Engineering Team Leader
Blue Ox Towing Products
Baseplates have evolved considerably since the early days of the "cow catcher" brackets. Years ago, the only purpose of a baseplate was to provide a suitable connection for the tow bar to hook and tow the vehicle. Consideration of aesthetics was not a priority. These designs usually protruded from beneath the bumper or actually fastened to the face of the bumper. (Remember when vehicles actually had bumpers?) The simplicity of the design lent for a pretty easy installation, usually without having to remove anything from the vehicle.
As customer desires have evolved, so has the design philosophy of baseplates. More and more customers wanted stronger baseplates that basically are invisible. Conforming to this idea makes the installation of the baseplate a little more involved. During the design phase, care is taken to build a strong baseplate while keeping in mind aesthetics, ease of installation, manufacturability of parts, and cost. Once a design has been prototyped, precision instrumentation is used to collect measurements at predetermined locations as to the flex of the baseplate, the torsion of the baseplate cross tube and any flex of the vehicle frame itself. This data shows what is and is not desirable for flex in a baseplate installation.
Design philosophy has evolved along with the ever-changing designs of unibody cars. This philosophy is to let the baseplate torsion or flex. This torsion, similar to receiver hitches, allows the baseplate to absorb the forces of towing rather that rigidly transferring the forces to the frame of the vehicle like designs of the past that could ultimately lead to frame problems. Enough of the history behind it all, let's talk about how you can decrease your installation time and increase your profits.
Even if you install baseplates every day, it's best to look over the instructions to make sure you understand the installation process and can "plan your attack". If time allows, call the manufacturer and acquire a set of instructions prior to the vehicle arriving at your shop so you have time to familiarize yourself with the installation. Believe it or not, we've experienced several installs where the baseplate was either installed upside down or the person doing the install was having problems and called in only to find out they had the baseplate oriented incorrectly.
Check Manufacturing Date Inside Drivers Door
I recommend that you glance at the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of the vehicle through the windshield and check the manufacture date on the label inside the driver's door (Shown At Right) to confirm the year of the vehicle and then cross check that information with a baseplate fit list to confirm you have the correct baseplate for that vehicle. The tenth digit of the VIN identifies the year of the vehicle.
I think it's a good idea to pay particular attention to the photo of the front of the vehicle to get a visual confirmation that the front fascia looks the same as the vehicle you are going to be working on. It has been our experience that vehicle manufacturers sometimes make mid-year changes that do not affect the normal usage of a vehicle, but a small fascia change can wreak havoc on a baseplate installation. Another thing to watch out for is vehicles manufactured close to the model year change. There have been instances where 2002 vehicles have a 2001 fascia and vice versa. I suppose the car manufacturers wouldn't want to just throw a bunch of car parts away when the models change.
If the customer knows, find out if their vehicle has been in an accident. This could greatly affect the fit of the baseplate as the frame members and bumper etc. will not be as they were from the factory. Sometimes, but not always, there will be either a yellow or green mark on the back of the headlight if the vehicle has been in an accident. Another place to check is to look underneath for visual frame damage and possible over spray of touch up paint after a fix. Check any nut plates included with the baseplate to be sure the bolts will easily thread in. Sometimes a piece of weld or paint may get into the threads and make it difficult to start. If they do not thread in, tap them out. This will save a lot of frustration trying to start a bolt during the installation. I recommend gathering the tools required, that should be listed in the instructions, and have them all at hand before starting. This will save some "travel time" searching for the correct socket or other tool during the installation.
A lot can be told about how an installation is going to progress in the first 15-30 minutes once the front fascia is removed and the baseplate can be held up into position for first fit. Baseplates are designed with a vehicle at hand thus most baseplates are designed with between 1/8" and 1/4" clearances to accommodate the variances in the vehicle manufacturing…and there are variances. Because there are variances in vehicles the following tolerances are used to accommodate those vehicles that are significantly different from the one brought in for the fit. If you run into a baseplate that mounts to the outside of the frame, for instance, and it is too wide by a 1/4" total, we recommend starting the bolts and then as you tighten them the baseplate will "suck up" to the frame and be tight. If the differences are too great, it is ok to use a washer as a spacer to take up some of the gap. It is not at all uncommon for the baseplate width to be 1/4" or so different than the width of the vehicle frame it is to attach to. The space is designed in to avoid the issue of not being able to get the baseplate up around the frame because the frame is too wide. If it's still off by a small amount, say up to 1/4", it is ok to widen the baseplate by tweaking the side mount plates to get it up around the frame. If it's excessively off, you should let the manufacturer know that something may have changed on the vehicle frame mid-year that they are unaware of.
Take special care not to damage vehicle components. Some vehicles do not leave a lot of extra room between the fascia and the cooling system. This particular baseplate is mounted on a Honda Pilot and leaves only about 3/8" space between the baseplate and cooling lines. Also, the cooling lines may not always be in the exact spot as the vehicle the baseplate was designed on. If they are in danger of rubbing on the baseplate, they may need to be relocated slightly or protected by splitting a small length of rubber hose and slipping it over the line where it may be too close to the baseplate. If the two were to rub together, it could cause a hole to develop in the line and eventually an expensive leak.
If the installation requires drilling holes in the frame, and most do, you should carefully clamp the baseplate in place and use the actual holes in the baseplate as a template and drill right through them. After drilling the first hole we recommend installing and tightening that bolt to hold the baseplate in place even better than the clamps. You should then verify that the attachment tabs are level with the ground before proceeding to drill the rest of the holes. Baseplates consisting of more than one piece that must be bolted together should be loosely assembled on the vehicle first before any of the bolts are tightened up. Sometimes tightening bolts will make it impossible to get the remaining bolts installed.
Before final tightening of the bolts, don't forget the Loctite! I think some installers who have been here to the factory think I own stock in the Loctite Corporation as much emphasis as I put on it. Let me assure you, I don't, although it might be better than a 401K plan these days. Bolts and lock washers have been around for a long time and you would think they would be sufficient means of fastening things together, but vehicles and towing is a whole different animal. The constant linear forces combined with the vertical forces and the material the vehicles frames are made from can cause bolts to begin to loosen. I have personally seen bolts that I know were tight come loose that did not have Loctite applied to the threads. We make it a practice to put Loctite on just before torquing the bolts down. Follow the torque specification table included on the general instruction sheet to tighten all the bolts.
When you are ready to replace the fascia onto the vehicle it sometimes is a good idea to have a roll of tape handy. Designs that come out through the grill are sometimes a very tight fit. To avoid scratching the fascia we sometimes put a little tape over the painted part of the bumper to protect it. The tape can easily be removed after the fascia is secured to the vehicle.
Trimming plastic can be a little tricky at times too. We recommend you always start small. You can always cut more, but you can't add it back. A short piece of a hack saw blade works great for trimming out plastic and is a lot safer than a utility knife.
Lets recap briefly a quick reference list of tips:
1 Review installation instructions
2 Check out the VIN number against the fit list
3 Check the manufactured date on the driver's door.
4 Check the finished photo against the actual vehicle
5 Ask if the vehicle has been in a accident
6 Baseplates are designed with tolerances to allow for frame differences.
7 Do not damage vehicle components
8 Use the holes in the baseplate as a template for drilling.
9 Assemble multiple parts loosely before tightening.
10 USE LOCTITE.
11 Torque bolts to specifications provided.
In closing, the main thing to remember when installing baseplates is to think like a boy scout…"Be prepared" The difference between a quick easy good looking installation and a half a day wrench throwing session is the preparation and confidence of the installer.