By on November 19, 2010

The Butthole Surfers’ song Pittsburgh To Lebanon contains one of the all-time greatest blues lyrics: “I bought my first shotgun at the age of three.” Now, I can’t match Gibby‘s feat, but I can say that I owned my first tow truck at the age of five.

It all started in Minneapolis, back in the mid-1960s. My uncle, the legendary Dirty Duck— Abingdon-on-Thames-trained British-car mechanic, old-time biker, and all-around outlaw— took a break from running reefer across the Mexican border in a ’57 Plymouth to get into the lucrative business of Minnesota winter tow-truck operation. In other words, he’d find cars buried by snowplows, aka “snowbirds,” drag them out of the drifts, and— through some sort of finders-keepers process I imagine must be akin to maritime salvage law— take quasi-legal (or at least slightly legal) ownership of the vehicles, which were then sold or parted out from his farm in Elko, Minnesota. This was working just great, but then the tow truck— a postwar GMC— blew the differential, and the Duck parked it in a field and decided to pursue other employment opportunities.

Fast-forward to 1971. The tow truck had been sitting in the field for five or six years, and Uncle Dirty Duck noticed me playing with my beloved Tonka tow truck in the grass next to my mom’s ’49 Cadillac sedan. “Hey, you want a real tow truck?” he asked me. “I got one you can have, just needs a little work!” Of course I wanted the truck— what 5-year-old could say no to such an offer?— so the deal was made: I fix the rear end, the GMC is mine! Sadly, my wrenching skills weren’t quite up to the challenge at the time, and then there was the matter of coming up with the cash to buy a junkyard differential, but I figured I’d get to the project sooner or later. Meanwhile, I could claim to be the only kid in my kindergarten class with his own tow truck, and that’s important!

Well, time went by and my parents decided that the 100-degree temperature differential between Minnesota and California in December warranted a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, so they packed up the ’73 Chevy Beauville and headed west. My tow truck and I were now separated by 2,000 miles, but I never forgot about it, sitting in that lonely field. Swarmed by mosquitoes and scorched by the sun in summer, buried under 15 feet of snow in the winter, year after year, the GMC waited for me. The thought that I own a ’47 GMC tow truck sustained me during tough childhood moments, again and again. Someday, I’ll go get it! I’d think.

The years went by, and I learned how to do a bit of wrenching. By the time I was lowering the property values at (a certain Orange County university that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name), I had the skills to get that truck fixed. Oh, sure, after sitting for 20 years it would need some work beyond a mere differential swap, but how hard could it be? The real problem would be coming up with the gas money to drive it back to California. By that time, too, I’d had enough hooptie-ass Hell Projects to have developed a somewhat realistic— or at least reality-influenced— conception of what was possible and what probably wasn’t.

At that point, I was hanging out with a fairly disreputable crowd, and a couple of guys I ran across now and then had a very interesting source of income: they worked for a one-truck towing company that had the contract to keep beachgoers from parking in the lot of (a certain chain grocery store that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name) in (a certain exclusive Orange County beach community that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name). If, say, a Celica full of high-school kids from La Habra parked in the grocery-store lot and the occupants were sighted hauling their Boogie Boards a block to the beach, my acquaintances— who looked like, and in fact were, generic surfer/stoner dudes and attracted no attention from prospective victims— would take note and summon their accomplice in the tow truck to haul the offending vehicle away… to Norco, California, a feedlot-packed hellhole about 50 miles inland. But wait! it gets even better! When the car’s owner returned from his or her communing with the Pacific, it would turn out that there was only one way to get the car back: take the tow-truck company’s taxi to Norco, with the meter running at full-on Gouger’s Handbook rates, and then fork over several hundred bucks on top of that upon arrival. A select crew of heavies, thugs, torpedoes, and/or kneecappers ensured that none of the “customers” complained effectively, the merchants were happy that their customers could park in the lot, and the money just rolled in. But still, the setup could have been even better: “If only we had another tow truck,” sighed my friend. “We’d make twice as much!” Another… tow… truck…?

“Hey, I own a tow truck!” I exclaimed. “Thing is, it’s in Minnesota—” Well, that was about as far as I got before I had a couple of Jeff Spicolis grabbing me by the lapels and trying to shake some sense into me. They’d pay the gas money for the trip! They’d chip in on the differential! We’d be rich, rich! At this point, I was maybe a quarter or two from finishing college, so I found myself in a real road-not-taken dilemma: be a rich, if thoroughly evil and corrupt tow-truck operator, or graduate into the teeth of a terrible recession with a totally worthless humanities degree? Foolishly, I took the second option… but I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like, had I chosen the wiser path.

The truck then sat for another decade or so, popping up in my thoughts every so often. According to my cousin, Dirty Duck’s son Igor Smash aka Judge Sam, our uncle Shady Dog (pictured above) took over the Elko farm, and the GMC, after Dirty Duck departed this world in 1987 while behind the wheel of a ’68 Torino GT. I decided I should pay a visit to Minnesota and finally lay eyes on the truck I’d owned— at that point— for 30 years. In January of ’02, I trudged across a field of chest-high snow, and there it was! Rusty, oh yes. A basket case, for sure… yet it could be put back on the road, with enough money and sweat.

Today, Shady Dog has joined the Duck and I’ve lost track of what has become of the GMC. Do I still own it? Will I ever retrieve it? Or is it enough just to say the words to myself again, the words I’ve said to myself thousands of times over the last four decades: I own a ’47 GMC tow truck!

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20 Comments on “I Bought My First Tow Truck At The Age Of Five...”

  • avatar

    This sounds just like my 63 Cadillac.  In the fall of 1978, I bought a black 63 Fleetwood 60 Special from a relative.  $400 and it was mine.  It was worn and needed a few parts to be really presentable. 

    A friend’s dad owned a rental house with 3 cars in the driveway that had not moved in years.  One was a silver-green 63 Sedan Deville.  It had belonged to my buddy’s grandfather, and had last been licensed in 1970.  It was filthy, but appeared to be all there.  I asked about buying a couple of parts.  “Here’s the deal”, said my friend’s dad: “Get it out of here and you can have the whole car.”

    COOL!.  What 18 year old doesn’t want a free car.  Now, what to do with it.  There is no way my mom would allow it in our suburban driveway.  My black Fleetwood was bad enough, but at least it could move.  My dad lived in a more rural area, but he was not about to start a 1 car junkyard.  But he put me onto an old repair shop that had a little boneyard out back.  I approached the guys there.  I was allowed to park it there if they were allowed to sell parts off of it.  Sounded fair to me.

    The adventure was in getting it there.  I did my research, and the old Jetaway Hydra Matic had a rear oil pump, so you could tow the car at low speed.  I got 4 tires that would hold air on it, and hooked it up to the tow car.  About that, I tried to borrow my dad’s 78 Lincoln.  No dice, but he offered up my stepmom’s 74 Cutlass.  Towing a 5000 pound Cadillac with a sub 4000 pound Cutlass was the adventure of my young lifetime.  We towed the Cad about 15 miles.  Each steering correction on the Cutlass resulted in a swing of the Caddy, which would shove the Cutlass to one side or the other.   I subdued my initial feelings of terror and managed to get to my destination.  A push with a tow truck across a furrowed farm field and the Cad hit its final destination.

    I got my parts, and sold my Fleetwood about 6 months later.  I have no idea what ever happened to the green DeVille.  I used to think about it from time to time, but I was in college and had neither the time or the ability to get back to it.  Like you, I have moved on.   But I really enjoyed your story today.

  • avatar

    Sometimes thinking there is a deity out there waiting for you is more comforting than having to deal with the reality of the deity.  That kind of sums up Hell projects too.

  • avatar
    Kosher Polack

    A doorless, roofless, 305-equipped 1984 K5 Blazer with a fouled-up NP208 transfer case and only 7 working cylinders patiently awaits me underneath some trees near Stephenville, TX.  It’s been “mine” (a corporation of black widows partially own it now) to fix up and hoon about on trails since I was 10.  It still remains, awaiting a few gallons of bug killer, a mile of vacuum tubing, and a battery.

  • avatar

    Great story! Brings back fond memories of my first car! It was early 1968 when my Mom’s 1951 Plymouth Cambridge fell victim to a particularly cold winter snap, which cracked the block of the flathead six. Dad bought a 1964 Chevy Biscayne and Mom was promoted to Dad’s ’61 Vauxhall Cresta. We had several acres and “Old Betsy” as the Plymouth was known, was pushed out of the way and given to me. Mom taught me the shift pattern of the 3-in the tree tranny and I was off. The car became my second home, I was 6 years old and in Love! That summer a scrap dealer stopped by and offered Dad $5.00 for the car. I convinced Dad not to take it, even when the Guy offered to remove the overturned early fifties Ford Consul for free.
    A year later the property was sold and I had to say goodbye to Betsy. I pined for her for many years afterward, and never knew what became of her. Several times, I have almost bought identical cars just because…

  • avatar

    Figure out a way to get it hauled to all the Midwest Lemons races and make every penalty fix my 1947 GMC Tow Truck Penalty until you can finally drive it out there hook up a broken down Lemon and then charge them an exorbitant fee to get their busted piece of junk back, unless its a purple Cutlass Ciera, for them you should do it for free and help them on their way.

  • avatar

    A friend of my father had a 1919 Cadillac flatbed – converted from a hearse. It ended up in Pop’s equipment yard, and I “drove” it quite a bit when I was in elementary school. Quite a few of my own automotive projects occupied the same space over the years, plus a couple of the neighbor kids’. Quite a few years later I came into a 1963 New Yorker wagon whose previous owner had changed the color from white on maroon to gold and black inside and out, including yellow shag carpets throughout. One day when Pop and Mom were eating with us, Pop said that he surely thought that was a fine-looking wagon. He was in his early 70’s then. I thought about the three or four other old Mopars around the house, and said “If you want it, I’ll give it to you.” He accepted my offer and I drove it up to his place a couple of days later. He never did much with it, but he got some fun out of it without putting too much money in it.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    List it on Auto Trader Classic.  Status – “Project.”  ;)

  • avatar

    Wow! There’s nothing like old car stories. I’d love to find out what happened to my old ’64 Chevy SS pictured above. Sold it to a fellow air force sergeant for his daughter in July, 1973, near Marysville/Yuba City, California. Wish I’d kept it, but that’s life.

    The closest I can come to your old tow truck is: I own a 1947 Chevy truck shop manual! I have never used it.

  • avatar

    “I Bought My First Tow Truck At The Age Of Five”… well, the Murilee Martin headlines sure stand out in the TTAC RSS feed. Good story. Best of luck on your new assignment.

  • avatar

    You crazed old coot…. at the least recuperate the conveyance until it motorvates down the boulevard and have a mighty fine addition to your local July 4th parade and other public assemblages where the citizenry throngs the sidewalks to view the passing parade (Vet’s Day, etc.).
    Cool tale, bro. as the kids proclaim at some of the message boards scattered willy-nilly across the Webosphere.

  • avatar

    Zach Galifiniakis is HILARIOUS!
    So awesome that you guys at TTAC know him!
    Neat story, but I thought for sure there would be at least 2 ferns involved.
    Keep on truckin’, Zach!

  • avatar

    Had a 53 chevy pickup that my uncle helped me get on the road. I liked the starter button on the floor by the gas pedal. As I recall there were only two vacuum lines on her. One for the advance for the distributor, and the other for the windshield wipers.

  • avatar

    wheels can bring out the damnedest things in a person

  • avatar

    Okay, I get it now.  Rather than being the pleasant-looking, albeit somewhat fleshy, gal with dirt under her fingernails that I imagined, Murilee Martin is the John Gierach of the autoblogosphere.  The parallels are striking.

  • avatar

    Great story. Glad to have you here.


  • avatar

    I don’t know if this counts but my grandfather gave me a Rockola jukebox full of 60s records when I was 12. Everything worked and the chrome was clean… Mom said no, we don’t have space for something like that (we did). He sold it for a coupel hundred bucks. I’ve been miffed by that ever since… GRIN!

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