If you’re celebrating a 75th anniversary, it would be nice to have something from Year One so folks can see what you’re smiling about. Peterbilt Motors now does, thanks to a vehicle restorer’s interest in “old diesel trucks.”
The truck is a 1939 Model 260, serial number M106 (sales order no. 5010), the 10th of 15 built in that model year by the then-new company. And it’s the only complete ’39 Peterbilt left, according to John Meyers, the engineering lab manager at the company’s headquarters and plant in Denton, Texas. The single-rear-axle tractor was built for Kentner Truck Lines of San Francisco and shipped on Oct. 13, 1939.
By the mid-1990s the old Pete was long retired. “It was in a desert out in Arizona, in really, really sad shape,” says Bob Dean, a car and truck restorer with a shop in Louisiana. “I found it in Hemmings [Motor News, a monthly “bible” for car and truck collectors that carries thousands of ads in every issue].” Dean belongs to the American Truck Historical Society and knew the significance and rarity of the ’39 Pete, so he sent his guys out to pick it up and bring it back to Baton Rouge.
The Pete still had its original 125-horsepower Cummins 6-HB diesel, Brown-Lipe “3 by 3” main-auxiliary transmissions and Timken axles. Its fifth wheel was still bolted to the made-in-’39 framerails.
“We started work on it in July of ’97,” Dean recalls. “I had one man on the project. We took it to Carlisle [a big vehicle collectors show in Pennsylvania] in spring of ’98, so it took about that long to finish. It takes four, five months to finish something if you stay on it,” and maybe 1,200 to 1,500 man-hours for this one. Building a brand-new truck like this would be much easier, and it was probably done in just a few days back in ‘39.
Most of the restoration work was done by Neil Calloway, Dean’s chief body repair and paint specialist, who passed away before the project was complete. Terry Davis, another craftsman, then took over.
“The engine held me up,” Dean says, “but we got parts and put it together. We did a frame-off restoration. We replaced everything but the top of the cab.” Rust rendered many steel body panels unusable, but they served as models for the fabricating of new parts. These included fenders, the multi-piece hood, the rear of the cab and a pair of fuel tanks.
The original aluminum grille was missing many of its bars, but enough was left of it that, combined with old pictures, a mock-up could be made. “We built a grille out of balsa wood and sent it to an outside shop,” he says. “They made a mold out of rubber and cast it in aluminum. That was the biggest item. It was a whole lot of fun.”
Two Peterbilt nameplates were missing, so Dean also had replacements cast. The truck included some Fageol parts left over from the bankrupt firm that Peterbilt succeeded. Among them were the headlights. The crew had the truck’s build sheet and knew which type the headlights were, so they could replicate them.
The truck’s original paint was a simple black and white, but Dean had it resprayed in a scheme that was on an early ‘30s Deusenberg once owned by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. It was an elegant limousine with a body from Hibbard & Darrin in Paris. Dean says the red stripe with its harpoon tip was a trademark of the coachbuilder. He added a dark red to the bright-red and black used on the limo; the colors look classy on the Pete, but sheet metal under the black paint had to be just-so because black shows imperfections, he said. (And no, the chrome exhaust stack is not original, but who could resist adding such a touch?)
The truck was part of Dean’s multi-vehicle collection for quite a while. He kept it among a group of 50 favorites after auctioning off 180 cars in 2003. Last year, Peterbilt representatives were preparing their 75th anniversary display trailer and wanted a ’39 grille to hang in it, says Peterbilt’s Meyers.
“The only person I could find who had one — Bob Dean — wanted to sell us the whole truck,” he says. “So we bought it from him last December and picked it up in Louisiana.”
Restoration was about 90% complete, Meyers says, so he and a crew set out to finish it. They made and installed hood latches and found and rebuilt the parking brake mechanism, aligned all hood panels and the grille, made and installed hardware in the door jambs, and fixed the auxiliary transmission’s shifter, among other things.
“It runs fine,” he says, “but the electrical system is missing. The engine runs without it because it’s compression ignition, and you shut off the engine with a compression release. None of the gauges are working and the lights don’t work.”
Nevertheless, it looks glorious. Peterbilt displayed it at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., in March, then carried it back home. Today it’s parked in the plant next to “old Number 1,” a Model 359 that was the first truck assembled in Denton in 1980. There are no plans to send no. M106 on a tour, but it’s now Peterbilt’s official anniversary vehicle. It’s in addition to supplementing the red-and-white promotional truck you may have seen, which looks like a ’39 but is actually a ’40.
The very first Peterbilt actually was a rolling chassis that became a fire truck. But the mechanic who assembled it back then used Diamond T front-end parts, including grille, hood and fenders, “so it doesn’t look like a Peterbilt, much less Number 5001,” Meyers says. In October, the Fremont FD will display that truck at an anniversary show in Stockton, Calif. (see www.75thanniversary.org) to which Peterbilt will send an Anniversary Edition Model 579.