Classic Pete 359 hauls in big Pride & Polish win after 4.1M miles of work

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Updated Dec 21, 2023
Ron Kelsey's 1981 Peterbilt 359, “Sunrise Express”
After winning in Antique and placing third in Interior and Working Bobtail in 2021, Ron Kelsey's "Sunrise Express" 1981 Peterbilt 359 was crowned the Working Bobtail champ, along with another third place in Interior, in the 2023 Overdrive's Pride & Polish competition.

Avondale, Arizona-based Ron Kelsey is no stranger to Overdrive's Pride & Polish competition. In 2021, Kelsey and his 1981 "Sunrise Express" Peterbilt 359 won in the Antique category and placed third in both Interior and Working Bobtail. 

This year, Kelsey returns to the winner's circle, picking up a first place in the Working Bobtail category, along with another third place in Interior

It's not often that you find a 42-year-old truck still working at all, much less enough to qualify as a true "working" truck, but Kelsey's "Sunrise Express" no doubt fits the bill, still running around 100,000 miles a year. Kelsey hauls steel and pipe on runs between Arizona and Texas and back for two direct customers he's been working with for upwards of 30 years, he said.

Despite a tough run business-wise for much of the trucking industry during the time since Kelsey last won Pride & Polish in 2021, with skyrocketing fuel costs in 2022 and rock-bottom spot rates this year, Kelsey shielded himself from those market pressures with his direct customers. He said his customers stay on top of fuel prices and pay a fair surcharge. 

[Related: Undisputed: Introducing the 2023 Pride & Polish champs]

As for the truck, Kelsey's owned the '81 359 since 1983 -- 40 years this year. The rig's mostly the same as it was in 2021 when it was last profiled in Overdrive. "I pretty much think I have it all covered by now with 40 years of tinkering," he joked. 

The only major change in the last two years is the replacement of the rear fenders, which he said he damaged a while back. The replacements are just like the prior fenders, painted in the orange-to-yellow fade with ghost flames. 

Ron Kelsey's 1981 Peterbilt 359, “Sunrise Express”The orange-to-yellow theme of "Sunrise Express" is constant on the truck.

Kelsey has added a bevy of custom touches over his 40 years of ownership, including Vortox air cleaners, a drop visor, the custom paint job that fades from orange to yellow, and those ghost flames on the half-fenders, front fenders and hood. He also custom-built the front fenders with drop sides and added chrome rear light bars, custom deck platiung with ghost flames and plenty LED lights.

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The rig also features a special touch at the top of the 7-inch stacks, painted on the inside and outfitted with LED lights.

Glowing stacks of Ron Kelsey's 1981 Peterbilt 359The lights inside the painted stacks add a unique glow effect to the exhaust.

Perhaps the part of the truck Kelsey is most proud of is the interior, which features a marble floor from the sleeper to in front of the seats. He said he first had the marble floor just in between the seats, but he has since expanded it across much of the cab. 

His first attempt at marble didn't go as planned, however. "The first time we just laid four pieces [of marble tile] in there, but the first time I stepped on it, it cracked," he said. 

The next attempt, he poured a thin concrete slab in the cab to give the marble a more stable base, which kept it from cracking. The most recent time replacing the Rojo Alicante marble, he "went the whole length of the floor underneath the seats and in front of the seats." 

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Marble flooring in Ron Kelsey's 1981 Peterbilt 359Kelsey said he framed out the area he wanted to pour a concrete slab with wood, similar to how one would with framing out a sidewalk. He poured about a quarter-inch of concrete, then laid in the marble tile with grout.

The truck doesn't lack for horsepower under the hood. Kelsey added the truck's current 800-hp C15 Cat in 2019, which is now up to about 400,000 miles. The truck itself boasts around 4.1 million miles. Kelsey said his previous motor ran for about 1.5 million miles, and he hopes to get that out of this engine, too.

Cat C15 in Ron Kelsey's 1981 Peterbilt 359The C15 is also painted to match the rest of Kelsey's rig.

The 65-year-old independent owner-operator is starting to slow down in his operation. His wife is planning to retire in 2024, and Kelsey said he'll probably go to running 50,000-60,000 miles a year at that point. And while his own retirement isn't necessarily front of mind right now, Kelsey did say he plans to hold onto "Sunrise Express" as long as he can, even after retirement, in case he wants to get back out and run a load or two a month for those customers.

If you missed it, catch the final awards presentation in Overdrive's Pride & Polish competition for 2023 via this link, where the winners in six categories are also highlighted. This story is the fourth in a series of profiles Overdrive will complete of all the winners in those categories. Find the others via this link. 

[Related: 'Limited Mileage' king: The sharp 1985 KW K100, Eby hopper of Twin Pine Farm]