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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bill Gratzianna aka "Mr. Tow"

Here's a story from the Franklin Park Herald-Journal about Gratzianna's hobby of restoring old tow trucks:

Some people restore homes or furniture or antiques or paintings. William "Bill" Gratzianna restores old tow trucks.

"Old" means at least 60 years ago, like the tan 1949 Nash he plans to take on next. Along with his now deceased father Jack, Gratzianna has restored a 1929 Chrysler and a 1929 Packard.

Gratzianna could rightfully be called Mr. Tow. He is president of O'Hare Towing Services, with locations in Northlake, Downers Grove, Lockport and Grundy (plus two repair shops).

His company is also the subject of a cable television series named "Wrecked: Life in the Crash Lane." It's a reality-based show where camera crews follow tow trucks on the job.

Though he has 125 people working for him, Gratzianna still goes out in a tow truck to do what the industry calls "recoveries," along with his German shepherd that rides in the back of his cab.

"I call her the vice president of security," Gratzianna said.

He has towed almost everything one can think of, including storm-tossed trees, airplanes, bulldozers, army tanks, armored cars, garbage trucks and helicopters. Once he towed circus wagons containing live animals belonging to Barnum & Bailey from Rosemont to the United Center in Chicago.

"Everything you see going down the Eisenhower (Interstate 290), sooner or later it will go on tow trucks," Gratzianna said.

He comes by his passion for restoring old tow trucks by his father, Jack, who started O'Hare Towing in 1963. On family vacations, whenever his father spotted an old gas station, he'd drive around to the back to see if there were any old vehicles.

"My mother used to go crazy," Gratzianna said. "She'd say, 'Jack, it's time to go.'"

His father also knew a man who traveled a lot between Wyoming and Arizona. He supplied the man with an instamatic camera and asked him to take a photo of whatever old vehicles he spotted.

"He used to buy ... old corvettes, old milk delivery trucks, this Arizona (tow) truck," Gratzianna said.

The challenges of vehicle restoration for Gratzianna are perhaps different than those of other people.

"We're mechanically inclined people," Gratzianna said. "We have our own body shop. Painting and welding stuff and fixing engines are what we do."

Wood, however, is not. In the 1929 Chrysler, the cab was built of wood with metal sheets tacked on it.

"Back in that time, they didn't have the ability to make metal posts like we do today," Gratzianna said. "We had to sub that job out."

Also, while the vehicles father and son restored are special to Gratzianna since his father passed away in 2000, Gratzianna recalls it was a bit different when he and his father were actually doing the work.

"My motivation was running the business," Gratzianna said. "He would take a bay out of the shop or take a mechanic from me to restore a (vintage tow) truck. I would say, 'Dad, I got a truck that needs to be fixed.'"

Still, Gratzianna aims to keep restoration a family affair, with his daughters and younger brother helping out on the Nash.

Another challenge is finding parts. There are clubs and after-market manufacturers who make parts for old Mustangs, Chevelles and Corvettes. Old tow trucks are another story.

"I had to buy six other Chryslers to get all the pieces to do that (1929 Chrysler) tow truck," Gratzianna said. "One I needed for a transmission and wheels. Others I needed for fenders."

There's also the matter of bringing the vehicle back to its authentic shape at the time of manufacture. Some restorers cut corners, making a vehicle easier to drive than when it was built. Not Gratzianna.

"I went out of my way to buy original tires," Gratzianna said. "They are terrible on the road, they're terribly expensive, they suck all the way around, but if you want original, you go with the ply tires."

The same with batteries, which in 1929 were covered with hot tar.

"The battery sucked," Gratzianna said. "You had to jump the thing all the time or park on a hill so you could push start it."

For his 1949 Nash, Gratzianna estimates it will take two years and at least $50,000 for the bulk of the restoration work, though truly, restoration is never done.

"That's the beauty of old anything," Gratzianna said. "You're always messing with them. Officially, they never have a completion date. Anyone who tells you that they do has run out of money."

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