10 Different Types of Tow Trucks

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People towed vehicles even before cars existed. Or to be more precise, people used large animals to pull broken down vehicles out of mud, snow, or anywhere else. Otherwise, those vehicles just ended up abandoned.

A mechanic named Ernest Holmes, Sr. invented the first tow truck in 1916 after a very challenging roadside recovery. The International Towing Museum located in Holmes’ hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, exhibits pictorial histories as well as restored antique wreckers and equipment.

Meanwhile, Canada is home to the largest tow truck in the world. Manufactured in Quebec by NRC industries, the large machine is priced at $1,000,000 and features a durable and fixed crane attached at the back of the tow truck.

Key Types

Flatbed Tow Truck

Flatbed tow truck towing a broken down car.

You might hear the flatbed tow truck referred to as a “slide” or a “rollback” truck, and this is because of the way it works. Its most dominant feature is a long hydraulic flatbed that inclines, with the back end lowering all the way to the ground. The car that needs to be towed will be driven or pulled onto the bed of the truck and secured before the bed of the truck is lowered back to a level position.

The flatbed is the most popular type of tow truck, and it can be used for a variety of purposes. Flatbeds are nice because the vehicle being towed is well secured, and they are up off of the ground. For vehicles that are immobile, flatbed trucks have a winch that pulls the vehicle onto the bed.

Hook and Chain Tow Trucks

Hand holding yellow car towing strap attached to a car.

The hook and chain tow truck is likely the oldest type of tow truck, and it’s the one that you would recognize the most. However, these tend to put a lot of pressure on the vehicles being towed, so these days, they aren’t used nearly as often.

As the name suggests, the hook and chain tow truck uses a hook and a chain to tow vehicles from one place to another. The hook attaches to the vehicle’s bumper or axle, which can become strained or damaged during travel. The chain may also scratch the body of the vehicle, so these trucks typically aren’t used. Furthermore, you can’t use this kind of truck for all-wheel or 4×4 trucks because it can damage the drivetrain.

Wheel-Lift Tow Truck

A broken down car is being towed by a wheel-lift tow car.

Wheel-lift tow trucks evolved from the hook and chain tow trucks, but they work a little differently. Instead of a hook and a chain, these trucks use a metal yoke that often only touches the wheels. The yoke hooks up underneath the drive wheels of the vehicle, so this may be front or back depending on the vehicle. From there, a hydraulic or pneumatic hoist lifts this end of the vehicle into the air to be towed.

While this truck can’t offer the same level of protection as a flatbed truck, they do prevent damage to the bumper, and there are no chains that can scratch the body of the vehicle.

Boom Trucks

Boom Truck

A boom truck has a hydraulic arm, called a boom, that extends out past the vehicle, and in many scenarios, this is the easiest way to recover a vehicle. Some booms are in fixed positions while others pivot around, and the heavy-duty boom trucks are essentially smaller versions of a mobile crane.

In the beginning, boom trucks would use a hook and chain method to lift the vehicles, but these days, trucks are equipped with slings or belt lifts that are a little safer to use. The boom works with a winch, and together, with the strapping, they can lift vehicles out of difficult places and tow them to safety. Again, all-wheel drive vehicles can’t be towed with this type of vehicle, as it could mess up the drivetrain.

Integrated Tow Trucks

Integrated Tow Truck

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An integrated tow truck is one that uses two different mechanisms, and the most common combination is a boom and a wheel lift integrated into one unit. These are useful for small jobs where a full boom truck may not be necessary, and integrated trucks have controls on the interior of the vehicle, so it’s possible to quickly pick up a vehicle without ever exiting the truck.

These trucks can be mid-size or designed for heavy-duty pickups, as the arms are heavily embedded into the core of the vehicle, which makes them more stable and capable.

Purposes

Improperly Parked Cars

A tow truck moving an improperly parked car.

If you have ever parked in a place you weren’t supposed to, you may have had experiences with a tow truck already. Improperly parked cars notoriously get towed, and there are typically signs around warning you of this possibility. In most cases, an integrated truck will be used to tow the vehicle, as they are often the most flexible, but different companies may use different kinds of trucks. Of course, it also depends on the vehicle.

Car Accidents and Breakdowns


A vehicle being towed after a storm accident in the road.

If you have ever been in an accident or broken down on the side of the road, you have likely dealt with a tow truck before. When vehicles are immobile or severely damaged, they have to be towed away from the site and to a safe location.

The tow truck that is used to pick up wrecked or broken-down vehicles will depend on the vehicle or the nature of the accident. For example, if your vehicle remains on the road and can still be wheeled away, your towing company may use an integrated truck or a wheel-lift truck. However, if your vehicle is trapped in a ditch, a boom truck may be necessary to lift it out. Flatbed tow trucks are also commonly used to tow away vehicles in both situations.

In most cases, the tow trucks take your vehicle to a repair shop, back to your home, or to a specified location. Many repair shops also offer towing services and roadside assistance for this reason.

Heavy-Duty Jobs

A tow truck towing another truck.

Some towing trucks are reserved for heavy-duty jobs, and all types of towing trucks have heavy-duty versions. A standard size, an integrated tow truck can handle parked cars and trucks, but sometimes semi-trucks and school buses need to be towed, which may require a special vehicle. Businesses that possess a large fleet of vehicles, especially those with buses and other vehicles, may have tow trucks as a part of their fleet as well.

Transportation

A flatbed tow truck transporting a new tractor.

Some tow trucks are simply needed to transport a vehicle, machine, or a piece of equipment from one place to another. The size of the tow trucks used for these jobs will depend on the type of vehicle. Tow trucks are used to transport large volumes of equipment and material to certain locations.

Industry-Specific Uses

A military tow truck parked on grass.

Tow trucks are needed all over the place, and specific industries either use them frequently or always have them on hand. Tow trucks are common in all of the following areas.

  • Private use: Most towing companies are private companies that you hire to recover after an accident, a breakdown, or something else.
  • Local police: Some police departments own their own towing trucks, while others will contract jobs to private companies.
  • Government departments: Other government departments have their own towing trucks. For example, fire departments, transportation authorities, and departments of public works may have their own vehicles for towing.
  • Military use: The military may also have tow trucks of their own that help them recover stranded vehicles as quickly as possible.
  • Packaging companies: Since packaging companies have fleets of vehicles, they may have their own towing trucks as well.




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