The Secret Lives of Tow Trucks: History of an Overlooked Industry

Who'd have thought there might be an International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum? But there apparently is one, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, joyfully preoccupied with the history of tow trucks (a.k.a. "wreckers") and roadside assistance more generally. Here's Failure magazine with a look at the museum, the design of those funny-looking trucks with hooks on their backs, and a whole lot more (hat tip goes to The Morning News):

As legend has it, the industry was born one fateful day in 1916 after a driver lost control of his Tin Lizzie—that is, a Ford Model T—and it ended up in Chickamauga Creek, which winds its way through the Chattanooga area. Ernest Holmes Sr. (1883-1945)—who was a member of the local auto club and whose brother Curtis owned a service station—got wind of the mishap and went to help recover the car from the water, a job that took ten men eight hours to complete. Thinking there must be an easier way, Holmes went back to his garage and began formulating a plan to build a wrecker, which he developed with an assist from two friends—L.C. Decker and Elmer Gross.

However, the first time Holmes put his prototype to the test it let him down, and the rescue workers had to fall back on old-fashioned manpower. He quickly came to the realization that his wrecker (bolted to the chassis of a 1913 Cadillac) needed outriggers to stabilize the vehicle when in recovery mode.

Despite the fact that the need for wreckers seemed self-evident, this initial setback no doubt emboldened naysayers, who included his mother and father. According to museum staffer Joyce Shrum, who worked in the parts department of the Ernest Holmes Company in the late 1960s and early '70s, Holmes' parents didn't want him to get involved in the auto service industry because his neighbor—the aforementioned Decker—had put an eye out while on the job.

Undeterred, Holmes made improvements to his design, and by 1919 had secured a patent and was selling branded wreckers, which were mounted on the backs of used cars. His first successful production model was the Holmes 485—one of which is on display at the museum, having been coupled with a 1913 Locomobile, a car that sold new for six-thousand dollars. (The combo on exhibit is worth a quarter-million dollars.)

Read the full story at Failure.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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