RJ's Stehl Tow Dolly Experiences

I purchased the Stehl tow dolly with the intention of being able to tow a car with me when I go camping. I settled on Stehl because they offered electric brakes, because I'd read some good things about them online, and because they had a good price. My recommendation is to avoid the Stehl tow dolly and find another brand. Here are my experiences...

Early June, 2005Knowing I'm going to need it in about 3 weeks, I stop in at The Hitch Man in Waldorf, MD to purchase one. They have to order it, but feel confident they'll have it before I depart.
Late June, 2005I went on my trip without a car because the dolly didn't arrive in time. Most disturbing about this was that the dealer seemed unable to get information from Stehl as to when it would be in. It's one thing for Stehl to say, "Yes, we're behind in production," but it seemed more like the dealer wasn't getting any information at all. Not a good feeling.

Note: The Hitch Man tried to take care of me. The salesman called Stehl many times, and they offered to refund my deposit if I was able to find another tow dolly in time for the trip. I think they were at least as frustrated as I was, and there just wasn't much they could do to help.

While I'm on my trip (driving a rental car), The Hitch Man calls me to let me know the dolly is in. I had to chuckle. I should note that the purpose of this trip was to go to CougarFest, an annual event for owners of 1999-2002 Mercury Cougars. It was very disappointing to NOT have my Cougar at CougarFest.

July, 2005I pick up the dolly and they set it up with the camper no problem. They also roll out the spare tire I ordered. For some reason I was expecting the tire would somehow mount to the dolly. Nope. The salesman also commented that they came in without the 7-pin wiring connector installed, something they had to do before I arrived. Seems like a silly thing for Stehl to leave off, since they're all going to need it.

Later that day, I tried to load the Cougar on to it, with no spotter. Crunch! Turns out the stock Cougar sits too low for the dolly. Interesting, because at the time, their website strongly implied it was safe for all cars and trucks. This did about $800 worth of damage to the Cougar, mostly wrapped up in a new bumper and painting. Although I was pretty annoyed about the damage to the Cougar, I thought, "Well, it's not a very common car, maybe there's something odd about it." Later I tried the Impala (with a spotter) - same exact problem. Okay, the Impala is one of the top 10 best selling cars in the US, so they aren't an unusual car in any sense. Definitely a design flaw. (Stehl now sells metal ramps for $80/set to get around this problem. They ought to give me a set for free.)

After the damage to the Cougar, I took it over to The Hitch Man again. They said they've never seen one do that and cut two four-foot-long 2x6 boards to use as ramps to lower the angle. These boards are a headache, because I have to use them for both loading and unloading, then I have to find something to do with them every time I go somewhere - usually they end up in the trunk of the car I have, since I don't want to leave them outside in the weather. Of course since they're wood I'll have to replace them every year or so.

For what it's worth, a friend of mine had a Master Tow tow dolly for a while which he used to load and tow his Cougar around, no special provisions necessary.

September, 2005On the first long trip with the dolly, the passenger side running lights stopped working. It took me a while to find the reason, but it turned out that the passenger tire had rubbed through the wire for the lights. Talk about poor construction! I rewired it.
November, 2005While trying to find what happened to the running lights, I pulled LIGHTLY on the wires at the center of the dolly in the frame. I could see the crimp connection and didn't want to stress it. The power wire for the brakes came right out of the crimp connector. I'm familiar with crimping wires, and I know about what they should hold, and when I do a crimp connection, I test them with more force than I used that day. I had to tow the car home from that trip without dolly brakes since I wasn't able to find a new crimp connector that day.
March, 2006While towing the Impala around town (I was moving to a new residence and lived out of the camper for a week and a half), I was getting intermittent shorts in the brakes. I wasn't able to find the source and the problem hasn't repeated.
July, 2006Coming home from a trip, my marker lights, dashboard lights, and all of the lights on the dolly went out. I discovered that the fuse in the camper had blown. I put a new fuse in and discovered that the driver's side lights on the dolly still weren't working. A closer examination revealed that the connector had somehow come out of the back of the light on the dolly. It was in when I started the trip, because I always check the lights before departing. Somehow it worked itself loose, and I'm guessing one of the hot terminals on the wiring harness touched the metal on the dolly and shorted. I thought those connectors were good enough to not vibrate out, but I guess I have something new to check before every trip. It's kind of a bad design that the male connector would be on the harness, by the way, but I don't think that's Stehl's fault.
September, 2006Coming home from a trip the previous weekend, the brakes were shorting out intermittently, as reported in March, 2006. It was problematic - I didn't know from one braking event to the next whether I'd have brakes on the dolly. Sometimes, they would cut in and out while I was braking. This is not an approved braking procedure, and I definitely do not recommend it.

I tried some quick diagnoses on the road but couldn't find the problem, because the wires are inaccessible when the dolly is loaded. When I got home I pulled the wires out and discovered a short in one of the wires between the tongue and the point where they split to go to the individual wheels. After pulling the harness out of the tongue, I found where something had rubbed through one of the brake wires. I replaced the brake wire from the vehicle connector to the point where the wires split to go to the wheels.

While I was in there, I also found a spot where the green wire had been stripped bare somehow, so I put some heat-shrink tubing over it to protect it from further damage and shorting. I'm not sure what that wire is used for - the dolly doesn't seem to follow the standard wire color practices.

On the same trip, I noticed that the brake on the right wheel grabbed before the brake on the left wheel, causing the rig to pull to the right. I'm hoping that it's somehow related to the frayed wire I replaced, but I have a feeling I'm going to be learning about electric brakes very soon. My father suggested that I rewire the entire dolly, which sounds like a good idea.

Note - at this point I feel it important to remind everyone just how new the dolly still is: I picked it up late last July, so it's just over a year old. I've used it on two major trips, one about 600 miles round trip and the other just under 1,100 miles. I also took it on an aborted trip for a total of about 300 miles. There's probably less than 200 miles in "around-town" usage. That's a total of less than 2,200 miles...which doesn't seem like a lot of miles for the number of problems I've been having.

October, 2006I used the dolly to tow my Cougar to a friend's place to have the clutch replaced. No problems! It was refreshing. I even found a way to use a bungee strap to tie down the left handle so that it doesn't bounce up and scratch the paint on the cars.

Tip: I disconnect the brake controller when I'm towing the dolly empty. The reason is that if it's still working, when the brakes activate, the wheels tend to lock up since there's no weight on them, which then causes the dolly to actually bounce into the air. It makes a heckuva racket, and you can easily feel it pushing against the tow vehicle (in my case, a 9000 lb motorhome!). You shouldn't need the brakes anyway for a 500 lb dolly.

August, 2010We were involved in an accident while towing the Cougar on the dolly. The dolly took some damage, but the Cougar was basically okay (minor damage). The dolly tray was bent into a slight "U" shape, and the rivet holding the hitch lock was broken. In light of the fact that it's 5 years old, I never liked it anyway, and it's probably at least several hundred dollars to repair - if it's repairable at all - we decided to junk it. Despite the problems I've had with it over the years, I am glad it protected the Cougar. Pictures of the camper and dolly's damage are here.

So, as you can see, I've definitely not had a good experience with Stehl.

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URL: http://rjmarq.org/airstream190/dolly/
Written by RJ Marquette on 7/28/06. Updated 1/19/07.
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