Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Fall 2011 edition of Overdrive‘s Custom Rigs magazine.
Tobby Donalson lives on family farm acreage passed down from his father just outside McMinnville, Tenn. The custom 1959 Peterbilt 351 you see here lives with him, and it has since 1982, though not always in this form. “I bought it initially for the motor,” Donalson says.
He wanted to put the 290 Cummins in an old Kenworth he ran hard in his independent owner-operator business, launched in the early ‘60s hauling pickles, nursery products and more to and from the West Coast. “I just saw the old truck going down the road near Sneed, Ala., and asked the driver if he would sell it to me.”
The driver had a load of chickens he had to deliver, but after that, “Sure,” he told Donalson, who thus cemented a connection to a piece of equipment that turned heads at the first annual Nashville Chrome & Class Truck Show at the Rush Peterbilt location in Smyrna, Tenn., last year, taking a solid First in the antique class as well as Third in their show class.
The 351 has come a long way since Donalson, by his own admission, “let a tree grow up through it” at one point after the 1982 purchase. He proceeded with the customization in fits and starts from 2002 on, the bulk of the work done after his 2008 retirement. “I got rid of all the phone bills and the hassle” of operating a single-truck business, he says, then put all spare energy into it.
Lots of energy it was. He employed a design philosophy that reached for optimum roadworthiness, replacing old parts with new 90s-era Peterbilt parts where they fit: things like “windshield wipers, switches in the dash, the steering wheel,” Donalson says, and “factory air,” though he made the box to contain the compressor himself.
A 90s-era Caterpillar 3406B pumping out 425 horses powers the rig with a 15-speed overdrive Eaton transmission.
Where replacement parts didn’t fit or weren’t available, he made or had them made himself, such as the visor and boltless diamond-plate running boards and deck custom-rounded along their edges. The grille surround is original, but the louvered grille comes from a Pete 359 Donalson and his brother Wayne custom-made a jig to cut to fit, one louver at a time.
The needle-nose, butterfly-opening hood presented one of the bigger challenges. “I made a form out of wood and had it bent to fit the form and had the whole thing fitted on there,” Donalson says. The hood “is not perfectly square,” he adds. “It looks like it is but it’s laid out at the back about six inches. It was a trick to get it right.”