Tow Truck Museum

May 7, 2009 by Nick Russell · 24 Comments  
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At the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee you can walk among early automotive history as you view restored antique wreckers and equipment, browse through towing industry related equipment and tools, and learn about the men and women who built the modern towing industry.

515-holmes-wrecker-netThe towing industry got its start in Chattanooga, thanks to an innovative man named Ernest W. Holmes, Sr., who worked as an automobile mechanic and had his own garage in the city in the early 1900s. In those days, often the hardest part of working on an automobile was pulling it out of a ditch or mud mire with chains and ropes. Since transporting a stalled vehicle was such an effort, most mechanics did their repair work on the scene. Holmes knew there had to be a better way, so he designed the world’s first wrecker, mounting the towing apparatus on the back of a 1913 Cadillac limousine. Other garage owners quickly saw the value in the new Holmes wrecker, and orders came in for towing equipment. Though his garage was very successful, at one time employing 20 mechanics, Holmes realized the future possibilities of his new invention and turned full time to manufacturing wreckers. In those days the equipment was mounted on heavy touring car frames, and was hand powered. That first Holmes wrecker, designated #680, originally sold for $680

The company grew steadily, making improvements and refinements in every series of wreckers it produced. The new company was awarded several patents for its inventions. Starting out in a small shop with five employees, the Holmes company quickly outgrew its quarters and moved into a large livery stable. Today the Holmes factory and office are situated on a multi-acre parcel and employs hundreds of people.

Today some of the earliest wrecker models are on display at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, all restored to pristine condition. Included in the museum’s collection are some of the most outstanding examples of early towing and recovery equipment. Several wreckers are mounted on old limousine frames, including a beautiful Packard sporting a 3 ton Manley crane. Owned and restored by the Gratzianna family of O’Hare Truck Service in Northlake, Illinois, the beautiful old limo/wrecker has been featured on the cover of Packard International Motor Car Club magazine. Another beautiful rig owned by Jack Gratzianna, and displayed at the museum, is a handsome 1929 Chrysler tow truck with a Weaver crane. Chrysler never made a truck; this unit started out as a 5 window coupe and was converted by the Hartigan Brothers Chrysler Plymouth dealership in Oak Park, Illinois. The tow truck was in continuous service from 1930 until 1971, when the dealership closed. Jack Gratzianna acquired the truck in the late 1980s and spent two years restoring it.

connoly-wrecker-netOne very popular and historic vehicle on display in the museum is a US Army Diamond T wrecker mounted with a Holmes W45 twin boom winch system. Built in Chattanooga in 1945, the wrecker was shipped to Europe and served with the famous Red Ball Express, a massive effort to deliver critically needed supplies to the rapidly advancing American army as they stormed across France and onward to Germany. Running day and night in one long continuous high speed convoy, the Red Ball Express shuttled troops, ammunition, food, and other equipment to Patton’s army, never stopping for anything. If a vehicle broke down, Diamond T wreckers like this one were used to haul them off before they blocked the road. Many of the Red Ball Express drivers were Black American troops who were deployed to support services in the segregated army of the times. It is said that the Allied victory in Europe could not have happened without the hard working men and trucks of the Red Ball Express.

After the war, the wrecker was given to the French army. It was sold at auction to a garage in Metz, France in 1973, but was never used. The vehicle went through a series of owners before being returned to Chattanooga and its position of honor in its new home at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum.

reds-wrecker-3-netAnother popular tow truck on display with an interesting history is a 1947 GMC “Bubble Nose” that was purchased new by the Pabst Brewing Company and used to haul beer to its customers. Later the truck was sold to a bus company, which installed a tow boom and used it to tow school buses. The company abandoned the truck when its water pump failed and they could not find a replacement. In 1988, George Lanser of Lanser Garage and Towing in Belgium, Wisconsin discovered the truck, overgrown with weeds, in a field near West Bend, Wisconsin. It took Lanser two years to locate a water pump that could be machined to fit the truck, during which time he lovingly restored it to like new condition. For years the truck was driven in summer parades and shown in truck shows.

Compared to these gigantic behemoths, the tiny Rogner Wrecker displayed at the museum is a midget. Using a 1970 Cony (a Japanese truck manufacturer) ¼ ton pickup with a two cylinder engine, owner Mark Rogner mounted a boom modeled after a small wrecker with a 2,000 pound rating on the back. The little wrecker was tested by towing a Ford Escort, and is used in parades, promotions, and at towing conventions.

Along with these and many other examples of tow trucks down thorough the years, the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum includes a Hall of Fame dedicated to the men and women who have helped further the towing and recovery industry. Included are towing company operators, manufacturers and inventors of towing equipment, engineers, sales representatives, distributors, wrecker drivers, and others who have played vital roles in making the industry what it is today. Men and women from 17 different countries are honored, with their pictures and biographies on display in the Hall of Fame.

The 16,500 square foot museum also includes several examples of old automotive accessories, including old gasoline pumps, air pumps, and other collectibles. A very nice gift shop offers souvenirs, books and other items of interest to tow truck enthusiasts.

The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 3315 Broad Street in Chattanooga, a short distance from Interstate 24, with easy access from both Interstates 24 and 75. The museum has room for an RV to park, and powered scooters are available free for the use of handicapped visitors. For more information about the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, call 423-267-3132 or visit their web site at

Nick Russell

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24 Responses to “Tow Truck Museum”

  1. John Shelton on May 7th, 2009 12:42 pm

    It is satisfying to see an attraction in my home town featured here. Holmes was, at one time, reputed to be the largest wrecker manufacturer in the world. It is sad to see the old manufacturing site fall into disrepair and neglect yet comforting to see its history maintained in the form of this museum. Ernest Holmes’ sons opened another wrecker manufacturing facility, also in greater Chattanooga, soon after Ernest sold the original facility to Dover Corp. That plant is still building wreckers today, albeit after changing hands again at least once. Thanks, Nick, for the wonderful report.

  2. Vulpine on May 7th, 2009 2:14 pm

    They make this place easier to access? I used to live in Chattanooga and every time I’ve been there, I’ve tried to get into the museum. More often than not, it was hard to find (if at all) and the only time I’m fairly sure I found it, it was closed.

    I have to agree with John, Holmes was the biggest and best-known in the country, if not the world. What with the rollback rigs, the need for “wreck and recovery” trucks is massively reduced.

  3. Vulpine on May 7th, 2009 2:20 pm

    Ah… they moved it from the old site next to I-75 in Ooltewah. That’s why I couldn’t find it!

  4. John Shelton on May 7th, 2009 3:55 pm

    The “I-75 in Ooltewah” site is the site of what is now Miller Industries. It is the site that the Holmes brothers built after their father sold the Ernest Holmes business. The brothers did business as Century Wrecker.

  5. Sarge on May 8th, 2009 2:01 pm

    This is an incredible article. The pictures are so clear. I live about 180 miles form there and can’t wait to go. Thanks

  6. Nick Russell on May 13th, 2009 10:00 pm

    I’m glad you liked the story. We love finding these little known gems.

  7. Hubert Miller on June 28th, 2009 10:41 am

    Excellent article about the tow truck museum..
    Growing up in Chattanoga (East Lake) I remember Colonel Holmes driving around the area…He was very involved in the Civil Air Patrol…The wrecker factory
    was near my home and would see the wreckers going out on railroad flatcars
    during the late war years. Ernest Holmes was quite a man.
    I want to visit the museum sometime….I now live in the Cincinnati area..
    I get down that way occasionally.

    Hubert Miller

  8. Zack on June 25th, 2010 12:08 pm

    I think next time I’m in Nashville, I”ll have to swing on down to check this out!

  9. Chad on February 26th, 2011 7:25 pm

    Great article and pictures depicting a great history! When I get to Chattanooga I will definately stop by the museum.

    Wrecker towing Software.

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