How one Chattanooga family invented then overhauled the tow truck industry [photos]

Ernest Holmes Co.'s third manufacturing facility at 2505 East 43rd St. just off Rossville Boulevard near Bea's Restaurant circa 1953. Some of these buildings still stand.
Ernest Holmes Co.'s third manufacturing facility at 2505 East 43rd St. just off Rossville Boulevard near Bea's Restaurant circa 1953. Some of these buildings still stand.

Chattanooga made history a century ago in 1916 when Ernest W. Holmes Sr. invented the tow truck here.

Holmes installed a hand-cranked rigging system on the rear frame of a 1913 Cadillac sedan, inspired, legend has it, after he was one of a crew of men who struggled for hours to retrieve a Model T Ford that had crashed into South Chickamauga Creek. Holmes filed for a patent - the first of about a dozen - for his idea in 1917 and then founded the Ernest Holmes Co. in Chattanooga that began in 1919 to build and market tow trucks.

But inventing the tow truck wasn't the only towing industry milestone for the Holmes family. Holmes' grandsons, Gerald "Jerry" Holmes and Bill Holmes, in 1974 founded Century Wrecker Corp., which was the first company to build affordable hydraulic towing equipment now used universally in the industry.

"He was the first one to make the twin-boom wrecker," Jerry Holmes said of his grandfather. "It was the standard - until my hydraulic wrecker took over."

Ernest Holmes Sr.'s 1916 tow truck design featured two booms, or swinging arms, equipped with hand-cranked cables and hooks. That way, if a car had gone off the road - like the fateful Model T that crashed into Chickamauga Creek - the tow truck driver could hook one cable onto the stranded vehicle and tie the other cable around a tree to anchor and stabilize the tow truck.

Survived the Depression

Holmes' first model was the 680, so named because it cost $680. That was a little more than the market would bear, but Holmes hit paydirt with his Model 480 that cost $480. The twin-boom design - and Ernest Holmes' business acumen - kept the Ernest Holmes Co. chugging along, even through the Great Depression.

"Mr. Holmes possessed the rare combination of an inventor and a business executive," reads a resolution written in June 1945 by Ernest Holmes Co. board of directors after Ernest Holmes died unexpectedly at age 62 of a heart attack.

"Mr. Holmes did not let the popularity of his product expand his business too rapidly," the resolution reads. "It was on a good, firm basis when the crash of 1929, followed by the depression of the early '30s, occurred."

The company was headquartered those years at 700 E. Main St. in the Pursley Stable building, a dirt-floored, brick building that's long since been demolished.

"The premises were ill-adapted for a manufacturing plant, but Mr. Holmes made the best of the situation there and came through the depression without having to borrow any money," the resolution reads. "This was amazing when it is remembered that some $15,000 of the company's money was frozen on deposit in the First National Bank of Chattanooga. Mr. Holmes and his loyal associates cut their salaries to the quick and conserved the resources of the company in a remarkable way."

Once the recovery set in, Holmes moved in 1937 to a factory at 2505 East 43rd St. just off Rossville Boulevard near Bea's Restaurant. During World War II, the company made wreckers for the the U.S. Army, France and for the British government that were used to help defeat German Field Marshall Erwin "Desert Fox" Rommel's forces in North Africa. The company manufactured a total of 7,238 of these W-45 military wreckers from from 1941 until 1949.

Jerry Holmes was about 13 years old when his grandfather, who was in "robust health" according to a newspaper account, died suddenly on June 10, 1945, at his home on Cameron Hill, a once-elegant Chattanooga downtown residential neighborhood that's now the site of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's headquarters.

In fact, Jerry Holmes was staying at his grandparents' Cameron Hill house that night.

"I was quite close to my grandfather," said Jerry Holmes, who was Ernest Holmes Sr.'s first grandchild.

Hydraulic wrecker takes lead

Jerry Holmes' father, Ernest Holmes Jr., took over the company. Jerry Holmes came on board in 1954. Holmes, who got a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, tried to convince his father and other family members that hydraulic tow trucks were the way to go.

"The twin-boom wrecker had reached it's epitome, so where do you go after that?" he reasoned.

Hydraulic cranes had been used by U.S. forces during WWII, Jerry Holmes said, but those designs were too expensive for the commercial market. So Jerry Holmes designed a prototype hydraulic wrecker for his family's business to try - but that didn't end well.

"The first thing I did is, I turned it over," Holmes said. "Everybody laughed and said, 'Naw, we don't want to get into that.'"

The company remained family-owned - with Ernest Holmes Jr. and his three sisters each owning about 15 percent - until 1973, when it was sold to the Dover Corporation for $16 million.

Jerry Holmes stayed for a while after that. But then, in 1974, Jerry, his brother Bill Holmes and an Ernest Holmes Co. designer decided to strike out on their own and start the Century Wrecker Co., so named because the trio had about a century's experience in the towing business.

They spent about a year in Rossville, Ga., designing their hydraulic wrecker, and then they moved to an old carpet warehouse in Ooltewah along Interstate 75. Century at first contracted out its fabrication and assembly, and only sold about six units in 1975, its first year in business.

The new owner of the Ernest Holmes Co., Dover Corp., didn't see Century as a threat.

"The guys at Dover thought we were crazy," Holmes said. "They made fun of us."

But Jerry Holmes says the hydraulic wrecker had provided more power, efficiency and control than a mechanical tow truck. For example, it's possible to pick up a vehicle with a hydraulic wrecker's boom, while a mechanical wrecker's boom had to be set in position so the cable could provide lift.

The Holmes brothers funded Century Wrecker with some money that their grandmother had given them, but they never took any outside investment, Jerry Holmes said. So they boot-strapped it with no debt, just like their grandfather and other family members had done.

"It was fun," he said of building the business. "But the first five years were really hard. I thought, 'Maybe I've made a big mistake here.'"

Still, the business grew steadily.

"By 1987, I think I had 300 employees," Jerry Holmes said.

That's the year when Holmes, then age 55, sold the business to a man from Detroit who represented an English conglomerate.

About two years after he sold it, Century Wrecker was on the verge of bankruptcy. But Miller Industries acquired Century, which is now its flagship brand, as well as the Ooltewah plant, which is now the headquarters for Miller Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of towing and recovery equipment.

Never sought recognition

While Ernest Holmes Sr., is known for creating the tow truck, his grandson's landmark contribution, bringing the hydraulic tow truck to market, is less well-known.

Jerry Holmes said he never wanted recognition.

"My father never sought or received any recognition, either," Jerry Holmes said. "He and I are both kind of shadows."

Chattanooga has other claims to tow truck fame: The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum is here, and Ooltewah is home to Miller Industries.

Chattanooga's starring role in the tow truck's history may be news to some.

"I think for a lot of people in Chattanooga, it probably is," Miller Industries spokesman Joseph Keene said. "Of course, people in the towing industry know that, but I don't know about outside the towing industry. The majority of people probably don't know."

But then, tow trucks in general aren't at the forefront of most peoples' minds.

"Who wants to think about their car getting towed?" Keene asked.

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