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Articles > Tow Truck 100th Anniversary

The Tow Truck’s 100th Anniversary
with Wire Rope’s Assistance

Chattanooga may sound like an out-of-the-way place to find a tow truck museum, but this was the place the tow trucker inventor, Ernest Holmes, hailed from. Area visitors might easily bypass the somewhat ordinary building with its blue towing museum sign, but inside is a one-of-a-kind tribute to something most of us take very much for granted in our day to day lives – getting our cars and ourselves, safely out of harm’s way and up and running again. Here we get a peek at the legacy and history of how the modern day tow truck came to be.

By Victor Mendez

Published in Rope News & Sling Technology April 2016

Photos courtesy of the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.

Weaver  Wanda  Boyles  with  over  30  years  of  experience  gives  constant  attention  to  our  quality webbing.

In 1916 Tennessee native, Ernest Holmes came up with an idea to use a truck to help tow other vehicles. Until that point, there was nothing available to help stranded vehicles other than natural horse power, well, when horsepower was what the name implied. Holmes put his idea on the four wheels of his 1913 Cadillac. We all know how the rest of that phrase about history goes.

Fortunately that history lives on in Chattanooga’s International Towing and Recovery Museum. The attraction houses 19 tow trucks and memorabilia, according to Angela Roper, the museum’s executive director. Trucks are downstairs. In addition to a replica of Holmes’ first invention, a wide variety of trucks show off just how that original has advanced since 1916. There’s also a video presentation for visitors to watch to learn about how the tow truck came to be. There’s also a wall dedicated to Holmes and how his idea revolutionized the world as we know it today.

“Without Ernest Holmes, we wouldn’t have an industry,” explains Roper. “Something might have come along after that. But Holmes remains the person who actually had the initiative to have it patented and go forward. And it’s become a great industry. He was a very talented man.”

tow truck Holmes Co

Another landmark the museum is proud to display actually sits outside the building, in front of the parking lot. Every year tow truck drivers are killed while responding to emergencies, and because of that, the museum has erected a wall to memorialize the lives that have been lost. To date, there are 392 names on that wall. Roper said there are an average of 60 drivers killed each year.

“The industry is very important. We’re responders. A lot of people don’t understand that. We’re the last person that you want to see, but we’re the ones that are going to help you and save you on the side of the road. It’s important because that’s our history, and for the people who are in our industry. It’s important that you have a place you call home,” Roper explained about the memorial wall.

So the next time you’re driving through Chattanooga, Tennessee, stop and take a look through the world’s only museum dedicated entirely to tow truck drivers and their dedication to helping others. It’s an important stop because there’s nothing else like it, and because it’s a 100 year old invention that was Made in Tennessee.

“This is where we began. You have a place you can come and see what happened back then... it’s here, how things were built, where it was created from, and it happened right here in Chattanooga,” Roper said.

You can get more information about the towing museum, including visiting hours and how the city of Chattanooga is celebrating the tow truck’s 100th birthday, by going to the museum’s website at www.internationaltowingmuseum.org.

The Museum offers something for everyone. If you plan to visit set aside several hours to view the array of displays and exhibits showcasing the history of towing and recovery. On the outside grounds is the Wall of the Fallen memorial, dedicated to towers who died in the line of service. The Museum exhibits tow trucks and towing equipment dating back to 1916. The rotating collection includes early equipment built by Manley, Holmes, Vulcan, and Weaver. The Hall of Fame portion of the Museum honors individuals who have significantly advanced the industry. There are hundreds of photos photos throughout the building depicting early tow trucks and the pioneers who used them, including Ernest Holmes, Sr, credited with building the first tow truck. Toy tow truck collections with other memorabilia and exhibits related to the industry’s colorful past are also featured. The Museum also includes a theater, a library, and a unique gift shop that sells souvenirs related to the towing and recovery industry. The Learning Center is reserved by various organizations throughout the year.

The museum is a non-profit organization. All money and exhibits come exclusively from donations, grants, and gifts from individuals and major industry corporations.The museum hosts tour groups, school trips, and special events. It is recommended that you call 30 days in advance for reservations. Holmes worked in a garage 100 years back. His inspiration came directly from having to use blocks, ropes and six men in his efforts to pull a car out of a creek. Today’s towing equipment now includes heavy-duty sling-type boom trucks – one of five general types of tow truck are in common usage today. The type of truck used tends to be based on the type of vehicle having to be towed.

tow truck with chains

Boom trucks use adjustable boom winches to recover vehicles from over embankments, ditches or anywhere vehicles cannot be safely reached backing-up. Some booms are fixed, some heavy pivoting “A” frames while other get power pneumatically powered through telescoping tubes.

Hook and chain – the latter also known as a “belt lift” or “sling” – operate with the chains looped around the vehicle frame or axle, which is drawn aloft by a boom winch to rest against a pair of heavy rubberized mats so the customer’s vehicle can be towed on its other axle. Slings are not used much today because they can scratch the bumpers of cars. But they are sometimes used for towing vehicles that have been in an accident or have one or two of the front or rear wheels missing or for pickup trucks and other vehicles that have steel bumpers. One fairly recent development over the years is the fact that all-wheel-drive equipped cars cannot be towed with a sling, since it may cause problems with the car’s drive train.

The Wheel-Lift, or spectacle lift, evolved from the hook and chain technology to produce a large metal yoke that can be fitted under the front or rear wheels to cradle them, drawing the front or rear end of the vehicle clear of the ground by a pneumatic or hydraulic hoist so it can be towed. This apparatus generally picks up the drive wheels of the vehicle (i.e. the front wheels if it is front wheel drive, the rear wheels if it is rear wheel drive) touching only the tires. In Europe the name spectacle lift is commonly used as the cradle resembles a pair of squared spectacles or eyeglasses.

The Flatbed arrangement, known as well as a “rollback” or a “slide” involves the entire back of the truck, fitted with a bed able to be hydraulically inclined and moved to ground level, allowing the vehicle being towed to be placed on it under its own power or pulled by a winch. An Integrated or referred to as a “Self Loading” Snatcher, Quick Pick or Repo Truck features a boom and wheellift integrated into one unit.

Used in light duty trucks to repossess vehicles or move illegally parked vehicles. Most have controls for the apparatus inside the cab of the tow truck to make quick pickup possible without the inconvenience of exiting the truck to hook up the vehicle. Heavy duty trucks are also manufactured with integrated lift.

These are the most common arrangements, but are by no means exclusive, as there are flatbed units that offer a wheel-lift, boom trucks that can recover but not tow, and wheel-lift units that offer a combination boom with sling.

A dedicated group of professionals known as the Friends of Towing, decided to recognize outstanding individuals in the towing and recovery industry worldwide, record the history of the industry, collect and display industry artifacts and memorabilia through a museum, and provide information about the industry to the general public.

This marked the birth of the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. The best way to display the Hall of Fame and Museum, they decided, was to drive it to tow shows around the country, which they did for many years in a tractor-trailer; and the rest is history. In 1986 the first Hall of Fame inducted 27 members (there are now 285 HOF members). In September 1995, the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum opened to the public in downtown Chattanooga, TN in it’s first permanent structure.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, was chosen as the museum’s home because the indusry’s first wrecker was fabricated approximately three and a half miles away from the museum at the Ernest Holmes Company. It moved to it’s current location on Broad Street in 2003. In 2006, the Wall of the Fallen memorial was added to the outside grounds, and the first 94 names of towers who lost their lives in the line of service were added to the wall in 2007.

For those wondering about towing specifics, OSHA requires no less than two wraps of rope remain on drum when rope is “fully extended.” This is to ensure the full load never bears on the rope to drum connection. The wire rope on each recovery class truck must be equivalent to a 6 x 19 or 6 x 37 “extra improved plowed steel” (XIP) independent wire rope center (IWRC), and must meet all industry standards for working load limit.

Operator must retain a receipt of purchase from the manufacturer indicating the type and WLL of wire rope, and document the type and date the wire rope was installed on each vehicle. Class “A,” “D,” and “E” trucks may utilize either IWRC or fiber core wire rope. All wire rope must be in good working order. Industry standards for out-ofservice criteria will apply in cases of more than six randomly distributed broken wires in one rope lay, or more than three broken wires in one strand in one rope lay are damaged.

Other factors causing a tow rope to be removed from service include, excessive abrasion causing the loss of more than one-third the original diameter of an outside individual wire, evidence of rope deterioration from corrosion, kinking, crushing, or other damage that results in detrimental distortion of the rope structure, any evidence of heat damage, any marked reduction in diameter either along the entire main length or in one section, or the unlaying or opening up of a tucked splice.

There must not be any core protrusion along the entire length of the wire rope, no cracked, deformed, worn, or loosened end attachments. Removal should occur if any indication exists of strand or wire slippage in end attachments, or more than one broken wire in the vicinity of fittings.

Wire rope end connections need to be swaged or, if clamped, must have a minimum of three forged clamps spaced a minimum of six rope diameters apart and attached with the base or saddle of the clamp against the longer or “live” end of the cable. The “U” bolt will be placed over the short or “dead” end of the rope and will be of the proper size for the cable being clamped.

Recovery or tow hooks must be installed, maintained, and used in the manner in which the manufacturer prescribes. These must in turn be replaced if the throat opening has increased beyond the manufacturer recommendations, the load bearing point has been worn by ten percent, or the hook is twisted by more than ten degrees. Wire rope clamps must be installed and torqued per manufacturer specifications.

The first thing to consider in choosing the right cable is the kind of load to which the cable might be subjected. Once this is determined, it is time to make an evaluation of what kind of safety factor will be desired. In some extreme cases the suggested safety factors are as high as 10:1. Normally, the safety factors are 4:1 or 5:1 of the minimum breaking strength of the cable being used.

As an example, if you are going to hang something that weighs 55 pounds from the ceiling of a public building, if this item were to fall onto someone below, it would certainly cause harm, or worse. The minimum safety factor that you would want to consider would be 5:1. Therefore 55 x 5 = 275. The minimum breaking strength of the cable that you would select would be in excess of 275 pounds.

You must also consider other factors to which the cable might be subjected, such as the possibility of a shock load in an earthquake or exposure to winds or blowing air from ventilation systems. Cable is not recommended, nor is it rated for shock loads. Unknown loads must be determined by testing prior to determining which cable to use. Determining the load that the cable will be exposed to, and under what conditions, will enable us to choose an appropriate diameter of cable.

The next step is to select a construction of cable. Is the cable going to go over pulleys? If so, consult the table regarding minimum recommended pulley groove diameters to determine the construction of cable most compatible to the pulley diameter being used. If the cable is not going over pulleys, it may still need to be somewhat flexible. If moderate flexibility is required, such as with a door retaining lanyard, a 7 x 7 construction will probably be adequate.

Maybe the cable is for guying purposes or being used on a railing. In such cases a 1 x 19 construction is normally preferred. The third step is choosing the correct cable composition. The primary considerations in choosing the composition of the cable are service life, environment, and cost.

Just because the cable is going to be exposed to the elements outdoors does not mean that it should necessarily be galvanized such as wire rope used on tow trucks.

The service life of the cable is probably a year or two at best. Unless you are in a severe environment, the cable will not have an opportunity to significantly deteriorate within the cable’s service life. There is no need to use galvanized in this circumstance. Also, most special purpose hoisting ropes, such as compacted ropes and spin resistant ropes, are not available in galvanized.

Although some sizes of spin resistant wire rope are available in stainless steel, non-galvanized wire rope is referred to as bright and is usually coated with a petroleum based lube. Galvanized aircraft cable is almost always used in smaller diameter assemblies when stainless steel is not specified and smaller rope being under 1/4 inch diameter.

Galvanized cable is normally adequate corrosion protection for most conditions. Exceptions to this statement include the following conditions or situations. Applications close to a salt water or salt air environment must be considered as well as areas where there is exposure to winter salting of roads. Environments of corrosive chemical exposure may come into play as well as applications such as food preparation and medical products or any other that has a frequent wash down. In applications where an aesthetic consideration with a preference for shine exists, stainless steel is the preferred choice when the exceptions listed above apply. The final consideration will be whether or not the cable needs to be coated.

Some of the most common reasons to choose coated cable are the appearance of the size of the cable, the need to protect the cable from undesired substances, the offering of the cable in a certain color for aesthetic reasons, protecting the cable and/or the pulleys that the cables are running over from abrasion, or to reduce friction

Jennifer Graham, Assistant Director at the International Towing and Recovery Museum, reminds us that this year also happens to be doubly important at the center. In addition to the 100th anniversary of the tow truck, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the center’s Hall of Fame.

“Our memorial, started by the Friends of Towing will be honored this September 8th through the 10th with a celebration here at the museum,” says Graham. “We are honoring those men and women who, while performing their jobs were killed on the highway.

“Some of those people were in accidents involving four-wheeled or 18-wheelers and others had heart attacks or other health issues. Last year of the 36 individual names placed on our wall, but again, the majority were hit by 18-wheelers. For which we are attempting to raise awareness of the move over, slow down law.”

The center’s gift shop even carries items informing visitors of this advice through bracelets, shirts and various other objects for sale. Graham mentions that if a name is submitted within 90 days of a fatal accident, with a police report and news article, that individual may be remembered on the wall.

“Last year, with funds we’ve raised here at the museum, we were also able to pay out some $30,000 dollars to the families of those killed through a survivor’s fund. We may not be a museum most people have heard of, but we are worth the trip if you happen to be in the Chattanooga area. We’ll be glad to see you. There’s always something new to learn.”

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