“Al” Peterman, a lumberman and mechanical genius, purchased what is now Peterbilt Motors Company for $50,000 in 1938 while on a logging-related business trip in California.
This article references content written in The Evolution of Class by Warren Johnson.
Texas is celebrating Peterbilt Motors Company’s 40th year in Denton this month but the commercial vehicle manufacturer has another 40 years of lesser known history under its belt in The Golden State.
Theodore Alfred “Al” Peterman was a man known for his passion in forestry. In 1934, he purchased 30,000 acres of forestland near Tacoma, Washington and rather than construct a railroad, he instead built his own roads and acquired a small fleet of White Motor Company (acquired by Volvo in 1981) logging trucks. Considered a mechanical genius, he also modified his fleet to fit his own business needs.
Several years after establishing himself as a successful timber producer, he happened to be on a business trip in the San Fransisco, California area and caught wind that Fageol Motors was looking to sell due to post-Great Depression troubles. By the following year, Al was the new owner of the plant, 13.5 acres, the remaining parts inventory and the equipment, which he purchased for a total of $50,000.
Al directed his engineers to redesign and retool to the trucks during his first year as CEO. As Fageol transitioned to what is now Peterbilt Motors Company, employees were kept busy with refurbishing and servicing all makes of trucks to generate cash, and this continued for several years.
Peterbilt’s first product, which Al called a Peterbilt, was a chassis built for Hirst Fire Truck Company. They also added a hood, grille, fenders and fire apparatus to meet their requirements. It was sold to the Centerville (now Fremont) California Fire Department in 1939.
The first full-body truck was a three axle “L” Model 334, L-100 Sales Order (SO) 5002, which was sold to Garrett Beckley of Stockton, California. Sales in 1939 totaled 16 units, 2 Model 334s, 13 Model 260s and 1 Model 120.
By 1940, sales increased to 93 units, 41 Model 334s, 39 Model 260s, 2 Model 120s, and 1 Model 354, and sales remained steady through 1941. Peterbilt actually built 1 Model 364 for Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company, which was the only civilian-style Model 364 built, and included a conventional cab, hood, fenders, radiator, and headlight protectors. Peterbilt also built 39 “military-style” Model 364s and continued building for military tractors through 1942 for the war effort.
In 1942, new truck sales totaled 55 units and Peterbilt built 1 Model 260 COE, which was a 42" quarter cab mounted on a flat deck for Hall-Scott Engine Company (Warren/Pg. 9).
After a multi-year downturn in sales due to lack of available raw materials, Peterbilt tripled its sales by 1944, jumping to a total of 224 units, but solely focused on the Model 334 and Model 354. Unexpectedly, Al was diagnosed with cancer and passed away before the year ended. But his widow, Ida, retained ownership and continued to see record-breaking production at the factory. In 1947, she sold the company to a group of company managers and outside investors, led by Lloyd A. Lundstrom, and retained ownership of the land the factory sat on.
A decade passed, and sales dropped significantly in 1958. Ida informed management that she intended to sell the property to developers, but with management nearing retirement age, they opted out of acquiring the expense, and instead sold to Pacific Car and Foundry (PACCAR).
Peterbilt’s Denton plant has become the main manufacturing facility for the brand, building trucks that would be considered iconic by many. The plant began operation as a 435,000 sq ft facility with 81 employees on 80 acres of land. Today it sits on 238 acres, employs over 2,500 people, has over 700,000 sq ft of space spread out over multiple buildings, and has a network of 400+ Peterbilt dealerships throughout North America.