The History of the Tow Truck

Like many great inventions before and since, tow trucks were born out of necessity. A century later, they are the backbone of roadside assistance.
tow truck history

A tow truck is one thing we hope to never need, but when we do, we’re sure glad it exists. These helpful vehicles – and the men and women operating them – get us out of tricky situations when we’re in dire straits.

Considering their usefulness and importance, it might be strange to know there was a time in automotive history when tow trucks didn’t exist. After all, as long as there have been cars, there have been crashes and breakdowns requiring the transportation of disabled vehicles.

Yet tow truck history didn’t begin until well into the 20th century. Once the first was manufactured, however, they quickly became ubiquitous.

Buying a New Car

Tips and tricks to get you through every step of buying a new car, whatever “new” means to you.

Download Now!

The Tow Truck Arrives

Tow truck history can be traced back to one fateful day in 1916. Ernest Holmes, Sr., a mechanic in Chattanooga, Tenn., received news that a motorist had lost control of their Ford Model T and driven into a creek. Holmes went down to the site of the crash to recover the vehicle. Having little more than some rope and blocks at their disposal, it took six men eight hours to get the Model T out of the water and back onto the road.

The experience convinced Holmes that there had to be a more efficient way to move disabled cars. He went back to his shop and began constructing what would eventually become the first tow truck. To do so, Holmes mounted a chain and pulley system onto the chassis of a 1913 Cadillac. He would later improve the design with the addition of two outriggers, which helped stabilize the towed car when it was being hoisted off the ground. In 1918, Holmes was awarded a patent for his invention.

tow truck history
A Holmes 485 wrecker at work

The Towing Industry is Born

With automobile ownership on the rise, Holmes knew the need for tow trucks, or wreckers as they were known, would only grow. He transformed his auto shop business into a manufacturing operation and went to work building and selling these new vehicles.

His first commercially available model was the Holmes 485. This improved version utilized the longer body of a 1913 Locomobile. Considered by many to be the best American-made car of its time, a new Locomobile was selling for $6,000, or roughly $100,000 today.

With a patent in tow and production underway, Holmes was on his way to creating a highly successful business. He supplied the U.S. Army with thousands of military wreckers during World War I and II. When NASCAR came onto the scene, Holmes’ wreckers became a common sight at the racetrack. By 1965, two-thirds of all wreckers in the tow truck industry were Holmes models, according to the Chattanoogan.

Holmes continued to tinker with his initial design in the proceeding years and decades, garnering roughly a dozen more patents. He also invented several new vehicle lifts, creepers and jacks. His brand of trucks still exists today.

For his work, Holmes was inducted into the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame and the International Towing Museum Hall of Fame, which is located in his hometown of Chattanooga.

tow truck history

Modern Tow Trucks

Although the general manner in which tow trucks work has remained the same since Holmes’ day, wreckers have become stronger, more effective and equipped with new features. There are three primary types of tow trucks used on passenger cars today:

  • Flatbed: As the name implies, these trucks have large flatbeds capable of fitting an entire car. The operator tilts the flatbed toward the ground using hydraulics and the car is driven or pulled onto the platform. The bed is then lifted back into position, the car is secured and the truck is ready to move. Flatbeds are generally considered the safest and easiest way to transport a car because there’s no pressure on the towed vehicle or any chance it could get dragged along the road.
  • Hook and Chain: These tow trucks employ heavy-duty chains that attach to one end of the disabled car. The chain is then pulled, lifting the car in the air and leaving only two wheels on the ground. The vehicle is transported while in this position. The hook and chain truck leaves the towed car susceptible to damage, so it’s typically only used on wrecked cars or those in poor condition. They can also be utilized to pull a car out of a stuck position, such as a ditch or mud patch.
  • Wheel Lifts: Like the hook and chain, wheel lifts tow cars with only two wheels in contact with the street. But instead of a shaky chain, wheel lifts utilize a metal yoke to lift the car. This feature puts less strain on the towed vehicle and provides a more stable attachment, reducing the likelihood of damage occurring during transport.

AAA may not have invented the tow truck, but it has perfected the use of it. Roadside Assistance is available to members 24/7, 365 days a year, including towing services. Simply call or request assistance through the AAA mobile app, and a technician will be on their way.

If you ever see a tow truck in operation, remember to Slow Down, Move Over. It’s the law.

Learn more about automotive history.

SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR AAA NEWSLETTER

Sign up and receive updates for all of the latest articles on automotive, travel, money, lifestyle and so much more!

2 Thoughts on “The History of the Tow Truck

  1. In Europe and/or Israel, I saw a different type of flat bed tow truck. The ones I saw put the truck on the side of the car, then maneuvered arms under the car, then hydraulically lifted the car onto the flatbed. I don’t recall how the truck was anchored while the car was lifted. The advantage of this type of flatbed tow truck is that it can be used to move cars that are parked among other cars on the side of a street.

    1. Hi Phil, thanks for reading Your AAA Network and for your comment. That’s really remarkable, quite a tow truck configuration. I guess it makes sense for tightly packed cities, I can see where side-loading would come in handy here in new york for instance. Interesting stuff, thanks again!

Leave A Comment

Comments are subject to moderation and may or may not be published at the editor’s discretion. Only comments that are relevant to the article and add value to the Your AAA community will be considered. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. REQUIRED FIELDS ARE MARKED *

Send this to a friend