October 17, 2016

Military finds Tru-Hitch’s tow gear truly uplifting

HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Tru-Hitch Inc. founder/owner Marty Marola had a better idea for a tow-lift system for handling extra-heavy loads. The result is his “fifth-wheel’’ lift that his Barkhamsted company for years has sold under contract to the U.S. Army.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Axles and other parts stowed at Tru-Hitch’s Barkhamsted yard await assembly into trailers.

U.S. and allied soldiers for years have relied on a bit of Connecticut lifting-towing technology to clear foreign battlefields of destroyed or disabled Army troop and equipment carriers, and other rolling stock.

Tru-Hitch Inc., based in Barkhamsted, since the 1990s has racked up at least a dozen Pentagon contracts manufacturing and delivering what sole-owner/founder Marty Marola says the Army calls its "modular catastrophic recovery systems.''

More sophisticated than a traditional tow-truck or flatbed hauler that most motorists are used to seeing when they call for roadside assistance, Tru-Hitch's patented equipment is just as vital for getting military vehicles unstuck, or hauling damaged or broken ones back to the motor pool.

"We did our first [contract] deployment in the 1990s,'' said Marola, who resides in Goshen. "We've been in three wars since we began.''

Most recently, Tru-Hitch landed another Army contract, valued at $7.4 million, for repair and refurbishment of as many as 90 of Tru-Hitch's previously delivered towing-hauling systems. Among them are units delivered around five years ago that are now returning from their deployment alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Marola said.

Marola says he can't precisely count the number of Army contracts he's procured over the years, but estimates them at around a dozen, with more than 300 of Tru-Hitch's "fifth-wheel" towing systems delivered. He says Tru-Hitch has run up against some formidable bidders, including several leading U.S. heavy-trucks makers.

Military contracts make up the bulk of Tru-Hitch's growing annual revenue, which Marola won't disclose. He says his company is profitable, too. Tru-Hitch employs 26 workers — many of them welders and machinists — at production facilities in Barkhamsted and Torrington.

How Marola entered the lucrative world of defense contracting is the typical tale of one person with a fresh idea for improving a technology that has been around for as long as motorized vehicles have existed.

His grandfather in 1935 launched former Marola Motors, a Torrington truck dealership where Marola says his mother and father both worked, and where as a youngster he learned to push a broom. By 18, he was a certified welder, repairing vehicles at the dealership that sold International brand trucks, he said.

In later years, Marola ran the business that sold, among other things, tow trucks and tow hitches. But there was, he said, always the nagging sense for him that the hook/lift systems on the tow vehicles were never quite up to the task, especially for handling ultra-heavy loads like semis and construction equipment.

"I said, 'there had to be a way to tow a vehicle without overloading the rear axle of the tow truck and unsafely lightening the steering axle of the tow truck,' " Marola said.

Tinkering in his spare time, Marola eventually devised tow-lift hardware that the Army and some private-sector buyers have come to appreciate.

Two types of hauling/towing systems sprang from Marola's ingenuity. One is a "fifth wheel towing and recovery device.'' Attached to the turntable of a truck, like the one semis use to attach truck to trailer, it uses hydraulics to lift the towed vehicle.

But that alone isn't enough to lift up the front of a vehicle without taxing the tow-vehicles rear drive wheels, Marola said. Also, super-heavy lifts can cause the tow-vehicle's front axle to lift, compromising steering and braking. Tru-Hitch's system solves both, he said.

To achieve better balance between the towed vehicle and the tower, Tru-Hitch's fifth-wheel setup has a pair of extra-long and sturdy steel tow prongs — similar to the steel lift bars on conventional tow trucks.

When the fifth-wheel's heavy-duty prongs are extended some 8 to 10 feet beneath the towed-vehicle's undercarriage, the Army can lift up to 32,000 pounds and tow up to 150,000 pounds, Marola said.

Tru-Hitch's other product the Army covets is a tiltable, flatbed trailer that, when linked to its heavy-lift cousin, is capable of "rolling on, rolling off," a variety of Army vehicles, all except for an M-1 tank, Marola said. Its 102-inch wide bed can be extended to 114 inches, to accommodate wider vehicles.

"We can go in as a tractor-trailer," Marola said, describing the workings of Tru-Hitch's "roll-on, roll-off" setup, "separate on the roadway and go in and do the recovery and bring the [stranded] vehicle back onto the road. Then, using the winch, we pull it onto the trailer. Reattach the trailer and drive off.''

At his Barkhamsted facility, Marola keeps a "loaner'' Army tow vehicle that he uses to test fit and fine-tune newly assembled versions of both technologies. With proper maintenance and timely refurbishment, he says Tru-Hitch's equipment is designed to last at least 30 years.

"The Army," Marola said, "has an assortment of six different size tractors that will attach to our system."

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