Tow Truck History 101

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tow truck history

Ever wonder how tow trucks and the whole towing industry came to be?

When did it start?  Who made the first tow truck?  Where did it happen?

You’ll learn the answer to those questions and more in this post.


It all started back in the year 1916 in Chattanooga, Tennessee…

In 1916, Chattanooga was a small town of roughly 50,000 people and is known for its rich Civil War and Train history.  In Chattanooga, there was a mechanic by the name of Ernest Holmes who received an urgent phone call from an old friend of his.  It was John Wiley, his professor from Business School.

John had been driving down the road with his son.  Unfortunately, they ended up losing control, headed towards the creek and flipped their old Model T upside down.  That’s when Ernest got the call for help.  Holmes immediately drive on over to meet his old professor John and his son to help them get their vehicle up and out of the creek.

It wasn’t until 8 hours later that Ernest was able to get John’s car out of the creek and back on the road, even with the help of 6 other men.  It was a long battle and by the end of it, Ernest was adamant that there had to be a better way.  Knowing that this type of incident wasn’t too uncommon, he set out to find a solution that would make rescuing vehicles much faster and easier for good.

Back at the garage, Ernest Holmes put his mechanic skills to work to build a machine that would help any of his future customers if they ever found themselves stranded with their vehicles.  He needed a way to pull a vehicle with a strong force, much like that of the 6 men who pulled John’s Model T out of that creek.  After much work, the first prototype was ready.

Holmes had taken a 1913 Cadillac and modified it by adding a crane to the back of car.  The crane would supply the strength to pull the incapacitated vehicle back onto the road.  Once “hooked” up, the Cadillac could pull his customers’ vehicles back to his garage to be fixed up.  The idea was brilliant, but would it work?


The world’s first tow truckholmes-wrecker-tow-truck

Ernest took his new contraption and gave it a whirl…

The crane system was strong enough to pull another vehicle, but now without affecting his Cadillac at the same time.  It was close, but it didn’t work quite well yet.  He needed a way to keep his Cadillac firm and steady.  Holmes added some outriggers to his Cadillac to help keep it steady while it was doing its job.  With the new outriggers added, Ernest gave it another try.

This time… it worked.

At that moment, Ernest Holmes had created the world’s first tow truck in 1916, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  His invention solved a great problem and was a solution that gave his garage a big advantage over other garages.  With his tow truck, Ernest was able to acquire a new customer in their distress while on the road, instead of being confined only to vehicles that drove into his garage.  Ernest took his invention and, instead of keeping it all to himself, decided to go into producing more tow trucks for other mechanic garages full time.  He called his tow trucks “Holmes Wreckers”.  Soon, as the tow truck became popular and widely adopted, it was obvious that Ernest not only created a new product/solution, but an entirely new industry—the towing industry.

The roots of the towing industry certainly explain why many towing companies also operate mechanic garages.

Now that we know where and how the tow truck came to be, the next logical question is…

“Does anyone still make Cadillac tow trucks?”

Who knows… probably, but here’s a picture of one from 1929: