The world’s first tow truck was built in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1916, when Ernest W. Holmes, Sr. mounted the industry’s first vehicle to the body of a 1913 Cadillac.
Mr. Holmes was born on January 17, 1883 in Hobbs Island, Alabama and moved to Chattanooga, setting up a garage and workshop.
The aforementioned Cadillac was modified to enable Holmes to pull and transport cars to his garage for repairs. He initially created the first tow-truck by affixing an iron chain, a pull and several metal poles to the back of his Cadillac automobile.
After his initial success with his combination automobile and tow-truck he patented the device and the towing industry was born.
After he had filed his patent on January 17, 1918, he became the industry leader and developed a highly successful business.
Although a few of his wreckers were used at the end of World War I it was in World War II that he supplied the allies with between 6,000 and 7,000 military tier wreckers.
With the development of NASCAR a Holmes wrecker was a familiar fixture on the racing circuit when it became necessary to remove a disabled car from the track. It was also used in Indy Car racing for many decades.
Prior to his unexpected death from a heart attack on June 10, 1945, at the age of 62, Holmes, was an active member of the Chattanooga community.
He was an avid golfer and also sponsored a fast pitch softball team bearing his company’s name in the highly competitive league that included Combustion, Chattanooga Gas, DuPont teams and others.
Out of his garage and plant at 2505 43rd Street in Chattanooga, Holmes invented and built many types of towing trucks and developed ideas for more complicated rigs including twin extendable booms, rotating platforms, power up and power down transmissions and also provided 24-hour parts service.
The extent of Holmes' success is that by late 1965 two-thirds of all wreckers in the industry were Holmes units. Upon his death, Ernie, as he was called by his friends, was succeeded by his son, Ernest Holmes, Jr. in 1943. He ran the company until he retired in 1973.
The company was bought out by Dover Corporation and Holmes, Sr.’s grandson Gerald Holmes, started Century Wrecker as a rival. After an industry consolidation both Holmes and Century were bought out by the present owner, Miller Industries, in 1990. Miller, with its large operation plant in Ooltewah outside of Chattanooga, claims its role as world leader in the towing and recovery equipment field with four manufacturing plants in the United States, one in England, and one in France.
However, the memory of the gentleman that started it all has not been forgotten. The International Towing & Recovery Museum at 3315 Broad St. on the Southside of Chattanooga is a must see stop for a tourist (or local) fan of the history of the towing industry started by Ernest Holmes, Sr.
A group called the “Friends of Towing” started the project of building the museum and it has evolved into a superb warehouse of the industry. Original and replica models of various towing vehicles and tools that have been devised and built by tow truck drivers compile a part of the many items on display. Also included is a Hall of Fame created in 1986 which is recognized as “one of the highest honors of the towing and recovery profession”. Of course, Ernest Holmes, Sr. is recognized as an industry giant.
Finally the “Wall of the Fallen” is a memorial remembering towing and recovery people who have died on the job.
Ernest Holmes, Sr. would be proud of the present state of the industry that he created with his 1913 Cadillac.