The rest of the story

It has been quite some time since I wrote that we were “almost ready to roll,” and yet here we are still in Tucson.   I had hoped not to have to explain the delay, but since we will be almost two weeks late there seems to be no avoiding it.

I made the mistake of purchasing a new tow vehicle about two weeks before our projected departure date.   The Nissan Armada has treated us well over the years, but at 80,000 miles (mostly towing) it was beginning to give small hints that it wouldn’t be long before it needed retirement from the towing biz.   Certainly I could have gotten another 20,000 miles out of it, and I seriously considered doing that, but at the end I’d be left with a truck with 100,000 strenuous miles and no more extended warranty.   The resale value would be hideously bad at that point, but at the present it still had some value.

Against that consideration I placed the opportunity to buy a new vehicle with ridiculously huge factory rebates and/or incredibly cheap financing.   It is, as they say, “the time to buy.”   Also, I’ve been wanting to tow with diesel power ever since we first started full-timing in 2005.   We plan to keep publishing Airstream Life for a long time, and we don’t want to downsize from our two-bedroom Safari 30 just yet, so it made sense to buy an engine that would really last for the long haul.     I advertised the Armada on Craigslist, and 48 hours later a nice couple from Tucson paid cash for it, which cemented the decision.   I paid off the loan and went shopping.

Typically before towing a heavy load it’s a good idea to get 500 to 1,000 miles on the engine and transmission.   So I spent the next two weeks driving everywhere, inventing errands on the other side of town and making unnecessary trips to places like Tombstone and Nogales just to rack up the miles.   In the meantime, I ordered a replacement stinger from Hensley under their lifetime free “swap program,” to accommodate the different receiver height.   Once all was in order, I hitched up the Airstream and spent an hour or so trying to get the weight distribution worked out.

If you know about towing, you know that any heavy trailer needs a weight distributing hitch.   This spreads the “tongue weight” of the trailer over the front and rear axles of the tow vehicle, which is an important part of towing dynamics.     Without proper weight on both axles, the tow vehicle is likely to be lighter in the front than when it is not towing, which will cause bad handling, understeer, fast wear on the rear suspension/brakes, and a potential loss-of-control accident.

But with the new vehicle I couldn’t seem to get the weight distribution the way it needed to be.   I took the whole rig down to the truck scales and confirmed what the handling was telling me:   the front axle was way too light.   I’m talking 500 lbs too light, which is serious.

Once I got home, I discovered the source of the problem.   The factory-supplied receiver had broken a weld.   That allowed the receiver to bend under load, which meant that it couldn’t distribute weight to the front axle properly.

Now, I’m being very calm here … but you should know that when I saw the broken receiver, I went ballistic for a few minutes.   A broken hitch is serious business.   Even without fully disconnecting from the tow vehicle (which would certainly be catastrophic for the trailer), the sudden loss of proper balance could easily cause a deadly accident.   Receivers shouldn’t break — PERIOD.

But they do, and unfortunately original equipment receivers have a poor track record in this regard.   They seem to be designed for lowest price rather than best capability.   That’s why many people who are doing heavy towing replace their OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) receiver hitches with stronger aftermarket ones.   A lot of GM owners experienced this a few years ago, and you can still read the many posts online (1, 2, 3, 4)   about their troubles, including fatalities.

I’m not naming the manufacturer of my vehicle at this time because I am currently engaged in a dialogue with them about the design and manufacture of their receiver.   It is, in my opinion, completely inadequate.     It would probably be fine for people who tow their 3,000 lb boat to the launch twice a year, but it broke when towing my trailer in less than 20 miles .. and yes, the truck scale proved that my trailer was below the factory rating for this receiver.

The dealership refused to replace the receiver under warranty, alleging that I must have done “something” to break it.   An inspector was called in, and he also felt that the failure was not their fault.   Since time was pressing, I decided to take the receiver to a specialist for repair and reinforcement, and do battle with the manufacturer later.

But my bad luck streak was just beginning.   It turned out that there was another problem with the truck, and it was an issue which made it unsafe to drive.   The solution required a replacement wiring harness, and being a rather unusual part, it wasn’t readily available.   In fact, we waited a week for the part, and when it didn’t arrive, the dealership service guys figured out a temporary fix to get us “back on the road” — an ironic statement since we’ve hardly been anywhere with this new vehicle yet.

At this point I’d been forced to cancel an event I was eagerly anticipating, the Dr Pepper 118th Birthday Celebration in Dublin TX.     A lot of friend were there, and the local newspaper had even written an article saying that Airstream Life would be there.   I also canceled our plans to hike the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas, our visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City New Mexico, and a visit to the Monahan Sand Hills.

On Thursday afternoon I got the truck back and took it to a competent fabrication shop in Tucson.   Along with help from experts in the Airstream business, we’ve devised a solution to repair and strengthen the receiver to far beyond the capabilities of its original design.   But the shop can’t do the work until Tuesday, which will put us exactly two weeks behind schedule — if all goes well.

I have been mightily punished for abandoning our trusty Nissan.   It was reliable, if not fuel-efficient.   It would have gotten us on our way on schedule.   But I’ve chosen a new tow vehicle and I’m stuck with it now.   I can only hope that this debacle will be the only major sticking point on our trip east, and that the new truck will prove itself over many years of reliable service.   It hasn’t been an auspicious start, but in a few months it may be just a fading memory.

So that’s why we are still in the limbo of “Almost ready to go.”   We were so well packed that when the receiver broke we had to go back to the Airstream to get clothes to wear and food to eat.   Now we exist in an strange half-world between Airstream and house, trying not to fully unpack and yet not feel like we are living out of a suitcase.   Every day I have uttered the phrase, “If all goes well …” and it hasn’t yet, so I’m trying not to say it anymore. I don’t want to make predictions about when we’ll get anywhere, because every time I do I’m proved wrong.   Let’s just say that at some point we expect to be back on the road.   You’ll know … when I know.


  1. says

    I was wondering about the delay when I would continue to see you online. I am lucky to have the factory hitch on my truck use square tubes. A bit less likely to break welds when twisting. But how does a Class V hitch break by something the end user can do?

    I think you will be happy with your diesel, I have been with mine. I can get 14mpg towing at 65 but the real fun is up and down hills. Up I can maintain 65 and down I can hold it at 55 with minimal braking. Plus, right now, diesel is cheaper.

    I am sure you will keep us all posted with all types of various figures.

  2. Marie Luhr says

    We’re glad that throughout this ORDEAL you have not succumbed to get-there-itis. You haven’t done anything dumb and you’ve acted maturely, even when people around you (including me) were getting excited and angry.

    We’re proud of you and are hoping for a successful trip in spite of it all!

    Continue to be safe.

  3. terrie says

    Rich and family…..we are so glad you guys were not physically injured….and in the long run, it may be a real opportunity that you…of all people….had this experience with the brand new truck and hitch….you and your knowledge and Airstream may be able to whip this company into shape….in the name of all of us and safe products

  4. Bobby says

    We’re glad this has only been a royal pain, and not a calamity. If your new truck is made by a company in which, as an American taxpayer, I am part owner, then I personally apologize for the problems. If it’s a Ford or one of those new Italian trucks, well, then I really can’t take the blame. I hope all of this will be an anecdote in the life of a long-lived and reliable tow vehicle.

  5. Paula says

    The Dr. Pepper celebration was great and you WERE missed. Hope you get everything vehicular worked out to your satisfaction.

  6. insightout says

    The entire A/S Life world lauds your restraint.

    No task is so great as to risk either life or limb, and your dismay at missing the Dr. Pepper celebration requires, no, demands, all our sympathy.

    However, there is Dr. Phil, Dr. Dre, Dr. Seuss, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Scholl, and Dr. No. If that isn’t enough, you can always rent the Rug Doctor.

  7. John Irwin says

    You really should refer to the structure that is a part of the vehicle as the “receiver” for clarity. The “hitch”, whether it be a Reese or a Hensley or some other brand, is inserted into the receiver.

    Receivers take a beating, especially with hitches that extend further beind the vehicle because of the greater leverage that the longer hitches can exert.

    A critical event for receivers is when the rear end of the truck is lifted using the jack on the trailer as is commonly done to attach the weight distribution bars. The receiver then has to support essentially half the weight of the tow vehicle; far more than the tongue weight of the trailer.

  8. says

    Good point, John. I’ve changed the post to reflect correct terminology. The receiver on the truck is the part that broke, and the Hensley hitch on the trailer did not.

  9. Steve says

    Let me guess, a car/truck that is made for looks, not actual real world use? hehe. (Like a Jeep is never really seen on an actual mountain). Could be a sign of other things to come. Lemon Law I say.

  10. Terry says

    Rich, I hope y’all are on the road as I type this. If not, there’s always the offer of my truck. It doesn’t have a dainty appetite, but you’ll get there.

  11. says

    Now that you have revealed the brand, I wish you the best in the future. For the last three to five years this brand has been rated in the worst 10 brands for customer service sold in America. I hope your experience is the exception.