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Hooked on Hot Rod Wreckers

In his spare time, this Cleveland tow man hits the shows with his vintage wrecker.
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This ’51 Ford has been fitted with a tilting wrecker bed that can be raised. Powering the bright-red truck is a hopped-up Chevy 350 V-8.

This ’51 Ford has been fitted with a tilting wrecker bed that can be raised. Powering the bright-red truck is a hopped-up Chevy 350 V-8.

Bob Lusetti has a new hobby. After three decades of hard work in the car hauling, equipment transport and wrecker industries in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, Lusetti is playing with hot rods — big time. Since towing vehicles puts the groceries on his table, it’s probably natural that his hot rods have hooks on the back.

The tow man has built a small fleet of hot rod tow trucks, with his latest being a COE Ford that really “hauls.” But Lusetti wasn’t always been a tow man. He was actually involved in fixing cars up before he ever towed them. Lusetti’s expertise in fixing up old tow trucks evolved from some skillful tool twisting he practiced in his younger days.

“In the winter of 1976, I was working as an auto mechanic,” Lusetti said. “A big snowstorm hit and my car got stuck, so I borrowed a co-worker’s tow truck to pull my car out. Before I even got to the car, people flagged me down. I made more money towing out cars during the snowstorm than I ever made working on them.”

Bob quit his job and never looked back. He called his new business Bob’s Towing Service and promoted it as “Your total transportation company.” Over the years, he kept growing the business and changing with the times. A lot of work was required to make it successful.

Damage-free towing of automobiles was just one of the services Bob’s Towing Service mastered. Lusetti also put together a fleet of medium-duty tow trucks, heavy-duty wreckers and heavy-duty tilt beds. Eventually, he added towing large vehicles and heavy equipment on Landoll trailers to his business, followed by a low-boy service. Together with a sister company named B & D towing, Lusetti ultimately expanded to 14 tow trucks.

A few years ago, Lusetti gained notoriety throughout the towing industry with the Pettibone wrecker he restored and brought to the National Towing Show. It was one of only a handful of wreckers constructed by Pettibone LLC, a heavy equipment manufacturer in Downers Grove, Ill. That truck has been sold and is now in Wyoming, but Lusetti has since restored three additional tow trucks and has switched to building them as hot rods.

“I raced stock cars on and off for about 10 years, and I just have a real love of both cars and trucks,” Lusetti said. Some of the high-performance tricks he learned in building racing cars were used in constructing his three hot rod tow trucks: a 1935 Dodge wrecker, a 1946 Ford wrecker and the latest artwork — a 1951 Ford cab-over-engine unit with a wrecker bed that lifts up.

All three of the vintage tow trucks have old-fashioned Manley hand-cranked cranes mounted on them. Lusetti said that four factors are critical in constructing such vehicles.

“First, it takes a lot of fabrication work,” says Bob. “Then, magazines like Old Cars Weekly and Internet sellers come in handy for finding things like performance parts.”
Lusetti believes that making trips to junkyards is critical. “You can’t get parts for trucks that old at your local auto supply store,” he advises. Last but not least, he finds some of the stuff he needs at swap meets.

To construct his ’51 Ford wrecker, Lusetti mounted the vintage Ford body on the frame from a newer Chevy pickup truck. A 350-cid small-block Chevy V-8 went under the hood, followed by a Chevy transmission and a Camaro rear end. Everything is nicely painted to match his heavy wrecker and dressed up with chrome. Lusetti did all of the work himself and emphasizes, “A lot of that ‘51 had to be custom fabricated.”

Lusetti exhibited the 1951 Ford wrecker at the Cleveland Autorama and two smaller custom car shows (the Choppers Rod & Custom Show and the American Cruiser’s Car Show). He took seven first-in-class awards, as well as “Best of Show” and “Best Truck” honors.

“You can rest assured that I’m going to keep doing shows as long as the money holds out,” Lusetti said. “I enjoy seeing the people at the car shows, and it’s particularly nice when my truck puts a smile on their faces.”

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