Vehicle recovery

Vehicle recovery

Vehicle recovery is the recovery of any vehicle to another place generally speaking with a commercial vehicle know as a Recovery, or tow Truck.

Recovery can take the the form of general recovery, normally of broken down vehicles, or a Statutory Recoveries at the request of the Police using Police powers conferred by parliament using an Act.

General Recovery There are many types of organisation that carry out the recovery of disabled vehicles however they can be divided into two distinct areas, Recovery Operators (who undertake the recovery) and Motoring Organisations.

Motoring organisations or as they are often known 'The Clubs', are organisations to which the vehicle driver will belong. They may have made a conscious effort to do this, or they may have got the membership with their new vehicle, through a company scheme, or purchased with an insurance policy.

In the event that a member of the public does not have a "club" membership the Police or Highways Agency can arrange recovery of the vehicle as what is called an "Owners Request" and they will arrange for help to attend.

Recovery operators are the people who undertake the recovery and are called different things around the world, including 'patrols' 'tow men' and 'wrecker drivers'. Some are the people used by the motoring organisations to rescue their members. A small percentage will be on the payroll of the motoring organisation and will work exclusively for them. Examples are The patrols used by the AA, RAC and Mondial in the UK. Most recovery operators however work for privately owned companies, or are individuals. They can do large volumes of work for some of the motoring organisations, but they will normal also do work for the public. In Europe, the percentage of this 'private' work is low due to the high profiles of the motoring organisations. Of course some will never do work for the motoring organisations, preferring to work just for their own customers. In the USA, motoring organisations are still growing.

Although there has always been auto repair shops and garages who towed, or recovered any vehicles, it is only really in the last fifty years that it has become an industry distinct from the auto repair trade. Many are still involved in workshop repairs, but an increasing number, if they cannot repair the vehicle by the roadside, will transport it to another repairer. Although there are some large organisations operating hundreds of recovery vehicles, most are family business operating typically between 10 to 50 vehicles. Lastly there are operators like Highway Authorities and other government bodies, operators of local recovery scheme (contra flows etc) and large fleet operators who recover their own vehicles.


Motor vehicles have been breaking down ever since they were invented and if a repair was not possible, then a recovery or tow was usually required. To start with, this was often achieved by attaching a horse to the causality and pulling it home. Many of the first automobile repair shop had been bicycle repairers, or blacksmiths and they quickly adapted to recovering their customer’s disabled vehicles. To do this specialised recovery vehicles were often built. As automobiles have grown more sophisticated, it has become much harder for the average vehicle owner to diagnose a fault, much less repair it. Fortunately, around the world a huge and specialist vehicle recovery industry has been created to serve and support them.

Motoring Organisations or Clubs have been created to sell breakdown cover to automobile drivers, nowhere more so than in Europe. automobile manufactures will often purchase bulk membership from the motoring organisations, to give away with new vehicle sales. These are usually 'badged' with the manufactures name. A large number of this Motoring Organisations do not operate recovery vehicles of their own, but instead use independent Recovery Operators as agents. Those clubs that have their own vehicles, often also use independent agents to assist with specialist work, or when their own resources are stretched. Police forces also use independent recovery operators to move vehicles, for example after a car accident, when vehicles are illegally parked and when required for examination.

A Brief History of the Industry in the UK

Early motorist were often capable of carrying out minor repairs themselves, but as automobiles become more complicated, this become harder. Some early local motoring clubs, tried to support their members, by encouraging them to help each other. A rota of members who would help other members was kept and in some cases, cash was put aside to hire a tow vehicle if it was needed.

By the turn of century, some motoring clubs had become large enough to offer a roadside assistance service. In the UK, they were The Automobile Association (formed in 1905) and the Royal Automobile Club (formed in 1897 and named Royal in 1907). The services offered were limited to repairs if possible, if not a tow to local garage or the driver’s home if near by (in all cases a limit of 20 miles). During the nineteen fifties, both clubs installed radios to allow them to dispatch patrols straight to the incident. Prior to this, the patrols had needed to go to Patrol Box and 'phone in' to see if there were any jobs waiting!

In 1969 and 1970 a number of Midland based Recovery Clubs were formed and started to offer a 'get you home service' from anywhere in the UK. The largest of these was National Breakdown Recovery Club (today Green Flag). Who also offered to cover you if you had an accident, something almost unheard of up until then.

Unlike the AA and RAC, these new clubs did not operate patrols or have their own recovery vehicles. Instead, they recruited recovery operators, to work as their agents. These agents were selected from the best garages and coachworks. Inspections of the equipment and facilities were regularly carried out, by the clubs own inspectors.

Within a few years the AA and then the RAC, responded with their own get you home or relay services. The picture on the right shows an early AA relay vehicle from that era. In the years that followed, many other motoring organisations (some from abroad) would join the battle for the motorist membership and this has kept price for membership very low.

A Brief History of the Industry in the USA

While the United States has been a prolific builder of recovery equipment, it has sometimes also learnt from Europe. This is largely because the American motoring scene is not so dominated by Motoring Organizations in the same way Europe is. In fact, some American operators are concerned by the ‘hold’ UK Motoring Organizations have over their recovery operators.

American Recovery Operators were created to serve the needs of their own customers (rather that club members). Most purchased or built there equipment to tow work into their auto repair shops. Ernest Holmes one of the oldest supplies of recovery equipment used a line in his advertisements that said "The big profit jobs don't drive in, they are towed in" As in Europe there are some 'recovery only' operators, but nothing like the same percentage as most also operate repair facilities.

Recovery Equipment

Modern Recovery Equipment is extremely sophisticated and manufactured in quantity through out the world. However up until the mid seventies, a large proportion of the equipment in use was home made, often just consisting of a ridged jib and a simple block and tackle. After both World Wars, a number of army surplus vehicles were purchased cheaply by operators and converted to civilian use. This was especially true for recovering Trucks and other Commercial Vehicles In 1918 Ernest Holmes of Chattanooga patented the first American commercially successful vehicle recovery crane and its modern descendants have changed little in those ninety years. Around the same time, recovery cranes were being produced by Weaver Manufacturing and Manley. In Europe Harvey Frost Ltd of Great Portland Street London, started selling recovery cranes made by Ernest Lake, from around 1905. The first major change to these crane designs would take another fifty years and came surprisingly from Sweden. Olaf Ekengard designed and marketed under the name EKA, a crane that lifted from underneath the casualty. Nearly all lift and tow vehicles today, use variations of his revolutionary idea and traditional cranes are kept for specialist work.

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A typical assortment of recovery vehiclesA typical Modern Recovery Fleet will operate a great diversity of different types of recovery and support vehicles. This will including basic Service Vans, Mobile Workshops, Lift and Tow Vehicles often called Tow trucks, Transporters and Trailers. It is not uncommon for them to all so operate Mobile Cranes, road going Fork Lifts Articulated Tractor Units and Incident Support vehicles.

In some locations the may also operate Off Road vehicles and even Boats All will have specialised vehicle body styles, to best achieve the job they were designed to do.

The types of recovery they can achieve, can be divided it to five main areas -

Soft Tow

Used for very short distance where a rope, chain, or a length of webbing is attached to the causality, which must have a working braking system as it will be used to slow both vehicles. Can be dangerous, unless both drivers are competent to do it. Although many people believe this is illegally on motorways it is not in Europe, as long as the relevant trailer laws are complied with i.e. Correctly configured lights and signing, observing trailer speed limits etc.

Ridged (or Bar) Tow

Used for very short distance where a solid metal bar is attached to the casualty. Used mainly with commercial vehicles, which often have a towing eye in the front bumper. In the case of cars and light vans the towing vehicle can be used for braking, if the bar is kept straight. With commercial vehicles, it is common to connect an air feed to the casualty to allow the tow vehicle's brakes, to also operate the casualty's.

Lift Tow (Suspend Tow Crane)

Now rarely used, but for many years the only way to move a disabled vehicle without using a low loader or trailer. Chains were attached usually around the casualties suspension, some form of packing (often a seat squab or tyre) is inserted between the lifting frame and the casualty. This frame is lifted by means of a pulley until the casualty’s wheels are clear of the ground. An 'A' frame is normally used to keep the casualty from running into the tow vehicle on breaking

Lift Tow (Underlift)

. With commercial vehicles, it is more common to use a set of lifting forks, to attach to the suspension, axel or chassis of the casualty. In many cases, e.g., with automatics, it is the 'driven' wheels, that need to be lifted. This will sometimes result in a rear lift, if the driven wheels are at the rear. In this case the casualty’s steering "must be locked" in the straight ahead position.

The image on the right is interesting, in that it show a 'Speclift' that has been modified to do a standard chain lift as well. This is useful when the casualty will not fit into the Speclift’s frame, as in this case. You may also note that the rear is being lifted, as it clearly will not tow on a front lift (click the image to enlarge it).

Transportation (Total Lift)

The preferred way to travel any distance. Usually the vehicles are purpose built low loading 'Transporters' although trailers are still used, especially for the movement of coaches and buses. Some transporter designs are very sophisticated, with bodes that 'demount', to give a low loading angle. This is especially useful for sports cars etc, with low ground clearance. There are also transporters with totally enclosed bodies, used for example for the transportation of prestige vehicle, or vehicle involved in crime that are going for forensic analyses. In the cites it often common to see 'city loaders' a type of transporter fitted with a cradle to totally suspend a vehicle for loading. These are often used to move illegally parked vehicles.

Variations of the above

For a long while, it was common to use 'dollies' to recover vehicles. These were cranes and underlifts as above, but mounted on a two wheels axle. They were designed, to be towed behind a suitable towing vehicle. Another portable device was a crane, which clipped on to an articulated tractor unit's fifth wheel coupling. Popular in the seventies and eighties, they were cheap to buy (compared with a purpose built recovery vehicle) and appealed to fleet operators, who could use them to recover their own vehicles. Total Lift Dollies, carried by some spectacle lifts, to place under the wheels at the opposite end to the lifted wheels. Thereby converting the half lift into a total lift. Used for example, when a vehicle has had an accident and both ends are damaged.

Other Equipment

Modern recovery vehicles come with a bewildering number of accessories. These include power units to supply air for power tools, or pumping off vehicle breaking systems, etc. Generators to supply 110 or 220volt mains power for floodlighting, tools, etc. There are different shaped forks for attaching to lift points, or for modifying standard lifting devices to allow them to transport motorbikes. Most vehicles will be equipped with an assortment of lifting strops or chains and webbing to secure loads. A special form of webbing called a snatch strap is sometimes carried, to assist with vehicles that are bogged down mud, etc.

Nearly all vehicles will be fitted with 12 or 24 volt 'jump Start' or 'Booster' sockets to start other vehicles with discharged batterys. Most will also have power winches to load the casualty, or for unlodging stuck vehicles. Some larger recovery vehicles will have two (or more) winches capable of pulling up to 30tons per line. These will be used to winch back vehicles, that have left the roadway.

Some vehicles are fitted with luxuries multi seat passenger compartments, called crewcabs. These often have DVD players and even drink machines, for the benefit of the casualty’s occupants on their trip home. Different types of rotatable cranes are sometimes fitted for lifting vehicles out of ditches, etc. Heavy lifting cranes are sometimes fitted and can be used for example to winch overturned vehicles back on their wheels.

Some recovery vehicles are equipped as mobile workshops or service vans. They will carry a large selection of tools, spares and garage equipment, such as jacks and vehicle stands. In recent years many have also been equipped with spectacle lifts, that foldaway inside the rear doors. The advantage of this system is if the vehicle is not repairable, it can still be recovered without sending a second vehicle.

'Righting' overturned vehicle, especially ones that are not badly damaged, has become a science. When a commercial vehicle ends up on its side there will often be little clearance to slid lifting strops underneath it. Even if this can be done the use of strops, can cause further damage and are often not the right way to start a lift. To solve this problem recovery operators often use air bags to at least start the lift of the casualty. A number of bags can be used and this spreads the load throughout the length of the vehicle. Only a low pressure is used, which means in the event a bag is punctured, it just gently deflates and does not explode. Once the casualty is above 45 degrees, a normal winch can be used to finish the job.

It is not uncommon to use a second winch from the opposite side, to gently lower the casualty once it has passed the point of balance. It is also quite common for recovery operators to be asked to move 'other' items. The picture right taken in the late eighties, shows a recovery crane lifting a Hunter aircraft, before transporting it to Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, England. Click the image to enlarge.


In the early days of vehicle recovery, the driver of an automobile would have to contact their club, or local garage in some way when it failed. Telephones were supplied for this purpose by some motoring organisations and eventually the agencies responsible for the major roads networks, would install them on some hard shoulders. Club patrols would also use the club's phone to check in for work, or wait at their depot for the calls to come in. In the fifties as mobile radios become more reliable, must clubs and some garages fitted them to their vehicles. This had a dramatic effect on ETA's as it was now often possible to divert a returning recovery vehicle, before it got back.

To achieve the best use of their assets, all motoring organisations have invested heavily in Information Technology. Computer software is used to disturb work based on criteria such as nearest vehicle, right equipment (or spares) carried, and of course driver hours regulations. The vehicles are usually fitted with GPS Tracking devices, which transmits the vehicle’s current location. Motoring organisation vehicles are also fitted with a Mobile Data Terminal, allowing job details to be sent direct to the driver.

Most Recovery Operator have also invest in IT. Most have job logging software and many have installed in vehicle communication devices and GPS Tracking devices. The distribution of work to the fleet is a very skilful job and the person doing it is often under intense strain. They are known as dispatchers in the USA and Controllers in the UK. Because operators are expected to take call 24hrs a day, some smaller ones pass their telephone to messaging handling companies, outside of hours.

Uniquely in the UK and Ireland the Motoring Organisations and the Recover Operators have worked together to form a common standard for the communication of job details. The system is called Turbo Dispatch and was introduced in 1995. It uses a combination of Mobitex data radios and the Internet to communicate. Its main advantage is it does away with the need for the information to be re-key into all the different computers in use and eliminates most of the delays associated with 'job taking'. If the information is put in correctly at the start, it will still be correct when the invoice is raised.

It was estimated at the European Tow Show in 2005 that 90% of all jobs dealt with by independent UK recovery operators are passed using the Turbo Dispatch system. The system allows a brokendown motorist to pass his details to the motoring organisation (usually by phone), but once they have entered his information into their computer, it can then be sent electronically to their agents. Apart from speed and accuracy, another advantage is the message can have the casualties Grid Coordinates built into it. This then allows the operator to rebroadcast it to the recovery vehicle, where the onboard Satellite Navigation System can guide the driver to the incident, even if he does not know the area. The same system is also used tell the motoring organisation when the recovery vehicle is on scene, when it is clear and what the outcome was.

External links

* [ UK Vehicle Recovery History]
* [ International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum]
* [ Recovery Industry Support Charity UK]
* [ The Association of Vehicle Recovery Operators]
* [ UK Institute of Vehicle Recovery]


* Wreck and Recovery, Alan Thomas, 1987 Patrick Stephens Ltd.
* Vehicle Recovery, Ron Grice, 1977 Newnes Butterworths Ltd.
* We the Professionals I, II, III all, Bill Jackson, 1983-1989 Wreckers International Ltd.
* The World History of the Towing and Recovery Industry, John Hawkins, TT Publications Inc.
* The Motoring Century (the story of the RAC), Piers Brendon, 1997 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
* Breakdown Doctor, Fred Henderson, 2005, Reading Room Publishing.
* A History of Recovery Vehicles in the British Army, Brian S Baxtor, 198 HMSO
* Wreckers and Tow Trucks, Donald Wood, 1995, Motorbooks International

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