When people talk about what they’d hypothetically do in an extreme situation, it’s almost always bullshit. Panic is a powerful thing. It can’t be accounted for. That’s why, instead of me harping on about how my cross-country S-Class towing-a-trailer experiment went swimmingly, I’ll share the panic-filled tale of how it came to a screeching halt.
For those of you wondering why you’re looking at a trailer being towed by a 16-year-old Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it’s because I decided to move from New Jersey to Florida without checking if U-Haul had any trucks I could use without having my bank account balance look like eastern European hackers won my card number in a sketchy poker game.
As a creative and clearly desperate move, I bought a Class I tow hitch and a 5 x 8 trailer and put all of my personal crap into it, hoping that it would make it the 1,050 mile trip.
Towing a big load behind you in a car that isn’t built for towing is a bit like welding with flip flops on. It’s technically fine as long as you’re acutely aware of what you’re doing, with the knowledge that should you forget some seemingly mundane detail, it could mean a time-sensitive rush to the hospital.
With that said, I’d like to think I’m a cautious individual, but the prospect of this towing project had me quite a bit more anxious than what any normal brain would consider manageable.
Though it took a fair bit of psyching myself up for the trip ahead , I managed to embark on the newly assembled Mercedes tow rig’s maiden voyage... around the block. A New Jersey block, the circumference of which is about a quarter mile, for those doing some back-of-napkin math at home.
“Yep, good enough for 1,000 miles!”, I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to the land of 24 hour diners and regular crime to set a course for the land of 24 hour swamp-ass humidity and inexplicable crime.
Turns, at least at first, were taken with a conscious awareness and overcompensation for the size and angle of the protruding trailer, and I made damn sure that any approaching 747 could safely land in the space between my S500 and the car in front of me. I promised myself I’d do five miles per hour under the speed limit and like it.
As I approached the entrance for I-95, the road I’d be on for the next 800 miles until my end-of-day stopover, I pulled over at a gas station to check if everything was more-or-less tight. I pulled on straps, yanked chains, kicked tires, and gave the whole undercarriage a good once-over to make sure that I wasn’t Exxon Valdez-ing the road behind me. Good on all counts.
Pulling the wood-and-leather shifter into the only forward drive mode the German luxobarge had, I pinky-toed the accelerator to get the 6,000 lb. mass moving under its own power. The car made some mildly concerning creaks, followed by a sensation that felt almost like acceleration, just not as brisk.
The manufacturer’s zero to 60 mph time would’ve been a wild fever dream at that point, but that didn’t matter, because I just needed to get on the highway. Any pedal work after that would’ve just been to maintain momentum, of which I had, in scientific terms, oodles of. At speed, the trailer made its weight known, but not to the extent where it was a wayward nuisance on the road, it simply required some attention in the same way that hauling a twine-strapped mattress on your roof would. Probably fine, but you’ll still drive with your hand glued to the roof just in case.
I did notice one slight issue: the trailer’s right tire was making an annoying tickety-tappety noise that followed the speed of the car. Upon inspection, I couldn’t spot any nails or jammed rocks in the tire, so I figured that it was road debris that had wedged itself loose on the pull-over.
As I once again entered the increasingly crowded highway, the ticking noise had not subsided, however it did become a bit more faint as I approached the posted speed limit. A small annoyance I could handle. What I couldn’t handle was a catastrophic failure, which as luck would have it, is exactly what happened.
The sound of a deer slug going though a shotgun barrel went off behind my head, followed by an abrupt and sudden jerk rearward. The car stayed in its lane. I had two immediate thoughts, both of which were wrong.
I looked back and the only visible object was a severely lopsided trailer with smoke billowing out of one side of its flared wheel wells. The distinct clang of my carefully packed tools being thrust out of their containers was audibly apparent, and the force of deceleration had, at that point, become overwhelming.
After pulling over from my position in the right-most lane and having the shocking amount of smoke clear, the bleak scenario made itself known. I had a blowout at 60 miles per hour with a car that wasn’t designed to tow. Although I was well clear of any other traffic, I’m sure the resulting blowout put the fear of God into the driver of the Chrysler Concorde behind me.
Thankfully, the makeshift tow hitch setup that I assembled from parts made with the finest Chinese steel had a trial by fire and was absolutely unscathed from the incident. My tire, the one I checked and re-checked for leaks and tread depth, was another story.
From the looks of things, the concerning ticking noises that I heard were the steel belts holding the tire together deciding that they’d go their separate ways in the 85 degree heat, not helped at all by the degrading effects of 2,000 pounds of weight and the crushing toll of driving on New Jersey’s signature pockmarked highways.
I was stuck 10 miles from my house, staring down the barrel of an all-day journey, and the two spare wheels affixed to the front of my now much sadder looking trailer were two inches smaller than what I had on there. This would mean less contact patch for the tires and less stability, not to mention that the tires on the stock 13-inchers didn’t look any newer than the one that just blew the hell up on the highway, so I elected not to use those and have them remain tow rig decorations.
What I did, after I could get my hands to stop shaking, is called up AAA and told them that my trailer had a flat, and patiently waited for them to stop laughing when I told them what the tow vehicle was. Fifteen minutes later, a salt-of-the-Earth chap named Leon with a Ford E150 van with OFFICIAL NJ TURNPIKE AUTHORITY livery, rolled up behind me and surveyed the damage.
“Shit,” he said while looking over the mangled, Duro brand tire. “That won’t buff out.”
After letting him know that while waiting, I managed to call up a tire shop a few miles away and that they had the tire in stock and just needed a ride there, he let me know that actually, so did he, and he could change both tires for me right there. The cost for this was $300—more than twice as much as the tire shop—but for the time and worry it saved, I would’ve paid four figures just to have this ordeal over.
He removed both wheels from the trailer, threw them in the van, we went for a ride in which he told me about how his wife’s Fiat 500 got rear ended and how she thought her loaner 500L was an ugly pile of crap, he mounted new tires on the scuffed-up wheels, my wallet became 300 bucks lighter, and we drove back to my car. It was thankfully still on the side of the road, and my wife and dog, who were left behind, were overjoyed that I hadn’t been killed by a stranger who stole an Official NJ Turnpike van.
After torque values on the lugs were checked and tire pressure was normalized, I gave Leon a miserly tip and wished his wife the best of luck with her re-badged Jeep Renegade. I then started on my journey - for real this time, armed with new tires and one hell of a knot in my stomach, which only loosened up when I reached my bug-infested new digs in central Florida, 20 uneventful hours later.
For the few of you who still maintain that doing this trip was insanely reckless, I understand that a fair amount of luck was at play here. I couldn’t been sideswiped by a semi while pulling over. The trailer could’ve flipped or skidded when the tire blew. My car could’ve been a typical Mercedes and had some major electrical component fail at the most inopportune time. My dog could’ve shit on the carpet, but none of those things happened—the only errant event in the entire towing experience was a concerning blowout that was easily remedied within 45 minutes.
After driving all of my personal belongings halfway across the country, it’s apparent to me that more people need to do this. It’s more energy efficient than renting a truck and if done properly, it can teach you a thing or two about working on your car and checking every variable to make sure you’re as safe as possible, not to mention that it gives you one hell of a sense of satisfaction when you complete your epic journey.