Hooked On Classics: Our Hauling History columnist brings you a garage-full of vintage tow trucks


Published: 07/01/2012

by John Gunnell


utomotive Historian John Gunnell

“Hooked on Classics” is the slogan lettered on the rear of my 1975 Ford F-350 tow truck (see photo in following article). It captured both my interest in classic cars and the fact that I’m also “hooked” on vintage tow trucks. Here’s some background:

My maternal grandfather worked for Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (Exxon Mobil) driving a fuel delivery truck until he hurt his legs in an accident and was relegated to a nine-to-five job at the company’s Port Socony plant. We called him Papa Socony. My other grandfather was a boiler engineer with a healthy respect for machines.

The fat-fendered cars of the late- ‘30s and ’40s fascinated me when I was a kid. They looked so impressively high and hefty, even though I have to admit that the ’36 Pontiac show-quality car (see photo) I own today is a pretty tight fit inside. I own the 1936 as well as 1948, 1953, and 1994 Pontiacs among my 11 cars and trucks.

Cars of the ‘40s, like my 1948 Pontiac, really are larger, higher in quality, and dressed up with lots of brightwork and high-quality interior trimmings. Unlike the cookie-cutter automobile designs of today, these cars were easy for a kid to fall in love with. They had Indians and bison and knights’ helmets on their badges, massive grilles, and snazzy accessories like spotlamps and sunshades.

Tow Truck Love
By the time I was three I was hooked. My tin Marx toy gas station had a large fleet of miniature cars and trucks on its rooftop parking lot, including a cast-metal Hubley tow truck.

Like Peter Pan, I never gave up the passion for things I loved in my childhood. The fascination with vintage cars and trucks remained strong, although car collecting was not a big hobby until later in life. As a kid, I always had to seek out the old cars in the annual Fourth of July parade, and I made my mother drive me around often to look for antique cars on the streets.

The truck thing went along with the car thing and the tow truck thing was a big part of it because tow trucks looked so distinctive. They had heavy steel beams pointing towards the sky, cables that spun on wheels and pulleys, hooks that could haul home a hurt Hudson, and lights that flashed red and yellow and white in the darkness of night.

And then there was the lettering on every conceivable spot telling you who to call at anytime for a helping hand. Though I loved cars and trucks, I had no idea I could earn a living writing about them, and I certainly never dreamed I would someday own a dozen, plus a few motorcycles, a tow truck, and two buildings for storing and fixing old vehicles.

Old Cars Weekly In the mid-1970s, I got a degree in art, but soon discovered that my union job in a supermarket paid more than artists got. So I kept stocking shelves, but started writing articles about old cars as a sideline.

I eventually became the volunteer editor of two car club magazines and joined a group called the Society of Automotive Historians. A famous automotive historian (and pioneer truck collector) named Henry Austin Clark, Jr., gave me a lot of guidance. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause heard about me and offered me a job.

From 1978 to 2008, I was on the editorial staff of Old Cars Weekly, published by Krause Publications in Iola, Wisconsin. Though I never had formal journalism training, things moved fast at a weekly and I quickly learned the trade. Over three decades with the company I met big collectors, went to lots of shows, wrote thousands of articles, and created more than 85 books.

More than a dozen books were about trucks, including one on tow trucks.

Many Good Years

I started writing for Footnotes (then Phootnotes!) around 1998. The earliest issue I have dates from February 2000. In it is my first Hauling History column, about a racing-car transporter made from a ‘59 El Camino.

My article “Grade AA Operation” made the cover of the October 2002 issue. When I opened it up, I found that Bill Candler’s name was listed for the first time as editor, and he’s still at the wheel, driving Towing & Recovery Footnotes to nationwide publication every month.

In 2008, I left my nine-to-five job and struck out as a freelance writer. In 2010, I opened an auto restoration shop called Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, WI, as a second career. And in 2011, I purchased my own vintage tow truck which, naturally, turned out to have its own interesting history (see next article).

As an automotive historian and restorer, I appreciate Footnotes’ continued support of those who collect old tow trucks and who share an interest in “hauling history.” 

Read more from John Gunnell on page 5 of the July Digital Edition of Footnotes!