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Red Hot Rod Wrecker "Rules"

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

A 1951 Ford Cab-Over-Engine Gets a Second Life as a Tow Truck.

Bob Lusetti’s bright red hot rod wrecker “rules” at car shows in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Based on a bull-nosed Ford Cab-Over-Engine (COE) truck – which is rare to begin with – this hauling hooker has winched in a bunch of trophies since hitting the circuit.

According to Jim Wagner’s book Ford Trucks Since 1905, the repackaging of the COE model debuted in 1948 and came in 134- and 156-in. wheelbases in its factory formats. The same sheet metal was used for cab units of Ford tractor-trailer trucks, which had a 110-in. wheelbase. The COEs were offered in the F-500 and F-600 series, with the F-500 carrying a 1-1/2-ton rating and the F-600 rated for two tons.

In 1951, the horizontal bars used in the grilles of the previous three years were replaced with a grille having three big “teeth” across the center and a large, round headlight at either side.  Production of these trucks was very low (see below).

Many of these medium- and heavy-duty trucks led hard-working lives and suffered bangs and abuse. Their rarity makes them very hard to restore to original condition, because it is hard to find donor vehicles and parts trucks. However, they are becoming very popular with hot rod builders who are skilled at finding creative solutions to missing parts issues.

After three decades of his own hardworking career in the car hauling, equipment transport and wrecker industries in the Cleveland, Ohio area, Bob Lusetti decided to start building hot rods big time. Since tow trucks and wreckers put the groceries on his table, it seemed like a natural path for him to build hot rods that had cranes on the back with hooks at the end of them.  Over the past few years, this successful tow man has built a small fleet of hot rod tow trucks, and his latest is the first-class Ford COE that really “hauls.”

Lusetti admits that he wasn’t always a tow man. Bob was actually involved in fixing cars up before he ever towed them. That goes a long way toward explaining how he became such an expert in fixing up old tow trucks. His restorative talents evolved from some skillful tool twisting that he practiced in his younger days.

“In the winter of 1976, I was working as an auto mechanic,” Bob explained to us. “A big snowstorm hit in the Cleveland area, and my car got stuck. I borrowed a co-worker’s tow truck to pull my car out of a snow bank. Before I even got to the car, people flagged me down to tow their snowed-in cars. I made more money pulling out cars during the snowstorm than I ever made repairing them.” 

Bob quit his job and never looked back. He purchased a wrecker and hung out a shingle with the name “Bob’s Towing Service” lettered on it. His promotional slogan became “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. He also put together a fleet of medium-duty tow trucks, heavy-duty wreckers and heavy-duty tilt bed tow trucks. Bob added the towing of large vehicles and heavy equipment on Landoll trailers and then a low-boy transport service. Together with a sister company named B & D towing, Bob ultimately expanded his rigs 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, Illinois. That truck has been sold and is now in Wyoming, but Bob has since restored three additional vintage tow trucks and has switched to doing them in hot rod style.

“I raced stock cars on and off for about 10 years, and I just have a real love for both cars and trucks, especially when they run strong and go a little faster than others like them,” says Lusetti. 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 his latest artwork, this 1951 Ford COE 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. Bob told us that four factors are critical in constructing such vehicles. “First, it takes a lot of fabrication work,” says Bob. “Then, magazines like Kustoms & Hot Rods and their websites 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 old-car swap meets.

To construct his 1951 Ford wrecker, Bob mounted the vintage Ford body on a frame from a newer Chevy pickup truck. A 350-ci small-block Chevy V-8 went under the hood, and it has a Chevy transmission and a Camaro rear end. Everything is nicely painted to look like his heavy wrecker and is dressed up with chrome. Bob did all of the work himself and emphasizes, “A lot of that ‘51 had to be custom fabricated.”

So far, in the year that he has been building the truck and showing it, Bob has exhibited it at the Cleveland Autorama and two smaller custom car shows, the Choppers Rod and Custom Show and the American Cruiser’s Car Show. He took seven first 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,” Bob proclaimed. “I enjoy seeing the people at the car shows, and it’s particularly nice when my truck puts a smile on their faces.”

Model Year 1951 Ford Cab-Over-Engine Truck Production


110” W.B. – 2 Ton COE                        
Cab                   666                        
Cab Stake           1

134” W.B. – 2 Ton COE                        
Cab                 1430                        
Cab Stake         17                        
Cab Platform       1                        
Special               38   

158” W.B. – 2 Ton COE                        
Cab                 3163                        
Special               87   


110” W.B. – 1-1/2 Ton COE                        
Cab                   119                        
Cab Stake           4                        
Cab Platform       1

134” W.B. – 1-1/2 Ton COE                        
Cab                   450                        
Cab Stake         38                        
Cab Platform       1                        
Special             143  

158” W.B. – 1-1/2 Ton COE                        
Cab                 1277                        
Special               22   


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