Tow Truck History

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Just like any invention, the tow truck was born out of necessity. More precisely, it was needed to help a man who lost control of his Ford Model T and ended up in a river around 1916. Automobiles were relatively new on the market, but it was only a matter of time before someone needed roadside, or riverside, assistance.

Although there is some debate over the ownership of this particular “Tin Lizzie,” the first tow trucks were designed, produced and put into action by Ernest Holmes, Sr. Holmes was one of the men that tried to pull the Model T out of the Chickamauga Creek near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize that rope, blocks, beams, and plenty of manpower wasn’t the most efficient way to retrieve the vehicle from a watery grave. Having an entrepreneurial mind and a creative soul, Holmes set out to build a better way to help stranded motorists.

If At First, You Don’t Succeed…

The first attempt started with a 1913 Cadillac chassis, metal tube frame, and a series of pulleys to alleviate the weight of the vehicle being towed, pulled, or winched. There was just one issue when trying to lift the vehicle: there was nothing to stabilize the truck. It didn’t take long to realize this small defect and Holmes hit the drawing board once again.

Adding stabilizing feet on each side of the truck, something similar to outriggers you might find on certain cranes fixed the problem. In 1919, after perfecting the design and securing a patent, Holmes unveiled the Holmes 485. The perfected vehicle had to be built on a much sturdier 1913 locomobile chassis.

With that, the history of the tow truck began. During World War II, Holmes’ company made thousands of “wreckers” for the U.S. Army, France, and Britain. In 1945, Holmes did suddenly of a heart attack. It was up to grandson Jerry Holmes, to write another chapter of that history nearly 35 years after the first tow truck was unveiled.

Unfortunately, the first attempt at constructing a hydraulic tow truck was similar to the first attempt of his grandfather. That is to say, it was a massive failure. It would be two decades before the family revisited the new kind of heavy-duty tow trucks under a different name.

Wrecking The Tow Truck Mold

The company that was started because of a Tin Lizzie that went for a swim was sold to the Dover Corporation in 1973. This freed up Jerry and his brother Brian Holmes to start a new company: The Century Wrecker Co. Going back to the hydraulic idea for their recovery vehicle, the brothers sold six trucks in 1975.

Sales were slow at the start. Once the word got out about the newer, more powerful, and more efficient trucks began to take over the landscape of towing services. This snowballed into a much larger operation and by 1987, the year Jerry sold the business, the company had close to 300 employees.

For decades, tow trucks used a boom winch and the conventional hook and chain system. In 1967, the Weld Built Body Co. devised the wheel lift type of tow truck. Instead of hooking the vehicle, the wheel lift “cradles” the drive wheels and lifts them off the ground. If a car is a front-wheel drive, those would be the wheels that are lifted.

Perhaps the safest vehicle towing equipment is the flatbed tow truck. The Holmes Company devised a flatbed tow truck nearly 100 years ago, today it is used to move vehicles that can’t be towed on two wheels. In many accidents, the flatbed is the only tow truck that can be used.

Over the last half-century, tow trucks have seen many technological advances in lifting and towing power. But the most important part of any job is the driver of the truck. Chappelle’s Towing has been in the business for nearly 40 years and uses experienced, professional, and friendly drivers. Contact us today if you need a lift.

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