Hook & chain

Once upon a time, most cars in the USA were towed with a good old hook and chain affixed to a robust truck, car, or even motorcycles. Hook & chain tow trucks still exist today, but are hardly ever used by towing companies for a variety of reasons which will be explored below. This means that, for the most part, they are a historical artifact of bygone decades.

What is a hook & chain tow truck?

The first vehicle used for towing was a 1913 Cadillac using a modified crane and pulley system. Ernest Holmes Sr., the grandfather of the tow truck, patented his towing apparatus in 1917 and began producing various types of Holmes Wrecker tow trucks in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Until the middle of the 1960s, two-thirds of wreckers in the US were some variant of the Holmes Wrecker with a hook & chain apparatus. These trucks were popular with older cars, which were often built of heavier materials, had larger frames, and thus wouldn’t wobble around too much under the hook and chain.

Today, newer and improved variants of the Holmes Wrecker are in use, but are often called ‘boom’ wreckers. The term ‘hook & chain’ has simply stuck around, for better or worse, and continues to be a popular depiction of tow trucks in film and television.

How do hook & chain tow trucks work?

Old-fashioned hook & chain tow trucks work by looping metal chains around the vehicle to be towed, either around the frame or the axle near the wrecker, then lifting the vehicle with a boom winch. The disabled vehicle is connected to the tow truck with a towbar and towed away with its non-drive wheels still in contact with the road.

Modern variants of the hook & chain tow truck often use belt slings made of rubber, but even these have largely fallen out of favor due to their risk of scratching or damaging the vehicle while in motion.

Hook & chain wreckers are sometimes used to extricate and tow away vehicles after a collision whereby the vehicle is completely destroyed, since any further damage to the vehicle isn’t a consideration. Even in these situations, however, a simple metal clevis hook as commonly depicted in media and cartoons is not used to tow the vehicle.

The reason is because, although such a hook can effectively lift the vehicle off the ground, nothing holds the vehicle in place while on the road. This is dangerous and can lead to catastrophic results, so better methods of securing the towed vehicle are necessary. 

Hook chain tow truck

Hook & chain licensing

Most old-fashioned hook & chain tow trucks today are not used for towing at all, but rather as antiques by car aficionados or as displays in a museum reminiscent of bygone decades.

In order to operate as a tow truck operator in the United States, please consult your state Department of Transportation (DOT) website to learn more about regulations and guidance for licensing and permits.

Generally, traditional hook & chain tow trucks are not recommended for modern towing, even if you can operate the vehicle. Modifications to the towing apparatus such as a secure towbar or wheel-lift apparatus are recommended.

Safety tips for hook & chain trucks

It is not recommended that you have your disabled vehicle towed by a hook & chain wrecker. Nevertheless, if the towing company uses a modified form of hook & chain, there are a few safety tips to consider:

  • Exit the vehicle safely and await arrival in a relatively safe place.
  • Do not occupy the vehicle as the towing operator is in the process of winching or towing the vehicle.
  • Ensure that the towing operator is using secure towing methods. A simple hook & chain is not good enough. Flatbeds, wheel-lifts, or integrated tow trucks are far safer.

Why are hook & chain wreckers no longer used?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, better technologies exist today for towing that are far more efficient at extricating, winching, and towing vehicles such as wheel-lifts, booms, and flatbeds.

Secondly, hook & chain wreckers were widely used until around the 1960s because cars back then tended to be heavy steel and aluminum boats on wheels compared to today’s cars and SUVs. This kept them relatively more in control when in tow with a simple hook. Today’s cars have a much higher risk of being flung or toppled, and you can imagine the danger this poses.

Another point that was just as true back in the 20th century as it is today is that hook & chain towing can severely damage a vehicle.

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