Old School Towing vs. New School: 1,000 Miles Of Trailering Back-To-Back In Classic SUV And A Modern Pickup
Restomods are an increasingly popular choice among classic truck and SUV owners looking for a fun and unique daily driver that can also pitch in when it's time to get some work done. This rising interest in putting older rigs to work has seen more and more drivers using their trucks as tow vehicles, whether they're heading to a local track day, tugging a boat to the lake, or heading out for a weekend of camping.
While a restomod truck might be able to get the job done, lugging a load with a classic can be a very different experience when compared to the over-engineered towing machines available on the modern market. I recently towed my Datsun 280Z track car with both my 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer and a 2022 Ram 1500 pickup along the exact same 500 mile route to get a feel for how old school towing compares to the new school technology stuffed into current-day platforms.
There's no denying that the trucks of yesteryear are a little under-endowed in the engine bay as compared to existing models. Drivetrains from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and even the '90s tend to top out around the 300 hp mark in stock form, which pales in comparison to the near-400 horsepower standard available from nearly every V8-equipped pickup or SUV currently on sale. Even most six-cylinder sport-utilities flirt with or surpass 300 horses at very affordable prices.
Fortunately, this is the one area where restomods are often ahead of the game. It's relatively simple to boost the output of an older V8 through the standard playbook of intake/exhaust/carb/fuel injection options that are out there. Or you could do what I did, and swap a modern engine (in my case an LS into my Grand Wagoneer) in place of an older motor.
With 400 hp on tap, my Jeep's 5.3L V8 had no issues tackling the 5,000 pounds or so of weight represented by my Datsun and the U-Haul trailer it was strapped to, even on some of the long up-hill grades through New Hampshire's White Mountains, easily holding its own against the 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque available from the Ram's 5.7L V8. It also helps that my Grand Wagoneer itself weighs about a thousand pounds less than the Ram, lowering the overall load on the engine.
Power delivery, however, was another story—and one I'll touch on in a later section.
Hauling It Down
While "go" is a simple problem to solve for most classic restomod trucks, "whoa" is a little more complicated. Braking technology has come a long way since the days of drums at all four corners, and there's no question that current pickups and SUVs have an enormous advantage over their predecessor when it comes time to stop safely.
Almost every vintage truck is going to come with drum brakes at the rear, which isn’t a big issue when towing as long as the trailer you have attached features brakes of its own (either electric or surge). Discs at the front are non-negotiable, however, and a restomod needs to count this on its equipment list before you even consider towing a load.
My Jeep offers a front disc/rear drum setup, but what I was most concerned about was maximizing the available braking power offered by the platform, because its short wheelbase could threaten to destabilize if called upon to stop suddenly. I swapped in a hydroboost brake system that uses hydraulic line pressure rather than vacuum to ensure that not only would I always have high boost whenever I needed it, but that it would also be evenly distributed.
Overall, the Grand Wagoneer was willing to stop when I needed it, even in the wet. Despite hydroboost providing additional braking power, however, I couldn't match the anti-lock system found in the Ram 1500, a feature that's been standard on modern pickups since at least the late-'90s. When the pavement is slick and someone cuts you off, you'll appreciate the drama-free nature of anti-lock brakes, especially when you're trying to manage the forward motion of a trailer that's suddenly turned into an anchor.
It's difficult to install an anti-lock system on a classic ride, with cost and complexity rising to the point where I don't recommend the effort. A hydroboost system, on the other hand, will outperform nearly any other braking setup in a towing situation, and it’s worth the investment if you plan to put a lot of miles with a load hitched up.
I mentioned my Grand Wagoneer's short wheelbase earlier, and it's probably the single most limiting factor of the vehicle when it comes to towing. Checking in at 110 inches, it certainly wasn't small back in the day, but compared to the current crop of pickups and SUVs (the 2022 Ram 1500 I drove had 34 additional inches of wheelbase), it's a remarkable difference, and one you'll see repeated on popular old school SUVs like the Chevy Blazer and the Ford Bronco.
How does this affect towing? In the simplest terms, the shorter a vehicle's wheelbase, the more difficult it can be to control the swaying motion of a longer trailer. In addition, trailer movement has a much greater impact on overall stability and handling for short wheelbase trucks than for those with a longer setup. This can lead to situations where the trailer seems to be "pushing" the tow rig, or where sway becomes difficult to manage over rain-slicked or uneven road surfaces.
The 16-foot U-Haul trailer I was driving lead to several white-knuckle moments when driving downhill at highway speeds, or when traversing 20 miles of wet, half-cut asphalt through a construction zone (with one wheel on grooved pavement, and the other perched on the smooth side). I could feel the trailer moving of its own accord and had to stay on top of all of my steering inputs to keep things on the straight and narrow. I also had to be very measured in my overall steering, braking, and acceleration decisions to avoid upsetting the trailer and causing it to sway.
This was in stark contrast to the Ram 1500, where the only clue that I was actually towing something across that same stretched of grooved interstate could be found in the rearview mirror. The three extra feet of wheelbase added substantial stability to the situation, and I never once experienced the sensation that the trailer was at risk of sway.
Wheelbase and trailer length aren't the only concerns when it comes to towing stability with an older truck, either. The overall weight of what is being towed, and how it is managed, can be make-or-break when it comes to arriving at your destination safely. It's here that most classic rigs fall far behind of their modern siblings.
My Jeep Grand Wagoneer's original towing capacity was listed at 5,000 pounds, and although I might have three times the power and substantially better braking than the factory setup, the chassis is still restricted to near its original gross vehicle weight rating in terms of what can be towed safely. Compare that to today, where the Ram 1500's max rating is north of 8,000 pounds, and there's an enormous gap in capability. Even larger platforms from the '70s and '80s, outside of heavy-duty pickups, don't feature a chassis that can handle much more weight than my Jeep, which can be problematic even for high-powered restomods.
There are ways around this issue. Loading a trailer to reduce tongue weight can go a long way towards improving stability, and so can using a weight-distributing hitch that transfers a load's overall mass across both axles of the tow vehicle. Unfortunately, U-Haul trailers like the one I was towing come equipped with a surge brake, a hydraulic setup that detects whether you are accelerating or decelerating to automatically apply its own brakes. This system is installed in the trailer's neck, and as a result it eliminates the ability to use a weight-distributing hitch, which would arrest the motion of the system. As a result, with a trailer and load weight that combined to push near the limits of the Grand Wagoneer's platform, I was at the edge of safety—which certainly played a role in my issues with sway and trailer control.
It might seem strange to compare the comfort level of two vehicles that were built more than 30 years apart, but there's one point I want to make about old school towing versus new school that fall under this heading. I'm not going to get into amenities like air conditioned or heated seats, satellite radio, or cruise control, all of which the Ram had and my Jeep did not, but as I hinted at earlier, power delivery is a legitimate issue to consider over the long haul of any towing trip.
Specifically, modern trucks and SUVs feature vastly more advanced automatic transmission designs that are better able to manage their respective power bands and reduce noise and revs while towing. With between six and 10 forward speeds available, combined with tow/haul modes that maximize engine braking and lock out overdrive to prevent overheating, towing with a truck like the Ram 1500 (with its eight-speed ZF automatic) is largely a 'set it and forget it' situation when it comes to gear selection.
In my Jeep, which matched a 4L60E four-speed automatic to its LS engine, it was a very different situation. I had to tow entirely in third gear, avoiding overdrive (to prevent transmission damage), which meant keeping the engine pegged at about 3,000 rpm for the duration of the trip. Accelerating uphill occasionally required a dip into second gear, adding another 500 to 1,000 revs to the equation. Overall, it was a noisy way to spend 500 miles, and that kind of cacophony can easily stress you out over time. It presented a stark contrast to the much better insulated, and usually lower-revving Ram.
Some Assistance, Please
Just like the gap in comfort features, the technological gizmos and gadgets installed on the Ram 1500 are leaps and bounds ahead of those of my Jeep, which has exactly, uh, zero advanced driver assistance features.
How much of a difference does this kind of equipment make when towing? It can actually be of huge benefit. For example, the rearview camera on the Ram makes it a cinch to line up the hitch and trailer when it's time to attach, and some models have an available air suspension that can drop the bumper to easily pop the trailer off or hover underneath. Ram also allows for additional cameras to be installed on a trailer that tie in to the vehicle's surround view system, giving a true 360-degree video feed that covers your cargo. Then there's the stability control program, which includes an anti-sway feature that can automatically brake both trailer and truck to counter the effects of a tow that steps out of line.
In fact, the only piece of tow-related electronic wizardry installed on the Ram that didn't work as designed was something called "Trailer Reverse Steering Control," which is intended to allow drivers to steer a trailer while backing up using a knob on the dash instead of swapping lefts-and-rights on the steering wheel. A quicker perusal of Ram owners groups shows me I'm not alone in having the feature fail to function.
Of this gear, there are two elements accessible to the restomod builders: a backup camera and airbags (the latter of which I have outfitted to my Jeep). What I would have given for even a few moments of anti-sway on my journey.
Making The Choice
The take-away from my back-to-back towing experience is clear: a modern pickup is by far a better tow rig than most classic trucks, even those that have been built specifically to handle a trailer like my Grand Wagoneer. Simply put, the extra wheelbase, bulk, and safety systems built into today's trucks (and many SUVs) make towing a cinch, even when the weather turns bad and the road gets rough.
I want to point out that it's not impossible to build a solid old-school tow machine. Choosing a model with a longer wheelbase, like Chevrolet Suburban or a long-bed pickup provides a better starting point than my Jeep. Swapping in a lighter trailer and using a load-distributing hitch would also help reduce the tendency to sway and cause stress at speed.
That being said, a restomod is still going to be dealing with a number of compromises when it comes to braking (no ABS), stability control (completely absent), gross vehicle weight rating (typically still lower than a modern pickup), and comfort (louder engine note, higher revs). If you can live with these downsides, there's no reason not to tow with your classic—as long as you plan for the shortcomings inherent in operating a decades-old vehicle near the limits of its performance envelope.