Daniel Rubin: Tune in for Philadelphia's tow-truck wars

Ernest "Smashy" DiStephani gave good quotes, but lost his sweetheart no-bid towing contract in 1978.
Ernest "Smashy" DiStephani gave good quotes, but lost his sweetheart no-bid towing contract in 1978.
Posted: September 02, 2010

The news that a fall reality TV series will feature the colorful characters of a Philadelphia tow-truck company makes me lament the loss of Ernest "Smashy" DiStephani.

Now there was a man who could have carried a series.

Smashy - he ran Smashy's Auto Salvage under the Platt Memorial Bridge - was "round as a hubcap and about two tires high," as one reporter described him in 1978.

That year he lost his sweetheart deal. He'd enjoyed a no-bid contract to tow cars off the city streets despite a paper trail that included convictions for auto theft, failure to pay taxes, and the FBI's contention that he had ties to organized crime.

Smashy gave good quotes. Approached by reporters after Mayor Frank Rizzo canceled the contract, The Smash spoke kindly of the man he had campaigned for.

"Listen, I love him. If he had a dress on, I'd marry him. Put that in the paper." Which the papers did.

Producers of the the TLC network show, to be called Wreck Chasers, insist there's still much strong material to shoot even if there's no more Smashy.

"Philadelphia tow-truck drivers are extremely outspoken and colorful, and they don't mind telling you what they think," says Jim Kowats, the series' executive producer. His resume includes a writing credit on a Treasure Quest episode titled "Pirates," so he has experience in the genre.

How great is this going to be?

Two half-hour episodes have been taped already and are to be telecast Oct. 28. Four more shows are in the works. Though the production team has caught some fistfights on camera, it apparently missed the biggest splash of the summer.

That occurred July 19, when a J & Sons Auto Body employee made an emphatic sales pitch at a North Philadelphia accident location by shooting a competitor from Mystical Complete Auto Service in the thigh. A couple of nights later cars were torched and more shots fired.

And you thought the A&E series on the Philadelphia Parking Authority was good for business. Wreck Chasers promises to do for Philadelphia what Snooki has done for the Jersey Shore.

So how will Philadelphia appear to the viewer from Dubuque?

"Very real," Kowats replied. "What they're doing in trying to make a living is completely relevant to everyone in the country," he said. Tough times, indeed.

I'm still waiting to hear back from Mayor Nutter, but his spokeswoman, Maura Kennedy, shared my excitement at the prospect of Philadelphia's rough and tumble road warriors representing the city.

"Oh, awesome," she said.

Councilman Jim Kenney, too, saw the good in the series. "This will give us all this documentary evidence we need to revoke their licenses," he said. "It's nice to have a road map of what they do and how they do it and have it seen by the public."

Since 1992 I've talked to Kenney about the feeding frenzy that occurs after a wreck. An article I wrote back then told of storage fees as high as $144 a day and tow charges rarely lower than $75. Auto-body shops were paying drivers for wrecks and gouging the bewildered. The Police Department was probing reports that its officers were taking kickbacks for steering business.

The industry lobbied hard against tougher regulations. For the bill to pass, Kenney had to strip a provision that would have established a system that rotated vetted companies, but in 2008, that's just what legislation by Councilman Frank Rizzo created after the madness on the roads persisted.

The rotation failed to turn anything around. AAA Mid-Atlantic is on the preferred list and it told the Philadelphia Daily News this summer of getting just one call in the last two years. Kenney said the city Department of Licenses and Inspections hasn't had the personnel to enforce existing rules. Maybe they should stop chasing cupcake trucks.

After the July gunfire, the Police Department stopped broadcasting accident reports on its airwaves. Instead, electronic messages are sent to squad-car laptops. Wreck chasers have reportedly had to switch to fire and emergency radios for tips.

So maybe another fix is needed.

Kenney says the matter is so messed up that only one agency has proved itself able to handle tows - "the most relentless enforcement agency known to man."

He speaks, of course, of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Wreck chasers vying to get work from PPA tow trucks? That's would be like watching Alien vs. Predator. I predict an Emmy.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com

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