One thing that’s common to most every man into old trucks, cars or tractors is the periodic need to pull one of these vehicles with another. If you’re unfamiliar with this exercise, it requires two people; one driving the towing vehicle, and another on the towed, to steer, apply brakes, or to pop the clutch with the transmission in gear in an often futile attempt to get the engine started.
Well most of us don’t have another man about the house, so it’s usually the unfortunate spouse who’s pressed into service as either the puller or the pullee. I've read many sad tales in the tractor magazines of these adventures going comically wrong (often with a real potential for disaster), and I've a few such stories of my own.
My sister B.G. and my niece Cindy, both from North Carolina, were visiting a few years ago and told me of their experiences, B.G. as the pullee and Cindy as the puller in two different episodes.
Long ago, B.G. and her husband had an Oldsmobile that wouldn't run, so he decided to tow it several blocks to a repair shop. He hooked a chain between his work truck and the Olds, put B.G. behind the wheel of the car, and instructed her briefly on what to do, before starting off. What he had not told her was that the power steering and power brakes didn't work when the engine wasn't running.
B.G. said she got quite a surprise when they came to the first stop sign – he stopped, but she didn't and banged into the truck. Fortunately they were going slow and no damage was done. Then he turned a corner and she couldn't steer the thing and the Olds had to be dragged around by the chain. It was a hairy journey, with the Olds banging into the truck again before they finally arrived at the garage.
In several of the stories I've read the wife in the towing vehicle recalled looking out the side window to see her husband alongside with a look of horror on his face. Cindy’s husband, Blaine, had a Massey-Harris tractor that wouldn't run, and he too opted to tow it to a shop several miles away, with a rope as the towing connection. Cindy was to drive the tow truck and Blaine emphasized to her that she must keep the rope taut between them. However the old Massey’s brakes weren't much good, and on a downgrade Cindy was astonished to see Blaine out her right window bouncing along the berm. He was headed for a mailbox and standing on the brakes without much result. Somehow he missed the mailbox; they finally got everything under control, and finished the trip without further mishap.
Shortly after Miss Nancy and I were married, I moved everything from my house in town to the place we’d bought in the country. I had a Triumph TR4 sports car that wasn't running so I winched it onto my trailer. To unload the TR4, I used a tractor and a chain, putting Nancy in the car to steer it down the ramps. All went well until the car was coasting down the ramps and, as there was fifteen feet or so between the car and tractor, I stopped the tractor. Unfortunately, Nancy didn't apply the brakes and the Triumph rolled into a tractor tire, pushing in the bumper.
Another time, I bought a 1940 John Deere A about four or five miles from home. It wasn't running, but had a front hitch, so I made a six-foot tow bar and determined to pull the thing home. The left rear tractor tire had a hole on the inside sidewall and a leaky inner tube, but I pumped it up, hitched up the tow bar to the pickup, and we set out; Nancy drove the truck and I bravely mounted the tractor.
I don’t remember what I told Nancy, but probably something about keeping the speed down to around 15MPH max. We started out pretty well, except that every time the hole in the tire came around it sprayed me with calcium chloride solution.
When we reached the main road, it seemed Nancy kept going faster and faster and I’m bouncing along, just six short feet behind the truck. At one point, about a mile from home, the slow moving vehicle sign, which I’d attached temporarily to the back of the tractor, fell off. No matter how much I waved and yelled, Nancy never looked in the mirror and we roared on.
We finally reached home just before the rear tire went flat and, although my nerves were a little frazzled, we, as the books say, lived happily ever after.
I think the reason there are so many of these stories is that husbands just assume that their mates will always know exactly what to do in an unfamiliar situation – and they don’t, usually. Of course, if the guy had to fill and start the dish washer, or do a load of clothes, he probably would need detailed instructions from his wife; I still remember the time I put regular dishwashing soap in the dish washer and it was a disaster, with billowing soap suds all over the kitchen floor.
The accompanying cartoon has nothing to do with the subject, but it is about towing and I thought it was funny. The cartoonist, Graham Hunter, did cartoons for many magazines during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. In this one from the April, 1944 issue of Motor Age magazine, the “Biceps Brothers,” who owned an auto repair garage and were always performing prodigious feats of strength, have stored their tow truck for the duration to conserve gasoline and tires and pressed a “bicycle built for two” into service in its stead.
If you have any towing stories, send them in.