Since its first appearance in Tennessee, the tow truck has grown into a booming salvage industry. Most auto repair shops have a tow truck that goes out to recover cars from various scenarios, which often doesn't turn out well for the car. Originally custom built, there are various companies that build tow trucks. Miller Industries is perhaps the biggest one in the world with a history that goes as far back as Earnest Holmes and his custom 1913 Cadillac tow truck (Cadillac wasn't always about luxury).
Tow trucks have evolved since these humble beginnings in Tennessee, making them safer and easier to use with every iteration. Gone are the days of tow hooks and winch-driven wires and replaced with hydraulics. The industry has seen the best come and go, and for the ones that have gone, all too often they're sent to the same wrecking yard they once served. However, some still survive today as relics of olden days when being a tow truck operator was simpler but more dangerous.
The tow truck may be the bane of our car-loving existence, but it serves a vital part of our community. Sometimes, however, a tow truck can be more than just something we fear is going to take our prized possession and can also serve as something admirable for how cool it is for taking your car away. We talk about some of the most unique builds from the likes of famed customizer George Barris, to some of the show stoppers you'll see in today's SEMA shows, as well as some of the equipment that's been around since our grandparents were alive.
25 1930 Ford Model A Roadster
The only open-top tow truck that I could find, this Model A Roadster Pickup was restored and given a Texaco paint-job. This restoration is all out as it features only period-correct equipment, which includes a dash-mounted flashlight and a polished-brass fire extinguisher. The original 40 hp motor and 3-speed transmission move the truck while a 2-speed hand crank cable and hook help lift the cars to tow. This one may not have seen work, but seeing this towing an old Model T Tourer would be just the thing to see at a show.
24 1955 Chevrolet "Tow Mater"
I trust we've all seen the movie Cars, right? And we're all familiar with the Radiator Springs tow truck Mater? Good, cause this is about the perfect Mater replica sold at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale in 2014. This custom tow truck started life as an old farm truck that was transformed using custom metal sheets. The non-steel legal truck was sold for $62,000 to what we can only assume was a huge fan of the movies. Though famous in the movie world, it's nice to see a real-life Mater find a good home away from his junkyard.
23 1939 Diamond T Custom
Owned by the Danbury Auto Body out of Danbury Connecticut, this one of a kind custom tow truck rat rod was hand-built by Rick Bennett and powered by a monstrous 572 Chevrolet crate motor. Whether the tow hook really works or not is up for debate, but from the picture, we can see that this rod isn't just for looks and can haul a trailer complete with a car. Too bad it wasn't a vintage racecar that's also all rat-rodded out. Maybe we can get a picture down the line with something far cooler getting towed behind the old rod.
22 1950 Dodge Powerwagon 6x6
Not much about this ultra-tough 6x6 Dodge is known besides the powertrain. A 4.8 LS attached to a 5-speed transmission stopped by 6-wheel-disc brakes leads us to think this is most definitely a resto-mod tow truck. The boom and pulleys function as they should though it's not welded, but rather, bolted on. Nonetheless, this rig should be able to do the job flawlessly, no matter if the car is on the side of the road or down some offroad trail that your buddy's 4x4 got stuck down.
21 1993 Isuzu NPR "Baller Hauler"
How often do we see a tow truck have a matching car on it? This wicked sweet flatbed truck showed up at the 2017 SEMA show complete with a matching AE86 strapped onto the back. We can easily get over the cringy nickname and admire it for how brilliant it is. The truck's wheelbase was lengthened 20 inches and the rear suspension was swapped for a four-link lateral bar setup with airbags. It looks as though the flatbed doesn't only act as something cool to haul your drift car around on, but something to fill in as well just in case something happens and you need a stand-in.
20 1951 Ford COE
The other Texaco truck on our list is a little more extreme than the Model A mentioned earlier. This 1951 COE is slung low and powered by a souped-up 239 Flathead with the power put down through custom Torq-Thrust rims with Corvette style center caps adorning 20-inch tires. Though the boom is just for show as well as the tow line, this thing looks as if it's ready to steal the show as it leaves with someone's prized hot rod.
19 1966 Ford F600 4x4
Found in Wyoming, this truck was specially built for the Texaco station in the area. This thing is huge and much like the 6x6 Dodge mentioned earlier, this thing also probably won't get stuck very easily. Powered by a 390 V8 through Planetary axles which render this wrecker borderline military worthy and definitely a repo man's best friend when he goes out to get those cars while everyone else is stuck at home due to the storm. Pictures of this were taken back in 2015 by J. Willys who found it.
18 Chevrolet Task Force
The Task Force trucks were built by Chevrolet for only 4 years from 1955 till 1959. Chevrolet didn't produce these with 4x4 and left all of the conversions to NAPCO whose conversions are now quite sought after. Sadly, it doesn't seem this wrecker is one of the sacred 4x4s but rather a slung-down 2wd that has been well restored and loved after years of hard work on America's roads. The blue and white two-tone paint matches the 50's tow truck perfectly and adds a little flash to what was no doubt at one time a very dirty and greasy truck.
17 Austin Mini Cooper
Another Texaco badged build, this one looks serious but doesn't seem like it could haul anything bigger than an old Mini. Made more for shock factor and maybe some laughs, the diminutive tow truck was found in the Performance Zone at the Montreal International Auto Show in 2015. Most likely powered by the stock 848cc motor, this has got to be the cleanest Austin Mini wrecker out there as we've seen some other conversions and almost none of them have the original bodywork from the cab back.
16 International Rat Rod
The Isuzu wasn't the only tow truck at SEMA, this rat rod big rig was sitting in one of the side lots and didn't gather a lot of attention beyond a few pictures of people passing by. Though old and worn, the International has been reborn into a vintage rat rod of which there are few of this size. The guys over at Speed Academy caught this candid photo of the wrecker sitting in the side lot and they admitted that in any other place, this build would be the centerpiece.
15 Willys Jeep
This custom Willys Jeep showed up at SEMA a year before the International and the Isuzu, at the Crown Automotive Sales booth. Sitting alongside a Willys Carryall and another old Jeep, this tow truck is small but much like its Jeep brethren, is mighty. The wrecker is a perfect example of what a wrecker normally looked like back in the early days of automotive recovery using portable machinery and tools out of the back of a pickup, how far we've come since.
14 Kenworth Dual-Steer
Making an appearance at the Gore Truck Show in New Zealand, this dual-steering semi-wrecker isn't anything special, but here in the states, it's not very often we see something like this. This old Kenny gets plenty of work done, as we've found on Transport Repairs Limited's social media page. Kenworth has been serving in Australia since the early '60s with the release of the KWS925. Since then they've become a popular manufacturer for heavy hauling needs.
13 Nash 3148
Just in case any of us think that Nash only made sedans and Metropolitans, there's this full-sized wrecker that's survived the years and is now owned and loved by the Havekost family who took their Nash collection to the Orphan Car Show in Monroe, Michigan. Mainly sold for exporting, only about 5,000 Nash trucks were built between 1947 and 1954. Most of the ones used here in America wound up as tow trucks for various Nash service stations.
12 Studebaker Rat Rod
We love this awesome Studebaker that Rodder Files caught hanging off of a trailer in Las Vegas. As much as I don't like a trailer queen, I feel like there is more to this crazy rat rod dually. Scratch, rusted, and in some places chained, looks as if it has starred in a '70s horror film with all the intimidation a Studebaker could have. What may seem to be a rarity, Studebaker is one of America's big companies back in the early days but suffered immense loss and closed the doors of the Hamilton plant in 1966.
11 1940 Ford COE
This legendary workhorse lives in the Towe Auto Museum in Sacramento, California. The 85hp 239-cubic-inch V8 isn't much to look at nowadays, but in 1940, this was a fair amount of power. It's the look, however, that catches our eye, with the long-running boards and the strangely shaped grill that adorns the front. The truck is a gorgeous bit of wartime design that was ages ahead of its time. The 1½ ton features, dual rear wheels, auxiliary springs, and spare wheel, were apparently all options in 1940.
10 Jeep FC (Forward Control)
The smaller FC150 is about as unassuming as the larger custom flatbed. With a Chevy big block mid-mounted and topped with a Whipple supercharger, this makes some crazy specs. The larger flatbed, however, is more for comfort and comes with an airbag suspension that assists with loading as well as leading to a softer ride. The 383 Stroker motor isn't built for power but for torque as it puts down almost 500 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. Owner Bernie Wadekamper is an older gentleman who has built both these trucks up and did all the custom metal work on the flatbed, needless to say, he knows what he's doing.
9 1950 Buick Roadmaster
Last seen in Lynchburg, Virginia, this northern California car was stored in dry storage for a while before it was brought to its new home. The beautiful car almost looks as if it was designed to have a bed that looks almost inconspicuous beside a couple of large doors hiding in the bed. Opening those doors reveals a retractable boom and winch hidden underneath. This is a one of a kind car that this writer wishes to put into his mystical garage that houses every car he's ever dreamed of.
8 Pechanga Resort & Casino's Custom Cart
So this thing won't be taking your car very far if it budges at all. This custom golf cart was actually made from 4 separate units by a few of the more mechanically inclined workers at the resort. The head of the resort lets them use the tow truck cart to go around and assist anyone that might need some light servicing on their cars or even go out onto the field and tow a broken golf cart back to the shop for repairs. Not a tow truck in a traditional sense, this franken-cart does the same job of helping people.
7 1953 Studebaker
Studebaker isn't a company we normally attribute to hardworking big rigs, but this example is only one of a handful ever built and survives in remarkable fashion. This resto-modded Studebaker is just about all original with only the paint giving away that it's had some work done. It's powered by a powerful big block Chevrolet V8 through a 4-speed automatic transmission. Everything on the exterior of the truck is period-correct and fully functional letting this rare Studebaker be both a looker and a taker.
6 Lil' Redd Wrecker
This is the George Barris one I mentioned earlier, only there's more to it than that. It was built in 1970 by Dick Dean, who worked off an Ed Newton design. George bought the non-functional tow truck in 1974, painted it red and gave its name after Redd Foxx of “Sanford and Son” Fame. The Lil' Redd Wrecker looks a little dated with the plush carpeting, but is still really cool, even though it's not functional. We'd be too busy staring at this custom tow truck to notice our car is getting taken away.
5 1984 GMC Vandura School Bus
How cool is this? It's a tiny school bus that's been repurposed as a makeshift tow truck while still retaining the school bus look. This particular “tow cool for school” (Barn Finds beat me to this pun) tow truck was found in Alabama and put up on eBay on no reserve. Though the boom looks fully operational, the bus is not, as it was sold with a note that it had to be towed itself. Who knows who bought it and where it went as I wasn't able to find its current whereabouts, but it's sure to catch looks wherever it goes.
4 1936 Ford Model AA
Owned by the Automobile Club of SoCal. This early-day heavy hauler was meant for all the workhorses that came across some trouble and break down. Manufactured for only 4 years, the Model AA is collected and enjoyed by many and in some countries are still used for service. This beautiful example showed up at the Muckenthaler Mansion Concours D'Elegance back in 2012. We can only assume it was the only thing there of its kind and hope it wasn't really there to take away one of the many perfect cars at the show.
3 1966 Mercedes Unimog
Perhaps the toughest front-wheel driven thing around, this unique flatbed hauler was spotted in New York about a decade ago. It was sold to a California man for about $30,000. According to a little article about the machine on Bring A Trailer, this Unimog comes with complete documentation from 1966 to now and is all original as the bed was added by Ruthmann before the truck was put into service. Who knows where this brute is, but hopefully it's not coming around to take your precious SL roadster away.
We couldn't find much about this particular flatbed Scania, but it definitely stands out with the slung low appearance and bright yellow paint. We can assume this is an active-duty wrecker, and to find anything civilian, it can't take will be hard pressed to find as the crane on this flatbed can get anything that may be trying to hide in tight spaces. Though maybe not as old nor as flashy as some of the others on this list, this Scania looks good doing its job.
1 1947 Ford
Designed and built by Mike Boyer, this custom '47 Ford has bits of creativity in every crevice. From the custom airbox that's hidden away to the Cadillac, taillights adds just the right look for this rat rod. Mike doesn't haul this thing around as a trailer queen either, he's known to do cross country trips in this one of a kind creation. Seeing this thing cruising down the road for any unfortunate motorist could be both a sigh of relief and an unsettling feeling you get when something ominous approaches.
Sources: Hemmings, Autoweek, BarnFinds.com