Peterbilt - Truck Trend Legends
They’re a common sight on all roads in the United States, but there’s still something awe-inspiring about a Peterbilt. The size, the grandeur, and knowing there’s likely 1,750 lb-ft of torque rumbling beneath the long, squared-off hood that’s as American as wagon trains and cowboy hats. And the reason why these giants exist is to keep the national economy turning over. So there’s something noble about them as well.
Theodore Alfred “Al” Peterman was in the lumber business in Tacoma, Washington, in the first half of the 20th century, but he was having trouble seeing the loot for the trees. Rather inconveniently, they all grew in forests in the middle of nowhere, and America’s road infrastructure was still not in place. Peterman did the usual thing at the time of floating them downriver, but the up-and-coming automotive industry quickly made the old ways look inefficient. To grow with the times, he decided to take surplus army trucks and re-purpose them for hauling logs to the mills.
Peterman bought ailing truck company Fageol in 1939 for $200,000 and created the first Peterbilt trucks. They looked a lot like Fageol machines but were made to Peterman’s specifications. These were chain driven with a 6x4 configuration, using aluminum to save weight. In 1940, the company produced 82 trucks. Peterman wanted to go for quality over quantity. When World War Ii prompted the need for military vehicles, Peterbilt gained more engineering and production expertise that would be useful in peacetime. The company made 225 trucks for the government in 1944.
Peterman died of cancer that same year, at the relatively young age of 51, and never saw the company grow to the status it has now enjoyed for several decades. His widow, Ida, assumed ownership of the company, which she soon sold to five of Peterbilt’s managers for $450,000. Having kept the name is a testament to how well regarded these trucks became in such a relatively short time.
Cab-over-engine (COE) designs were popular back in those days because of government restrictions on truck lengths. However, as regulations over length changed or disappeared, COE became the minority. Curiously, a “cab-over Pete” is mentioned in the 1975 novelty song, “Convoy.”
In the 1950s, the company pioneered the “Dromedary” setup where there’s a cargo section between the cab and the trailer set on the actual tractor unit. The Peterbilt badge changed from script-in-a-rectangle to script-in-an-oval in 1952.
In the Transformers movie franchise, Optimus Prime has the ability to become a Peterbilt Model 379 (one of the company’s best sellers), complete with flame-effect paint job.
Going from science fiction to science fact, NASA has run a fleet of Petes to haul all that rocket technology around. Robb Mariani, hosting the old Speed Channel’s American Trucker series, said, “As important as space exploration is to NASA, they could not get to their destination, nor return, without the groundwork that these great trucks have done throughout the years.”
Manufacturing facilities have come and gone. There were once factories in Newark, California, and Madison, Tennessee. Peterbilt is currently headquartered in Denton, Texas, at a facility established in 1980.
Ironically, Peterbilt’s main rival, Kenworth, is owned by the same parent corporation, the Pacific Car and Foundry Company (PACCAR, which bought Peterbilt in 1958). Petes are perceived as more upscale (a new Model 389 could easily come in at $160,000), although a Kenworth driver would hardly be slumming it. And some drivers prefer the feel of a Kenworth clutch over that of a Pete’s.
Ultimately, the romance around Peterbilt came about for down-to-earth reasons. It’s a well-made vehicle with premium appointments. And it’s reliable—No one wants their rig in the shop costing money when there are loads to be delivered. That’s why resale values are so strong. A Pete works on so many levels, inspiring life-long loyalty. One commenter on a trucking website put it this way: “Learned to drive truck in a Pete, grew up around Petes, owned only Petes, named my son Pete.”