Tow trucks have been around for nearly as long as there have been cars on the road. Of course, over the decades, the methods for hauling away damaged or repossessed vehicles have evolved. Early towing systems required chains or hooks that wrapped around an axle or a frame rail. Some tow truck operators still use this technique in certain conditions. The method is very secure, but it takes a fair amount of time and effort to get the vehicle into position and it can also scratch or damage the vehicle being towed.
Tire- or wheel-lift devices avoid damaging the vehicle because they only touch the tires. Brackets are fitted in front of and behind the drive wheels of the vehicle and then secured in place by steel pins. When the tow truck mechanism lifts the vehicle, the wheels are cradled between the brackets. This method of towing requires the driver to get out of the truck to position the brackets in place and insert the pins, but a skilled operator can actually do this in about 30 seconds.
The latest evolution in tow truck technology is the integrated lift, also known as a self-loading wrecker. This is a wheel-lift system that can be controlled from inside the truck and deployed with hydraulic power. As the truck backs up to the target vehicle, a long arm, called a stinger, extends out along the pavement behind the truck. The leading edge of the wheel cradles contact the tires as the other side of the cradle slides under the vehicle, just past the tire. The brackets can then be closed via hydraulics, cradling the tires on both sides. The tow boom is lifted, the drive wheels come off the ground and the tow truck can pull away.
Sometimes, a different solution is required to move a vehicle. A flatbed truck uses an electric cable winch to pull cars up onto the bed. The flatbed can be hydraulically inclined or even turned to the side, then placed back into a level position for driving. This method is used if a car is too damaged or heavy for a standard tow truck, or if the vehicle has four-wheel or all-wheel-drive. If you were to tow a car with the drive wheels rolling, the transmission would likely suffer severe damage as a result. Using a flatbed truck for repo work generally isn't a good idea as flatbeds aren't especially stealthy. It takes time to raise the bed, connect the winch, and even then, the truck driver can't drive off until the car is secured. Flatbed trucks are also pretty large -- so it's really tough to sneak up on someone with one.
We usually think of tow trucks as something we need when our car breaks down. Why would a tow truck driver sneak up on someone and tow away their car? We'll examine the repo business on the next page.