We always see them along the sides of roads, causing rubberneckers to gaze while they recover a vehicle. Some are so big and powerful that they often tow three, even four other vehicles behind them. The U.S. Army employs them, sporting eight massive wheels that are almost as tall a full-grown man. We’re talking about tow trucks! Let’s face it, as kids, we all wanted to drive one – they’re just powerful, big, and strangely capable of moving other similarly sized vehicles. But where’d they come from? To find that answer, let’s look at a guy who lost a car in a river, and spent a lot of trouble getting it back.
Pictured above is the Holmes 485, the first commercially available tow truck ever built. The guy who built it is Ernest Holmes Sr. He’s the poor fellow who lost that car of his (named “Tin Lizzie”), a Ford Model T, in the Chickamauga Creek, just outside of Chattanooga.
Lucky for Holmes, a friend who owned a service station got wind of the unfortunate spill and he, along with eight other men, spent an entire day recovering the vehicle from the creek using bricks, wood beams, plenty of rope, and a lot of sweat. Holmes, being a creative and entrepreneurial mind, went back to his own garage and began developing the plans for what is considered the first tow truck ever built. He and two friends – L.C. Decker and Elmer Gross – helped build the prototype.
Holmes’ creation was no massive wrecker like the monsters we see on the road today. It was a simple 1913 Cadillac chassis that sported a metal tube framework, numerous pulley mechanisms to mitigate tow loads, and steel wires with hooks that secured to the rear bumper when not used. The original design was purely utilitarian, though not quite enough. When Holmes put his prototype to the test, it failed because it lacked stabilization (the subject vehicle had to instead be recovered by simple manpower).
Holmes returned to the drawing board and fitted the chassis with outriggers – wide “feet” that provided additional lateral stability – to prevent the tow truck from tipping when securing a tow load. It wasn’t without some nay-saying, though, that Holmes garnered success:
The initial setback of Holmes’ first recovery failure emboldened those who said a tow truck could not be feasible, including his own parents. They reportedly attempted to dissuade Holmes from continuing development of his tow truck, citing his friend, L.C. Decker, losing an eye while working in a service center.
This deterred Holmes by no measure, however, and by 1919 he perfected his design for the first tow truck, secured a patent, and proudly branded his new invention the Holmes 485. With extensive modifications, the first Holmes 485 could not sit atop a Cadillac chassis. Instead, it was coupled with a long, sleek 1913 Locomobile, a car considered by many at the time to be the “best-built car in America”. The base vehicle sold for $6,000 new, an astronomical figure for an automobile at the time (it would retail for $89,000 today). The original Holmes 485 on exhibit is work around $250,000 today.
So, there you have it: The first tow truck was borne of an entrepreneur’s wish to solve a problem that, unfortunately, so many of us experience today. It’s all thanks to an old Model T named Tin Lizzie that fell in the Chickamauga Creek.