Fortune, we hope, will smile upon us on days we venture from our garages and neighborhoods to take out our hot rods. The wheels will steadily spin, the fluid in the cooling system will pick up heat from the cylinder walls and give it up at the radiator without our paying any mind. We are left to enjoy the scene, the stereo, and the noise flowing through the exhaust.
Fortune, however, doesn’t always smile. That smooth whirr of gear-to-gear contact becomes a grinding noise, the little needle on a particular gauge drops down, or goes up and up as small wisps of steam begin appearing around the hood gaps. If things get bad we slow, if they get worse we stop. If they really suck, we wind up on the phone and hope we remembered to re-up the roadside assistance membership.
There are two basic types of tow trucks. Ideally, they send what is called a “roll-back” to come and get you. The traditional short “wrecker”-type truck with its boom and hooks is great for fishing balled-up totals out of gullies but will probably tweak the bumper of your 1960s musclecar as it, by design, picks up one end and leaves the other to roll for itself—maybe OK, but maybe not. Instead, the flat-bed on a roll-back will gently tilt and slide rearward to scoop up your pride and joy into its protective grasp like a hand cradling a baby. Your disabled car will whisk to the repair shop or perhaps back home on a secure platform, as though it had its own private parking space, cruising at 65 mph. Roll-backs are nice.
When a guy has been into cars for a while and has towed a few (or many) dozen of his own non-operable vehicles at the end of a chain or perhaps on a car-hauler trailer, he may begin to look at this best-of-all-possible-ways of hauling broken cars, the roll-back tow truck, and wonder if he himself shouldn’t ever own such a vehicle.
For somebody who is nuts enough, it can be done. Used roll-backs often date back to the early ’80s when the towing industry was giving up on the idea that lowered BMWs and plastic-bumpered Camaros could be drug around with traditional hooks-and-slings without resultant damage claims. These vehicles are cheap now. If the beds and hydraulic paraphernalia were sometimes applied to chassis under-rated for the loads involved, that can be a plus to the savvy shopper who has a different frame and body in mind to put under a still-serviceable tilt-and-slide bed. You can buy decent equipment mounted on an otherwise junk truck, and swap it over onto something cool, creating a hot rod to tow around your hot rod.
The 1953 Ford shown was converted some years ago using an aluminum bed mounted onto the original F-500 frame. The original builder apparently had trouble fitting the proper structure for the hydraulic cylinders and chose to fit a winch-and-cable system for the tilt/slide operation instead. It didn’t work well and the current owner intends to re-mount the bed in a permanent tilted position and use it as a ramp truck. There is no question it makes a cool tow vehicle either way.
The builder of the white mid-’90s GMC is more committed. The HD 3500 cab/chassis with 454 power was obtained at a county auction for a couple thousand dollars, and the steel bed is from a bent and ruined ‘80s Ford that, conveniently, had a near-identical frame width. The truck’s wheelbase was lengthened by re-mounting the stock rear spring perches along the frame and having a new driveshaft made, and all appropriate crossmembers and brackets are being swapped over from the Ford or fabricated. There is expected to be a $5K investment into the truck when it’s finished.
The most difficult-appearing task of the swap—actually getting that huge heavy bed picked-up off one truck frame and dropped on the other—is turning out to be the simplest. The bed was merely tilted with blocks at the extreme rear until it pressed against them. Then it was blocked up at the front. Hydraulic pressure was released, bolts were undone and welds were cut, then the truck was driven out from under it. The bed will install onto the new chassis through the same process in reverse.
It would in most cases be simpler to buy an older truck ready-made, but we don’t always choose to do things the easy way. It will all look pretty easy when cruising up to fetch a broken car from the roadside, or deliver a race car to the local track.