The History of Peterbilt Trucks

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The Denton, Texas-based Peterbilt Motors Company builds tractor-trailer big rig trucks and smaller models in the Class 5-8 size range. The company has its origins in the lumber transportation field, but emerged in the 1960s as one of the largest and most popular heavy-duty commercial vehicles in the trucking industry.

The History of Peterbilt Trucks
The History of Peterbilt Trucks

Origins

Peterbilt was founded by happenstance and evolved over a slow period. Transporting cut trees in North California, Oregon and Washington from forests to mills was a labor-intensive, costly and time-consuming process. Lumber tycoon T.A. Peterman, of Tacoma, Wash., sought a heavy-duty vehicle to do the job. In the 1930s, Peterman began using surplus military vehicles and developed the technology for heavy hauling. In 1938, he purchased the failed Oakland-based Fageol Motors to use its equipment to build custom truck chassis. Peterbilt, named after its visionary founder, was born.

A Peterbilt Optimus with sleeper.
A Peterbilt Optimus with sleeper.

PACCAR

Peterman died in 1945 and his wife sold the company to its seven managers. In 1958, the owners sold it to Pacific Car & Foundry Company, or PACCAR, a railroad freight car builder that was expanding into the trucking industry. PACCAR had previously purchased Kenworth.

The 1939 Peterbilt truck.
The 1939 Peterbilt truck.

Part of the Family

PACCAR went on a buying spree over the decades, assuming control of the Dart Truck Company, British truck maker Foden Trucks, the Dutch DAF Trucks and the once mighty England-based Leyland Trucks. Subsidiaries Peterbilt and DAF were PACCAR's biggest producers, giving the company the number-three spot in total big rig truck sales in the United States behind Freightliner and Navistar International.

The 1950 "Iron Nose" Peterbilt.
The 1950 "Iron Nose" Peterbilt.

Early Models

Peterbilt briefly produced the 260/360 series trucks before halting for war production in 1942. It followed with its popular 280/350 "Iron Nose" series, which were conventional trucks with separate fenders and a deep vertical grille with vertical shutters.

A 1959 cab-over-engine, or COE, cattle hauler Peterbilt.
A 1959 cab-over-engine, or COE, cattle hauler Peterbilt.

The 1960s

Peterbilt's most durable line was the 281/351 series produced from 1954-76 with its now-reshaped narrow nose and butterfly hood. Tilt cab-over-engine models started in 1959 and were extremely popular with truckers for their easy access to the engine and compact dimensions. COEs fell out of favor by the 1980s when the trucking industry was deregulated and truck size rules were relaxed.

This Peterbilt 281 model was featured in Steven Spielberg's 1971 film "Duel."
This Peterbilt 281 model was featured in Steven Spielberg's 1971 film "Duel."

Later Models

The 379 model was Peterbilt's top-selling truck from 1987-2007, with its iconic long square nose and aluminum hood. The 2006-07 models were vastly improved, especially driver visibility, with redesigned windows and an enlarged rear window.

A 1969 COE model.
A 1969 COE model.

Sleepers

Peterbilt spent considerable resources developing sleeper units for its trucks in the 1960s and '70s. It first developed a shell to match the cab's paint scheme. The interior also was developed to match the interior of the cab. The company also helped design the 40- and 60-inch Mercury sleepers as well as a line of custom sleepers. In the 1970s, 63-inch-long sleepers were designed to allow the driver to walk from the cab directly into the rear sleeper. In 1994, the Unibilt sleeper was equipped with air suspension. By 2005, a 70-inch version was introduced.

A 1995 Peterbilt.
A 1995 Peterbilt.

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