Tow truck

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Heavy Tow truck, Spectacle Lift type
Wrecker on duty in Jyväskylä, Finland, Flatbed type

A tow truck (also called a wrecker, a breakdown truck, recovery truck or a breakdown lorry) is a vehicle used to transport motor vehicles to another location (generally a repair garage or impound lot), or to recover vehicles which are no longer on a drivable surface. A tow truck is distinct from motor carriers that regularly transport multiple cars simultaneously.


The tow truck was invented in 1916 by Ernest Holmes, Sr., of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was a garage worker who was inspired to create the invention after he was forced to pull a car out of a creek using blocks, ropes, and six men. An improved design led him to manufacture wreckers.[1] A museum in Chattanooga called the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum features restored antique wreckers and displays related toys, tools, equipment, and pictorial histories of the tow truck industry.

Types of towing equipment[edit]

Five general types are in common usage, usually based on the type or size of vehicle to be towed truck chassis:

A heavy-duty boom truck, Sling type
A car being loaded onto a flatbed tilt-tray tow truck.
  • Boom – not a specific type, but a piece of equipment used on many types of tow truck; an adjustable boom winch aids vehicle recovery from a ditch, culvert, over an embankment, or any place the vehicle cannot be safely backed-up to.
  • Hook and chain (also known as a "sling" or "belt lift") – chains are 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. Cars equipped with all-wheel drive cannot be towed with a sling, since it can cause problems with the car's drivetrain.[2]
  • 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. The wheel lift was designed by Frank Casteel and Felming Cannon Jr.[3] The name spectacle lift is common in Europe; the cradle resembles a pair of squared spectacles (eyeglasses).
  • Flatbed (also called a Rollback or a Slide) – the entire back of the truck is fitted with a bed that can 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.
  • Integrated (also referred to as a "Self Loader" Snatcher, Quick Pick or Repo Truck) – boom and wheel-lift 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.


Main article: Towing
Heavy Tow Trucks in action.

Tow trucks are usually operated by private businesses, except for major highways and toll roads, where the road authority may operate the tow trucks for that stretch of road. Businesses who operate a large fleet of vehicles, such as school bus companies or package delivery services, often own one or several tow trucks for the purposes of towing their own vehicles. Government departments with large fleets (such as the police departments, fire departments, transportation authorities and departments of public works of major cities) may similarly own tow truck(s). Police department tow trucks may also be used to impound other vehicles.

The military also deploys tow trucks for recovery of stranded vehicles. In the US Army, a variant of the HEMTT truck is used for this purpose, the M984 wrecker. For recovery in combat situations while under fire, many armies with large vehicle fleets also deploy armoured recovery vehicles. These vehicles fulfill a similar role, but are resistant to heavy fire and capable of traversing rough terrain with their tracks.

In the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria there exists a Tow Truck Act, and tow trucks are identified by number plates ending in "TT". An example of a statute regulating the operation of tow trucks and the towing industry generally is the Victorian Accident Towing Services Act.


Requests for service are placed to a dispatching center. Some tow services communicate with drivers using wireless telephone equipment. In others, the dispatching center contacts an available tow truck driver via mobile radio or by sending a text message using a mobile data terminal. Recent technology includes the use of GPS and on board wireless equipment to dispatch drivers via an LCD screen receiver.

Some smaller towing companies, especially single-truck owner-operator outfits, may have only a single telephone and answering device for their "dispatch center." Increasingly, this will just be a mobile phone for the operator on duty, or may be the main telephone number for an associated mechanic, who will then send the truck from the shop or call the operator's mobile phone.[4]

Dispatching networks exist for geographic automobile clubs, such as the British Royal Automobile Club, the American Automobile Association, and the Canadian Automobile Association. These organization primarily contract with many local tow truck operators (though they do have fleets of their own in some areas). The clubs will re-dispatch the requests from the club dispatch center to the local operators dispatch line, which, as above, may be a true dispatch center for larger tow fleets, or a simple business telephone line or mobile line for smaller operators. The club dispatch center will typically handle any follow-up needed on behalf of the customer, so that they do not need to track the multiple levels of dispatching.[5]

Impounds and storage[edit]

1980s style tow truck still in use, Edmonton Alberta (2006), Hook and chain type

Many tow companies can store vehicles that have been wrecked or impounded by police agencies. In these circumstances, police agencies notify a contracted towing provider to secure the vehicle and tow it to a storage lot. The tow company will sometimes prevent access to the vehicle until the law states the owner can claim it (usually after any fines are paid). Some local governments operate their own towing and impound lots, and don't need a contracted provider.[4] [6]

Nearly all tow companies charge a fee for storing vehicles.

GPS and AVL[edit]

Navigation systems are becoming more commonly used to tell the location (of stranded vehicles) to tow trucks. Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems are sometimes used to help the dispatch center staff determine the closest tow truck. AVL may use GPS technology. It may display the location of all tow trucks on a map or may feed data directly to a computer-assisted dispatch system which automatically recommends the closest available units.

See also[edit]

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based tow truck, Flatbed type


  1. ^ "Entrepreneurial Hall of fame inducts three". University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. May 17, 2007. Retrieved August 29, 2009. 
  2. ^ "How to tow a four-wheel-drive vehicle". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 9 April 2014. 
  3. ^ US patent 4451193, "Wheel lift apparatus" . Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  4. ^ a b Gillikin, Jason. "What Do I Need to Start My Own Tow Truck Business?". Houston Chronicle. Demand Media. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "TCC Tip: Roadside Assistance". Lifestyle. BusinessWeek. Bloomberg. December 29, 2005. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 
  6. ^ Morris, Kaye. "How to Start My Own Towing Business". Houston Chronicle. Demand Media. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 

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