You’ve seen them all your life, but unless you happen to be interested in the hauling arts, you probably haven’t paid much attention to Peterbilt. This month, the company celebrates its 1 millionth truck, and places another footnote in a history that stretches back to the company’s foundation in 1939.
Peterbilt was founded in 1939 in Northern California. In the pre-war era, most commercial lumber was floated downriver and hauled with either steam tractors or horse teams.
T.A. Peterman owned a lumber company that specialized in manufacturing plywood. The process of getting raw lumber to his facility was completely inefficient, causing a time-wasting bottleneck in production.
At the time, surplus trucks from the first World War were about the largest, most durable trucks available, so Peterman bought as many as he could, rebuilding them for use as logging trucks. He improved those trucks where he could, replacing the arm-busting crank starters that Peterman replaced with electric starters.
During the height of the Great Depression, loads of companies were in receivership, Fageol Motors in Oakland, California among them. Fageol Motors was the first company to build its own bus, rather than using an existing chassis from another manufacturer. For Peterman, that and the Fageol’s dual-range, mid-mounted transmission made it an attractive target for acquisition. He purchased Fageol Truck and Coach at a fire-sale price in 1938, renaming it Peterbilt.
One of Peterbilt’s earliest products was the Model 260, built in 1939. The company located the oldest known Model 260 in 2014 and had it completely restored for the company’s 75th anniversary. It was the 10th of just 15 trucks built that year.
Peterbilt’s early model designations are pretty easy to figure out: the first digit describes the number of axles, therefore a 260 has a single rear-drive tag axle, while a 334 has a twin rear drive axles.
In 1949, Peterbilt introduced the Model 350, which would carry it through to 1955 when the Model 351 was introduced.
Peterbilt would crank out Model 351s from 1954 until 1971, the longest run in the company’s history.
Its smaller cousin is the Model 281, which is arguably the most famous Pete of all time. A 1955 Model 281 was the antagonist in the 1971 Steven Spielberg movie Duel, which did for over-the-road trucks what Jaws would do for sharks seven years later.
In 1967, Peterbilt entered the modern age with the Model 359. It was the truck to own for long-haul owner-operators at the time.
What’s amazing in an era when you can barely order a color on a car is that in 1967, you could fully customize a Peterbilt Model 359 in a nearly infinite number of directions. For example, owner-operators looking for the lightest possible truck could customize a Peterbilt Model 359 completely constructed of aluminum, from the cab to the hood, to the sleeper, right down to the frame.
There was plenty of Pete 359 footage in the 1977 classic Smokey and the Bandit, though the featured truck was the Snowman’s Kenworth W-900 A, Peterbilt’s major competitor at the time.
It also had a massive engine compartment, and a purchaser could stuff just about any engine and transmission combination underneath.
For years, model maker Revell offered several different configurations of Model 359, including this huge 1/24-scale wrecker:
Given their amazing construction and versatility, owner-operators could — and still do — depend on a Model 359’s incredible resale value. Do a search right now and you’ll still find Model 359 semis from the 1970s for sale on the open market in the $35,000 to $38,000 range.
The 359 laid the groundwork for the Model 379, a flagship that would carry the company from 1987 to 2007. It would become the most popular truck among owner-operators in history.
Peterbilt rolled its millionth truck off the line on January 10, 2018. Despite all of the company’s innovation in aerodynamics over the last 20 years, the millionth truck was a Model 569 Heritage, a fully modern truck with the same styling cues as its classic Model 379.
It’s a class operation, with chrome everywhere, from the bumper to the grille bars, to the stacks and rocker panels. Inside, though, it’s got tons of modern features, with premium leather seats, wood accents and embroidered logos in the headrests.
The truck doesn’t yet have an owner. Over the last year, Peterbilt has been searching for its SuperFan in the United States and Canada, and received over 1,200 entries. The Millionth truck will go to one Superfan at the upcoming Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS).
“One million trucks is a fantastic milestone and is a testament to the hard working Peterbilt employees from 1939 to now,” said Leon Handt, assistant general manager of operations, Peterbilt Motors Company. “We wouldn’t have been able to grow our brand without them.”