Vintage Trucks: 1939 Peterbilt – The First Peterbilt And How It Came To Be – It Didn’t Yet Have The Traditional Peterbilt Grille

The flat-nosed, long hood classic Peterbilt is an icon, instantly recognized. And it’s still being built, as the Model 389. Today we’ll take a look at the origins of this truck and how it came to be.

The very first Peterbilts had a different front end from all those that followed, one only built during its first three years, 1939 to 1941. Apparently the cast aluminum grille was all to easily damaged, so it gave way to a more rugged and practical flat front end. As handsome as all those classic Petes are, this just might have them all beat.

The Pete’s DNA is pure Fageol, a highly innovative company that pioneered major advances in both buses and trucks. Their Safety Bus was a breakthrough in bus design, and their later Twin Coach buses were pioneers too. Although their trucks were not quite as radical as the buses, Fageol was a pioneer in building large, powerful trucks capable of hauling massive loads in the challenging environs of the intermountain West. This early ’30s Fageol getting a tow is representative of the breed, and is very much a predecessor of the classic West Coast trucks to come.

Fageol built its rep on exceptional sturdy and well built trucks, capable of higher speeds by pioneering the use of pneumatic tires and the most powerful Hall-Scott and Waukesha gas engines, and later Cummins and Waukesha diesels. These were teamed with their own four speed main transmission backed by a Brown-Lipe three-speed auxiliary transmission, Timken rear axles, Ross steering and other top quality components.

In 1937, Fageol unveiled a dramatic newly-styled highway tractor with an aerodynamic cab featuring a Vee-shaped streamlined windshield. This became the other hallmark of Peterbilts to come. The upright, square radiator shell was gone, replaced by a rounded waterfall of aluminum strips, along with matching vents on either side of the hood. The fenders were shapelier and the headlamps were moved to the spot between fenders and hood.

This made for one of the most handsome trucks on the road at the time, but things were not well at Fageol, struggling with the very difficult environment during the extended Depression.

One of the customers of Fageol trucks was Washington lumberman Alfred “Al” Peterman, who appreciated their sturdy build and suitability for the jobs he needed them to do, although he did modify them for his specific off-highway log-hauling use in his shops. On a trip to the Bay Area, he heard that Sterling had bought Fageol, but not the Oakland factory and remaining parts and equipment. Peterman offered $50,000 for all of that, and his offer was accepted.

Peterbilt was now in the truck building business, and kept the employees busy refurbishing and servicing trucks while his engineers made some changes to the Fageol to make it a Peterbilt. One of those was the new aluminum grille, a bit more upright and rugged looking than the Streamline Moderne version on the Fageol.

As to the new name, Fageol employees had nicknamed Fageol trucks “Bill-Bilt” after the much-admired company president, W.H. Bill. So Peterman changed it to…Peterbilt.

The three axle model was the 334, and the two axle version the 260. Other variations soon joined the family. All of 16 units were built and sold in 1939, rising to 93 in 1940.

Al Peterbilt was particularly interested in extra-heavy duty logging rigs, and had been modifying Fageols for some time for that role in his logging operations. So the first really new Peterbilt was the heavy duty 354/355, designed specifically for jobs like this. These were not highway-legal, given their extra width. The stylish grille was gone, with just the actual radiator shell now visible. This is where the classic Peterbilt look started. The first Model 354 was already built and sold in 1940.

We wrote up this fleet of 354s using the 300hp Hall-Scott LPG fueled engines, the most powerful truck engine at the time.

By 1942, the aluminum grille was totally gone, replaced by a rugged radiator surround as in the larger 354s. This is a 1942 Model 270-DC. It had a 150 hp Cummins 600 and chain drive, as was still specified for certain low-speed jobs. This particular truck was bought by the Permanente Metals division of Kaiser Industries and worked at the Kaiser shipyards hauling steel pieces to be made into the hundreds of Liberty ships built at Kaiser’s shipyards. Top speed: 18 mph. The highway trucks could typically top out at 40, on a flat.

Peterbilt was able to keep building some trucks for vital industries during the war, but they lacked anything that wasn’t essential, like fenders on these two off-highway dump trucks. They’re also sporting wood front bumpers.

Here’s a couple of very early post-war Petes hard at work.

This one is sitting next to a Diamond-Reo, still sporting its glamorous chrome grille. Peterbilts eventually did get chrome grilles again, but we’ll cover that next time in the evolution of the classic “needlenose” Peterbilts.


Related reading:

Peterbilt 354 Hauling Giant Logs Powered By 300 HP Hall-Scott Gas Engine