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RV history: Evolution of the trailer hitch

The history of equipment to connect a load to a towing device goes back many centuries. From a wooden yoke by which cattle were attached to many types of trailers, to leather collars used to connect horses, there have been many types of “hitches” used through the years.

When mechanical pulling power was created with the advent of the automobile, the evolution of the trailer hitch began.


At first, rudimentary trailers were attached to autos by two blacksmith created bars attached to the trailer and the car with holes through each. A bolt and nut was used to connect the two parts.


In 1917, Glenn Curtiss of Curtiss-Wright aviation fame developed and patented a hitch devise based on an auto’s fifth wheel or spare tire. Since cars needed their spares, the devise converted to using a much smaller airplane tire but still provided an air cushioned attachment.


That tire based hitch was modified by the US Army during WWII to use a steel plate instead of a tire and wheel. It was nearly 25 years later around 1965 when the heavy plate as used on semi tractors today was downsized to create the modern RV fifth wheel.


In the late 1920s, Frank Zaglemeyer of Bay City, Mich., patented a ball and receiver hitch that was more secure than the tang and bolt connection and allowed much more flexible operation.


The early trailer ball was very similar to those known today but was 1 3/4 inches in diameter, smaller than the smallest 1 7/8 size used today. The early receiver had a swing away section that enclosed the ball rather than the modern clamping internal latch.


Through the years many variations have come forward. The pintle hitch uses a heavy hook mounted on the towing vehicle with a ring on the trailer tongue to set over the hook, or pintle, and is used for very heavy loads.

hitch-6The gooseneck hitch is somewhat a cross between the fifth-wheel and the ball and receiver.  In it, a heavy arm reaches forward from the trailers in the form of a goose neck and bends down to set into a trailer ball mounted over the axle of the towing truck.  It is generally used for heavy cargo loads on large trailers.


About Al Hesselbart

The retired general manager of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., Al Hesselbart is the author of the RV history book, "The Dumb Things Sold...Just Like That." He also represented the RV Industry Association at two symposiums held in China. He has appeared on multiple TV documentaries and is a frequent speaker at RV events. He can be reached at

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