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Earnest Holmes and His First Tow Truck

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  • An Early Cadillac V-8 Sedan converted into a tow truck

Dan Strohl of Hemmings Motor News ran into the early history of the tow truck recently and reported the following:  “While perusing a recent issue of the Caddie Chronicle, the newsletter of the Potomac Region of the Cadillac La Salle Club, we came across the interesting tidbit that the first tow truck was not built atop some heavy-duty truck chassis, as one would expect, but atop a 1913 Cadillac.”

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  •               Holmes advertisement the “Motor Age” September 21, 1922

“As the Chronicle and other sources have related the story, Ernest Holmes, a mechanic in Chattanooga, Tennessee, got a call one day in 1916 from his old business school professor, John Wiley, who had driven his Ford Model T off the road and upside down into a creek bed. Holmes eventually got the T out of the creek bed and upright, but it took eight hours and six men and untold amounts of manual labor.”

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  •                Holmes advertisement the “Motor Age” September 21, 1922

“The experience gave Holmes an idea, though: Back at his shop, he outfitted a three-year-old Cadillac – which sat on a fairly stout 120-inch-wheelbase chassis and which used a L-head four-cylinder engine for power – with a crane and pulley system that would lift broken-down and wrecked vehicles and secure them for a tow back to a nearby mechanic’s shop. After refining the idea with a pair of outriggers to provide stability while hoisting other vehicles, Holmes filed for a patent for his idea (US Patent 1254804) in November 1917.”

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  •                    Ernest Holmes January 29, 1917 patent drawings.

You can learn more of what Dan Strohl found out about Holme’s first tow truck, his 1918 patent and his business building Holmes Wreckers on Hemmings Daily. You can also find a a number of early tow truck images here on The Old Motor.  The top photo was taken during 1932 in Lexington, Kentucky, and is courtesy of the University of Kentucky.


7 responses to “Earnest Holmes and His First Tow Truck

  1. My grandfather operated the Blue Ribbon Garage in Putnam, Conn., probably from the early 30’s to the late 50’s. He did most of the towing and vehicle recovery in the area and his 1st wrecker was a Pierce Arrow Town Car that he acquired from Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. My father talked about picking this vehicle up at her Long Island Estate and talking to my grandfather via the speaking tube. My grandfather scrapped the aluminum body and made a wrecker using a Holmes Twin boom crane that was hand cranked. My grandfather received more money from scrapping the body then what he paid for the entire vehicle. Sorry, I don’t recall what year the Pierce Arrow was, as I only heard about it through my father.

  2. The top photo appears to be a Manley rig. The large gear wheel is a give away. My dad had a La Salle and then a 1931 Packard with a Weaver 3 ton auto crane that he did a lot of work with up into the mid 50s. Again. thank you for all the information and entertainment you bring us each day.

  3. It nice to read some history on the tow truck.

    I own a towing company and knowing some of this stuff gives me a very humbling feeling. Some people think that towing is as simple as hooking a car, they often have a very little idea to the engineering behind it. I’ll be sure to share this article with the crew. Thanks for this!

  4. My Crosley-collecting pal Tyrone Mount, who from time to time drove tow trucks, once built a wrecker from a Crosley. He wrote APARTMENT on the boom. Hardly anyone got the joke.

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