There was a time when anyone with ambition, a modicum of welding skills, and a bit of common sense could transform a sturdy truck, or car, into a tow truck. Then they could go into business and make a living or bolster the profit margin for their garage.
In the 1950s, as the tsunami of traffic along Route 66 was increasing daily, the Barker brothers opened a garage and towing service in Truxton, Arizona. They started with a homemadetruck and took turns working a 12-hour shift. In a mere twelve months it proved to be such a lucrative endeavor they purchased a new Ford truck outfitted with a Holmes wrecker body.
For decades Holmes dominated the towing industry. And many automotive historians consider Ernest Holmes Sr. as the father of the tow truck.
According to legend the Holmes tow truck story starts in 1916. That was the year that Holmes, a Chattanooga garage owner, was asked to retrieve a car that had fallen into a creek.
He used ropes, chains, a block and tackle, and six men to pull the car out. It took eight hours and a lot of back breaking effort.
The innovative Mr. Holmes thought there had to be a better way, so he started experimenting with different designs and mechanisms with the goal of creating a sturdy unit that could lift and then tow vehicles. He used a cut down 1913 Cadillac as the base.
Each device was tested in real world conditions. And then Holmes would work on perfecting them with various improvements. In 1919 he patented his invention and founded the Ernest Holmes Company.
Initially Holmes traveled the southeast, demonstrated his wrecker to garages and service stations, and passed orders to the factory in Tennessee. Within a few years he and his son, Ernest Holmes Jr, hired a sales team and then turned their attention to making improvements and creating specialized equipment.
The Holmes units became synonymous with the wrecker. And soon the company dominated the industry. And during WWII the company developed specialized units for tank and heavy field gun recovery. This would serve the company well in the post-war years as the trucking industry grew exponentially and as a result there was an ever-increasing demand for heavy duty wreckers.
The heavy rigs designed for military application during WWII were used by French, British and Russian armies in the various theaters. So, after the war the company was in an ideal position to initiate an export division.
Within ten years the company had come to dominate the international as well as domestic market for wrecker bodies and specialized towing equipment. An industry study commissionedin the early 1960s estimated that 95% of the tow trucks in the world were using Ernest Holmes Company components manufactured in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In 1973 the company was sold to Dover Corporation, a conglomerate, but it continued to operate under the Holmes name until 1984. It was then merged with another wrecker manufacturer, Century Wrecker Corporation. The Holmes brand lives on as Miller Industries, which is based in Ooltewah, Tennessee, about 20 miles from Chattanooga.
The contributions of Ernest Holmes Sr. and his son is preserved at the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga. Founded in 1995 by a group of towing professionals who wanted to recognize outstanding individuals in the industry, and preserve its history, the museum features restored antique wreckers and equipment from different eras and manufacturers. There is also a Hall of Fame that honors towing professionals.
The museum is open seven days a week and offers guided tours, educational programs, special events and a gift shop. It is located at 3315 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee. For more information, visit https://internationaltowingmuseum.org/
The legacy of Ernest Holmes lives on at companies such as A & G Towing in Bullhead City, Arizona. Our team of professionals has the skills and the equipment to meet the towing needs of customers in the Colorado River Valley.
Written by Jim Hinckley