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Ernest Holmes and the First Tow Truck

History of tow trucks

This entrepreneur invented a way to help his distressed customers — and start a new industry — at the same time.

History of tow trucks

A modified 1913 Locomobile, one of the first tow trucks Holmes made.

It was 1916 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mechanic Ernest Holmes got a call from his old Business School professor, John Wiley. Wiley and his son had been driving when their Model T veered off the road and was flipped upsidedown in a creek bed. Holmes came to help. It took him eight hours and six men to retrieve the car from the creek bed.

Holmes decided there had to be a better solution, and he was determined to find it.

He modified a 1913 Cadillac, adding a crane and pulley system. The idea was that this modified vehicle could rescue other distressed vehicles and tow them to a mechanics shop for repair.

It didn’t work. Holmes needed something to stabilize the tow truck. He added a pair of outriggers to brace the tow truck while it was lifting and pulling other vehicles. This time, it worked, and the first tow truck was born.


Holmes did more than invent a product. He invented an industry. Consider the brilliance of the tow truck: a way to “capture” customer business by capturing the vehicle. Mechanics could fish distressed vehicles from danger and bring them to their shop. There they could work on these captive vehicles without any interference from competitors. The tow truck gave any mechanic or garage a competitve advantage over those who would just sit and wait for customers to come by.

As for Holmes, he began making his tow trucks–called Holmes Wreckers–full time, selling them to repair shops. It didn’t take long for towing to become an industry all its own.

Holmes did what some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history have done, and one of our 12 Business Axioms: Solve an existing problem within your profession. All too often, professionals take for granted problems and inconveniences in their industry. Sometimes, all it takes is one person committed to overcoming that problem. It can drastically change the whole industry, or as in the case of Holmes, create an entirely new, 15 billion dollar industry.

Want to learn more about the history of the towing industry and Holme’s invention? Watch this interesting video from the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum.


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