The oldest known complete and operable Peterbilt, a 1939 Model 260 — just one of 15 built by the truck maker that year — is currently on display at Peterbilt’s facility in Denton, Texas.
But the rig hasn’t always had such top-notch treatment: Nearly 20 years ago, it sat in an Arizona desert, neglected and inoperable.
That changed, however, when Bob Dean, who runs a restoration shop in Baton Rouge, La., happened upon the old Pete in 1996. “I wanted to do this one because it was special,” he says.
After researching and finding out 1939 was Peterbilt’s transition year and realizing how unique the truck’s egg crate grille was, Dean decided to make the trip to Arizona.
“When we got it, it was a pile of rust,” Dean says of the truck, which was originally built in 1939 for Kentner Truck Lines in San Francisco. “Everything you touch — you can’t buy. You have to figure out how they made it 75 years ago,” he adds. His team rebuilt the truck’s door jambs, hood and grille, for example.
He says that Peterbilt’s records helped the restoration process: “Peterbilt kept excellent records. They had the bill sheet [for the truck]. It gave me some kind of idea.”
Some of the biggest challenges in the restoration were the engine (a first-series Cummins) and the grille, Dean says. One of his restoration team members traveled to the Hays Antique Truck Museum in California to examine similar grilles.
A jeweler made a rubber mold of the grille, allowing the team to restore it. All told, the grille cost about $25,000.
And the grille is what caught Peterbilt’s eye: The truck maker’s engineering lab manager John Myers contacted Dean about buying the grille, but the two ended up making a deal on the truck.
After Dean’s team put “hundreds of hours” of work into the 260, he says, the truck was about 90 percent restored by his team. Peterbilt purchased the truck in late 2013 and has since put over 200 hours of work into the truck, Myers says. “We were very excited when we found it. Nobody’s going to take better care of it than us.”
Though the Peterbilt team had to make most parts and materials from scratch, they had a guide to help. “Luckily, we have a 1940 Pete. It was restored 25 years ago when information was much more available. The guys who restored it were the ‘old timers’ then.” Myers says that the rig is “incredible” and “true to its time,” making the restoration process easier.
One of the challenges Peterbilt encountered during restoration was replacing the truck’s missing emergency brake. After searching, they eventually found one in Courtland, Calif., on a 1951 Peterbilt.
The only known Peterbilt that is older than this truck is owned by the Fremont (Calif.) Fire Department, but it was not manufactured as a complete truck, according to Peterbilt.
Since its restoration, the truck was showcased at the Mid-America Trucking Show, where guests could take pictures with the vehicle and have the photos uploaded to Peterbilt’s Facebook page. Myers says he’s sure the truck will make more trucking show visits in the future.
“It’s where it’s supposed to be,” Dean says.