Getting hitched in London, Ont. - Macleans.ca
 

Getting hitched in London, Ont.

RV owners from all over the world seek the expertise of this trailer hitch guru


 

Photograph by Andrew Tolson; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt; Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He’s booked three weeks in advance. He doesn’t accept “drop-ins” and doesn’t make house calls. No, he isn’t an orthopaedic surgeon. He’s the trailer-hitch guru of Canada. Each summer, RV owners head to London, Ont., in a steady stream to get their wobbly travel trailers tamed by the master: Andy Thomson, Jr.

Sitting on 17 acres off Highway 4, his Can-Am RV Centre attracts clients from as far away as Alberta, Texas, Australia, even Japan. “Mr. Tanaka and his interpreter came from Tokyo to learn how to custom-build hitches for Subarus,” recalled Thomson, 51, who runs the business with his younger brother Kirk. “In May, we shipped an Airstream to France for a client who moved there from P.E.I.”

Airline pilot Rodney Pippin drove up from Ridgeley, W.Va., to get his luxury Chrysler 300C rigged to pull a 27-foot trailer. “The most difficult thing was explaining to customs officials at the border why I drove eight hours to Canada to have a hitch installed,” said Pippin in an email to Thomson. “They said to me, ‘You mean no one in West Virginia installs trailer hitches?’ I replied, ‘Well sir, they do, but not like this one.’ He kneeled and looked under the car and said, ‘You got that right.’ ”

Albert Flootman, a municipal planner, was a client at the Can-Am RV Centre before moving from Cambridge, Ont., to Lethbridge, Alta. “When it comes time to change my Volvo S60, I plan on making an appointment with Andy and driving the 3,000 km to get a hitch installed.”

“RV people aren’t afraid to travel to get full service,” explained Larry Boyd, the executive vice-president of the Ontario RV Dealers Association, which claims there are approximately one million RVs on the road in Canada. “Andy positively impacts road safety across the country.” Since 1987, Thomson has written a column called “Hitch Hints” for RV Lifestyle magazine. “We get dozens of letters every month for Andy. He lives the life, always taking family trips in his Airstream,” said Norm Rosen, the magazine’s editorial director.

In 1970, Andy Sr. started the business with two investors he met at a campground. This fall, Can-Am RV Centre celebrates its 40th anniversary, while the RV itself turns 100. Don Jenkins, one of the first clients, plans on driving down from Oshawa for the party. Jenkins has bought five Airstream trailers from Can-Am RV and wouldn’t take advice from anywhere else. “Andy is held in high regard all over North America,” he said.

But Thomson is a controversial figure. “Oh, the Americans think he’s crazy,” said Bob Aris, 81, who drives a 36-foot Airstream Classic motorhome. Over the years, Thomson created 11 hitches for Aris’s 40 tow vehicles. “Most dealers will tell you you need a big truck to tow a trailer, but Andy will tow a 34-foot trailer with a Jaguar XJ or a Jetta Diesel.” Malcolm Dyke took Thomson’s advice and bucks convention by pulling his 28-foot trailer with a Dodge Magnum. “People at gas stations and trailer parks come over and tell us we can’t pull with our Magnum,” said Dyke, a banker from Burlington, Ont. “Andy definitely pushes the envelope, but I trust him.”

Ron Feinberg is a believer. Feinberg bought his first trailer, a 27-footer, in Quebec City. The 2½-hour drive home to Montreal in his Mercedes ML320 was a white-knuckle nightmare. “I was ready to plunk down $50,000 for a new pickup truck or park the trailer somewhere for the summer,” said Feinberg, who owns a computer service company. “Instead, I read about Andy on an Airstream forum. He chucked my hitch in the garbage and put on a customized one.

What a difference! There are people who think Andy is a menace for getting clients to tow with a Dodge Charger, a Nissan Altima, a minivan or a convertible, but those people haven’t actually driven one of his combinations.”

Thomson takes his rebel role in stride. “Factory-made hitches are up to the standards set out in the 1960s by the Society of Automotive Engineers, but those standards were never accurate in the first place,” he said with a chuckle over a cellphone from a trailer park in New York. “About three or four trailers out of 100 are hooked up properly. I have to walk around the park with blinders on!”


 

Getting hitched in London, Ont.

  1. He has dupped a bunch of folks into towing more trailer than they should. I am in total disagreement with the size vehicles he uses, but his approach to getting a proper set up is good.

    • You may be in "disagreement" but how do we know how much you know about trailer hitches and towing. Have you had 40 years experience and 1000s of customers? RHW

  2. Over the years I've had three Airstreams and six tow vehicles. I trust Andy completely, and I know nobody can do it better. Nobody has the experience and technical savvy.

  3. I have been towing trailers for 14 years and my father for 23 years before that. 12 of my years have been full time. Andy Sr advised my dad and Andy Jr advised me. We have had a total of 6 tow vehicles and have never had a problem with any of the work the Thompsons have done for us. We have never had the biggest engine nor the biggest rear end. We have had the best hitches, properly installed and regularly maintained. Dad and I credit the Thompsons with giving us 37 years of accident free towing of trailers up to 34 feet. Can-Am and the Thompsons have made a great contribution to RVing in North America and now are advising overseas. Great people and great advise. Thanks Andy. Great article too!

  4. To all people reading this that tow trailers or drive RV's.

    Please pull over once and while and let people pass.

    Thank you.

    • +1 on that.

      I'll be pretty ticked off if I find myself stuck behind someone trying to pull a trailer behind his Jetta Diesel.

      • Don't look now, but Jetta Diesel dude is passing you!

  5. I have had nothing but good experiences with Andy and his organization since we bought our Airstream. He plain and simple knows his stuff (as do his people), and is willing and eager to help you understand it, too.

    It's only ignorance and a closed mind that makes some people insist on buying a tow vehicle they don't need or want. Not everyone likes driving a truck, even when they aren't towing.

  6. This article should be withdrawn. While he can build a mean hitch, it does not make all vehicles good tow vehicles.

    SAE is getting a new standard in place for towing called J2807. In order for a vehicle manufacturer to state that a given vehicle can tow X number of pounds or kilogram, the vehicle in question will have to be able to tow that exact weight through a series of tests which includes acceleration, braking and handling. If it fails, it must try again with a lower rating or make changes to the vehicle.

    Having the best hitch in the world is good, but the rest of the components doing the work must also be up to the task.

  7. Hi Marc

    It would have been impossible for Joanne Latimer to explain all we do in a one page article. In fact it would take a book so let me try and clear this up for you somewhat concisely. First of all we never would say all vehicles are good tow vehicles. We are far more particular about what makes a safe tow vehicle than the auto companies are many vehicles with very high tow ratings are quite unstable and are not vehicles we would recommend and conversely some unrated vehicles can be excellent. Every tow vehicle set up is looked at as entire combination of vehicle the trailer's dynamics and what type of hitch system is used. Over the last 40 years we have a track record of real world use on a wide variety of vehicles so we know which components are up to the task and which are not. Often this testing is done by us with a vehicle that we think we would like to try, hence the use of the Jetta diesel. I'll continue with J2807 in the next post.

    Andy

  8. The J2807 standard is somewhat limited in its application because it will only be used on vehicles where a tow rating is perceived to increase sales. The standard is also limited by the inadequacy of the previous SAE V-5 standard pertaining to hitches so their handling test is somewhat flawed. What I hoped for was that the standard would communicate the vehicles ability in the various areas of testing. For example for Canadians the cooling standard which takes place in the Arizona desert in the summer is arduous. So a vehicle with a slightly weaker cooling system capacity will have a reduced rating yet it may be far more fuel efficient and better handling. I think the consumer should be able to make their own choice based on their own priorities. However the greatest weakness in the standard is that it is only related to weight. Weight is a factor in towing but only a small part of the equation, aerodynamics, balance and the trailer's suspension are cumulatively much more important.
    If you happen to be near London sometime do stop in a take a couple of combinations for a test drive. I am sure you will feel better about the article after first hand experience.
    Andy

  9. I am really interested in knowing what insurance companies and the MTO think about towing trailers beyond the tow capacity stamped on the door post. If I were in a collision would the insurance company cover me, or would they turn around and say “hey buddy you are way above your tow vehicles rating, tough luck”.
    Or what would happen if an MTO patrol person puts his scales under your trailer and notices that you are towing a vehicle above your tow rating posted on the door post.
    And of course what would the happen to your warranty if your transmission would give up.
    It's not that I question Can-Am RV's experience and knowledge, but I am curious of what the insurers and the MTO folks, and auto manufacturers' have to say about this.

    • Ron: I'm not sure what kind of vehicle you have, but I've never seen any car or truck with the towing capacity "stamped on the door post."
      If you mean the published tow rating found in brochures or the owner's manual, that is not an enforceable standard under the law, so you won't have any issue with the MTO. Insurance companies will pay regardless of whether you are at fault for an accident or not (that's the whole point of insurance), as long as you are up to date on premiums, etc.
      Likely an auto manufacturer could refuse to honour a warranty on a particular component, say the transmission as an obvious example, but they would have to demonstrate there were signs of abuse that caused the problem. It would generally not be a good idea to tow your trailer to the dealer if you needed warranty work done, and the fact is that the transmission problems everyone seems to think will be caused by a car towing a trailer just don't seen to happen, at least not any more often than they do with trucks.
      This doesn't mean that any tow vehicle has no limit to their capability, it just means that "tow ratings" are not the final word on what the capacity is.

      • Thank you for your response!

        You are right, I was thinking about the rating in the owners manual.
        There are weights stamped on the door post, these are the the front and rear GAWR and the GVWR, not sure what these have to do with towing a trailer.

        Ron