, 2020
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I had a westfalia detachable fitted to my Mercedes GLC220D 2 years ago. Since then I have towed without incident my caravan and small box trailer. Just before lockdown I was taking my caravan from storage and to exit involved driving down a steep road that ran to a main road. I braked quite sharply at the junction whereupon the tow bar detached itself causing the caravan to embed itself under the rear of the tow vehicle. With the help of a passing motorist I managed to disentangle the mechanical mess and reattach the tow ball and in turn the ‘van to the car. I put it down to me not having ensured that the mechanism had engaged but as an engineer, this was doubtful.
Today, the same has happened again but not quite as dramatically. Collecting the caravan from storage, I removed the protective blank from inside the tow bracket and inserted the tow ball mechanism. On insertion, the spring loaded knob to the right of the ball rotated itself fully and displayed the green section, indicating that the unit was engaged. As a matter of course for my own peace of mind, I now hold on to the car tailgate and stand on the ball to ensure that it is secure. To my dismay, the bl***y thing slipped out. Now this is the type that inserts vertically and as the previous poster has stated and indeed holds in place by three retractable ball bearings that lock in place in a recess in the bracket by a centre post in the ball mechanism.
I wound back the rotary dial and tried again. Once more a reassuring clunk as the spring loaded knob rotated into place and displayed the green indicator. Same again, 80 odd kilograms dancing on it and it dropped out. What ??? Ok third time lucky, I inserted the ball into the bracket again and expecting the worst, attempted to dislodge it by standing on it. Hooray, it stayed in place. Great so I coupled up the caravan. So to be absolutely sure, I stood on the a frame and had a good old bounce. All good. I got into the car and eased away. Less than 2 metres and a slight bump and the whole lot detached itself. Caravan hitch complete with tow ball resting on the road, retracted jockey wheel shattered after taking the impact, breakaway cable completely unscathed and still wrapped around the useless tow ball. 13 pin plug still plugged in the car but managed to stop before damaging that. Ok, so after managing to raise the caravan back up I set about identifying the problem with the tow ball.
The mechanism is setup for insertion by pulling the knob outwards and then rotating clockwise until it latches on a pawl. This leaves the centre post down and the three ball bearings able to recess into the male part of the attachment. Inserting the male section on the tow ball into the female part of the bracket releases the ratchet and the spring loaded dial and centre post snap into place. Now here’s the critical bit, the indicator is showing green (engaged) on the indicator but this isn’t the case. As mentioned earlier,
The knob needs to be pulled out before rotating prior to insertion. When the unit locks in, that’s knob needs to be fully home at it’s base against the body.
NO GAP. In my particular case, there was a gap of perhaps 2 or 3 millimetres. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the knob to seat fully home. The ball assembly was fully home in the bracket. All appeared well. I tapped the underside of the ball upwards and the knob slipped into place. Exactly as it should be. The upward travel that I achieved by hitting it was hardly noticeable.
So. I’ve cleaned all of the mating surface of the male section with fine wire wool. I’ve degreased everything and removed any paint from the surfaces that meet and smeared a fine coating of grease. I’ve done the same with the female section on the bracket. It now engages first time every time and I once more have confidence in the unit. What I don’t understand is how a ball that is stored in a dry pouch inside the car and only inserted in the bracket whilst towing can be contaminated. Similarly, the blanking plug is always inserted into the bracket when the ball is not being used. But most worrying Is how the indicator can display green and indeed the security key can be locked and removed when the unit is not in a safe state to be used. To reiterate, the knob needs to be seated firmly on its base, NO GAP. And I also discovered a nice little slot in the towing bracket hidden well up under the bumper to attach the breakaway cable to. Not exactly convenient but definitely more effective.
hope this helps.
 
Nov 11, 2009
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Thank you for your detailed write up. I have a Witter which goes into its receiving hole vertically and although I test it using the jockey wheel wind down I will additionally check that the rotary knob is close up to the metal of the towball.
 
May 7, 2012
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I have seen this reported before but have never seen any answer. I think the makers possibly just assume that due to the very rare frequency that it is incorrect fixing by the owner. I have never trusted the idea and always had fixed towbars and if this happened to me I think whatever else I would change the towbar.
Incidentaly Westfalia and Witter are both part of the same group, so a fault in one could be common to both.
 
Jan 3, 2012
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Also i have heard about it i also have a Westfalia detachable towbar i leave mine on through the season and take it off through the winter period for one reason i find it very heavy to keep taking it off .but next one will be fixed .
 
Nov 11, 2009
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I have seen this reported before but have never seen any answer. I think the makers possibly just assume that due to the very rare frequency that it is incorrect fixing by the owner. I have never trusted the idea and always had fixed towbars and if this happened to me I think whatever else I would change the towbar.
Incidentaly Westfalia and Witter are both part of the same group, so a fault in one could be common to both.
My three Witter detachable towels have not had an arrangement with three large ball bearings as shown in the photo. My current one is effectively u-shaped and the fixing part goes vertically into its socket, but totally different to the one shown above. Shown below is one identical those I have had.

CF3CA945-0583-48B0-A99B-40D78482D966.jpeg
 
Jan 3, 2012
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Witter have been making towbars since 1950 and is the uk leading towbar manufacturer .

Westfalia invent the ball towbar 1932 they have also won many awards for example -Auto Motor & Sport magazine have awarded westfalia best brand for towbars 7 times
 
Nov 11, 2009
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Witter have been making towbars since 1950 and is the uk leading towbar manufacturer .

Westfalia invent the ball towbar 1932 they have also won many awards for example -Auto Motor & Sport magazine have awarded westfalia best brand for towbars 7 times

They are now both owned by the same US company and whilst design may still be in their respective countries I believe manufacturing is in Romania. And before the shells arrive re Romania just look at some of the equipment Romania provides viz LPD hull and main equipment for RNLN, Airbus components,VAG and Bosch components and not least the famous Dacia Duster.
 
Jan 3, 2012
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i have been there on holiday some years ago we stop near Bucharest saw a museum
i know it nothing to do with towbars but i thought i would mention it ..
 
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Nov 11, 2009
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Yes it’s somewhere I would like to visit as it’s a beautiful country with a diverse range of geography and culture.
 
Oct 8, 2006
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For the record in some countries - notably the Netherlands - it is an offence to loop the breakaway round the ball UK style. It MUST be attached to the towbar mount either by looping the breakaway round the bar, by attaching the cable to a dedicated point, or on a fixed ball by use of a pigtail fixed under one of the ball mount bolts.
The Dutch police are known to sit outside Europort in Rotterdam and pull UK vehicles to check on correct attachment and if it isn't its a hefty Euro fine on the spot.
 

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