One advantage of using our trailer frequently is that we get to know it very well. We know exactly what to expect from it, and when something is not right it’s usually very apparent. We anticipate the stance it takes when it sits in a campsite with all tires fully inflated. I know the “happy noises” the truck, hitch, and brakes make when they are operating normally. I recognize the “seat of the pants” sensations that come with accelerating, turning, braking, and bumps. Everything flows along like a familiar song, which is what you want, because it sensitizes you to any off key notes.
A few weeks ago, in Florida, I started to hear an odd little squeak during towing. It was very faint, just the slightest hint of metal parts gently rubbing. It was a new sound, and new sounds are not welcome in the trailer song. So in Fort Wilderness, I took apart the Hensley hitch, thinking it needed lubrication on the tow ball (a procedure we do at least annually). But that didn’t solve it.
The noise wasn’t loud and it didn’t sound “expensive” but it bugged me because it shouldn’t have been there at all. It re-appeared again from time to time, and when it did I’d wiggle various things on the hitch, trying to find something a bit loose, needing lubrication, cracked or perhaps rusted. I also crawled under the Armada to look for cracks in the hitch. But I couldn’t find any cause for the the noise.
What was really maddening is that the sound seemed to have no pattern. Sometimes it was there, and then it was not. I’d hear it when the trailer was gently jiggling over slightly rough pavement, but on really bumpy roads it would go away. I’d hear it at slow speeds sometimes, but not when going fast. It was just soft enough that if I turned on the radio I wouldn’t hear it, but I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t supposed to be there.
Today I heard it again during our tow up from Assateague State Park to I-95. Finally, at a rest area in Pennsylvania I stood on the hitch and bounced it up and down, and after a few bounces I was rewarded with the squeak. It was coming from under the Armada.
So I got Eleanor to stand on the hitch and bounce up and down while I crawled under the truck again … and I heard the squeak coming from the factory Class V tow hitch. It has six large bolts which attach it to the truck frame, three on each side. I looked very closely, and compared one side of the hitch to the other. Finally, I saw that the hitch was not contacting the frame on the right side as tightly as it should have in the area of the forward-most bolt. There was a 1/8″ gap between hitch and frame at that point.
It was hard to see even with a flashlight (because a hot exhaust system was blocking my view) but it appears that the bolt may have broken at the stem, or stripped out of the frame. That’s very bad. Very very bad.
How bad? Well, it’s a good thing that the Nissan engineers designed a lot of redundancy into this hitch design. If not, the remaining two bolts on that side could have failed at any time in the last 1,000 miles of towing, causing the hitch to partially separate from the truck. Then, the Airstream would have been an 8000 lb anchor with a mind of its own, pushing asymmetrically on the Armada.
Ever see those cop shows when they give a little push on the bumper of the bad guy’s car, and it goes spinning out of control? Imagine that with a 30-foot trailer attached. You don’t want that to happen.
And all that from a little squeaking sound.
So here’s the moral of the story: learn the song your rig sings as it goes. Know how it sits, how it rides, and what it does at every turn. A little squeak may be all the warning you get, but it will be enough if you are in tune with your rig.
Things like this seem to always happen on the Friday before a three-day weekend, don’t they? Fortunately we were near Star & Peter’s house when we discovered the issue, and Peter is a master mechanic with an incredible workshop. We’re parked on their lawn with a full hookup now. Tomorrow we will get a good look at the problem and I am pretty sure Peter will be able to fix it. I’ll get photos for the blog and post them over the weekend.