Installing a Trailer Hitch on a Small Car

Introduction: Installing a Trailer Hitch on a Small Car

I installed a Class I trailer hitch on a small sedan. I ordered the hitch online. All parts fit perfectly. The supplied instruction sheet was excellent. No body mods were necessary. The job was surprisingly simple. It took me about 2.5 hours total. If you have safety glasses, a torque wrench, and assorted tools, I’d encourage you to try it.

Warning: Never exceed the towing capacity ratings of your car.

Step 1: Parts and Tools

Buy the hitch to fit your car. Several manufacturers offer hitches for most makes and models of car. (I ordered a Reese hitch from autozone.com for my 1996 Honda Civic sedan with 150K miles (don’t laugh)).

Unpack the package. Look at the bag of parts. Read the instructions. Note the torque specs.

Gather your tools. Safety glasses (to protect your eyes), torque wrench (to make sure the hitch stays attached), hammer and chisel (to remove any schmutz on your car frame), inspection mirror (to make sure the carriage bolts are installed right), etc.

One change: To attach the ends of the hitch to the frame, I used big round washers instead of the u-shaped washers which came with the package. I’m not a mechanical engineer, but my gut didn’t like the u-shaped ones. Caveat emptor: deviate from the manufacturer’s recommendations at your own risk.

Step 2: Tips

1) The ends of the hitch attach to the car frame with carriage bolts and blocks of steel with square holes. Be sure the square part of the carriage bolt is fully inserted into the square hole, when it is installed in the frame. Otherwise it could come loose. I used a little round inspection mirror to look inside the frame. I did this several times while installing it and after it was finished.

2) The holes in my frame had a little raised flange around the opening. Ensure the big washers seat snugly against the flat surface of the frame. Do not get them hung up on this flange, else it will be weak and could come loose.

3) One of my frames was covered with shmutz (undercoating, road kill, whatever). Chisel off this crud to get a nice flat surface. Coat it with primer paint to prevent rust.

4) The center of the hitch attaches to the tie-down bracket under the trunk/boot with a small u-bolt. Remember to insert this u-bolt while you are test-fitting the two main frame bolts. Otherwise it is impossible to wiggle into place.

Step 3: Assemble and Finish

The rest of the job involves wrestling the hitch into position, getting everything to fit loosely, then tightening to torque spec.

One last time, ensure the carriage bolt heads are properly seated, and ensure the big washers are not hung-up on the frame hole’s raised flanges.

Here are some more photos.
Enjoy.

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19 Comments

Thank you! We have a Honda and this helped a lot.

I have an 06 Pontiac Vibe, which comes with a roof rack. I’ve also read that it has a 1500lb towing capacity. I assume weight of passengers and cargo within the vehicle would affect this? What if I had 2 adults, a 6yr old, luggage inside the vehicle, and stuff on a rooftop carrier strapped to the top of the vehicle? Would I have any towing capacity left for a trailer?

I installed a Thule 1-inch light duty hitch receiver on my friend’s late-1990s Honda Accord about 9 years ago. It was better than the Reese receiver shown in this Instructable, as it had extensions to suspend it from the bottom of the spare wheel well, and the kit had large, heavy duty fender washers for the carriage bolts inside the wheel well to distribute the stresses. Instead of two attachment points, it attached at four points, further reducing stress at each point.

The problem with small cars like the Honda Civic and Accord is that their unibody construction doesn’t provide any strong structural members for installation of a hitch receiver. Everything is thin sheet metal. My friend wanted to mount a rack to haul three bicycles, but the Thule dealer looked it up in his book and said it was a no-go: The rear end of the Honda Accord wasn’t capable of supporting the weight. The limit was a two-bicycle rack.

The limitations on the weight of a bicycle carrier also means a severe limit on the tongue weight and gross weight of any trailer one might want to tow with a small car. To avoid risking expensive damage to the rear end of one’s car, one should consult with a competent hitch dealer before proceeding. The ratings of the car’s brakes and transmission are other limits to consider, as modern passenger cars are not designed to tow trailers as big, heavy American cars of the 1970s and earlier were.

Not laughing. My first car was an ’83 Civic, and I only got rid of it at >200k miles because I couldn’t get it to pass smog. I loved that car. I still dream about it 🙂

Glad to find this, since I’ve been wanting to put a hitch on our little car for years. Much appreciated!

Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

Couldn’t you have just replaced the catalytic converter?

Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

not worth it money wise at that point lucky here if a car is older then 25 it is exempt from smog test

Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

Same here, I think 🙂 When I had it. well, it was far from meeting that requirement at the time 😉

Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

Or just have put one in from a car with better smog ratings.