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At First It Was Fageol
Peterbilt is known today as the truck brand named after T.A. Peterman, but the story begins nearly twenty years before it adopted his name. Once called the Fageol Motor Company, named after the Fageol brothers Frank and William, it was conceived on the West Coast during a time when cars and trucks were seen as a potential alternative to horse and carriages. When Fageol was originally founded in Oakland, the Lincoln Highway had just finished construction, and a frequent traveler destined for the strip was the heavy duty truck. Far from popular, trucks were still considered useful to companies that needed vehicles with a good weight capacity. Fageol eventually manufactured trucks, but their first real success occurred when the eldest brother, Rollie, developed tractors for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Known to the public as "Fadgl Auto Trains," the tractor was powered by a 4-cylinder Ford Model T engine, chosen for its decent torque. Frank, who had spent a majority of his career in California as an automotive dealer, was well aware of the truck's potential, and in 1916 sold his dealership to manufacture heavy duty trucks.
But first, in order to create a buzz, Fageol introduced an upscale car that sported a 6-cylinder Hall-Scott engine with 125 horsepower. Under the assertion that it could reach up to 100 mph, it was dubbed the 100. It featured a mahogany floor and a mohair top, and was priced for $12,000. Only two models were ever made. In 1917, Fageol purchased four acres of land to build a new factory, and announced plans to manufacture trucks and farm tractors. Early success was found in orchard tractors, but by the early twenties they became too expensive for the waning industry. The onset of WWI also ended any production plans for an automobile, but government contracts implied that the truck was a vehicle of the future. Aware of the growing need for trucks on the West Coast, Fageol shifted gears in favor of the truck.
The first Fageol trucks ranged from 2 to 5 tons and were built to navigate the unstable and-in some areas-undeveloped roads. In 1920 the trucks received seven-speed transmissions, and that same year the Fageol Motors Company of Ohio was established, with an eye toward expanding to the East Coast. By 1922 Fageol continued to expand with the development of their own bus. It could seat up to twenty, but could be modified to seat twelve or sixteen passengers. By 1925 Fageol's success in trucks and buses attracted the interest of the J.G Brill Company and the American Car and Foundry Company. Its Ohio branch was sold and moved to Detroit, where the companies merged to form the American Car and Foundry Motors Company (ACF). Shortly after ACF moved, Frank and William purchased the vacant factory to construct a new concept: the Twin Coach. And subsequently the Twin Coach Company was established in 1927.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Fageol filed for bankruptcy. It fell into receivership in 1932. For much of the thirties, the Fageol Truck and Coach Company was run by the Waukesha Motor Company and the Central Bank of Oakland. By the end of the decade, in 1938, Sterling Motors bought the company, only to sell it to T.A. Peterman that same year. With that purchase the Peterbilt legacy began.
The Peterbilt Legacy Begins
The Peterman Manufacturing Company had been established in Tacoma, Washington by Theodore F. Peterman in 1889. Formally known as a woodwork and carving business, throughout the twenties, it specialized in manufacturing plywood and doors. The fir door was its largest and most profitable operation, and helped the company persevere through the Great Depression by relying on exports to Britain. T.A. Peterman, who had been running the company in his father's place since 1920, knew how reliant the business was on lumber, and decided to put the logging operation into his own hands. He purchased 15 White trucks in the mid-thirties and had mechanics rebuild key parts in his shop. Understanding how cost-effective it was to be independent, Peterman bought the Fageol Truck Company with the same conversion in mind.
There are two possible origins for the Peterbilt name. The first is that the Fageol trucks adopted the nickname of being "Bill-built," after their president Louis H. Bill-who had been a friend and coworker of the Fageol brothers-and that "Bill" was simply replaced with Peter. The other possibility is that the name Peterbilt was sometimes applied to their other products, so the trucks' name naturally followed. Regardless, Peterman now had trucks to assist in his logging operation, and focused on modifying them to fit his company's needs.
Fourteen models were built in 1939, as well as a chassis that was sold and converted into a fire truck. Two models, the 260 and 334, were developed. Fitted with an egg-crate grille, the new models were chain-driven and also removed the ventilators on the top of the hood, which Fageol trucks had been known for. As awareness of Peterbilt grew, the trucks were designed to stretch out into the oil and mining industry. The production numbers might have been low, but Peterbilt became known for its quality. 82 units were produced for 1940 and 89 for 1941. Production never reached as high until 1944 when 225 trucks were produced under government contracts for WWII.
Unfortunately Peterman died in 1945 and his wife Ida sold the trucking division to Peterbilt management, although she retained ownership of the land on which the factory sat. The newly independent company was renamed the Peterbilt Motors Company. Shortly after, the company developed the Model 350, which was a hot seller. It featured a "bubble-nose" cab-over-engine design and eventually bore the cursive Peterbilt logo encompassed by a red oval. The logo was implemented on all trucks in 1953 and would remain unaltered for the remainder of its life. The next year, the Model 351 was introduced, and become the longest standing truck in the company's history, remaining in production until 1976.
By the end of the fifties, Peterbilt had firmly established itself as a reputable brand. Ida Peterman, who still owned the factory land, had plans to build a shopping center on its premises. To raise money to build a new factory, the company put itself up for sale, and the Pacific Car & Foundry (now PACCAR), owner of the venerable Kenworth brand-Peterbilt's main competition-naturally bought out its biggest competitor in 1958. They officially made Peterbilt a subsidiary and followed through with the construction of a new factory in Newark, CA.
By the sixties Peterbilt manufactured aluminum cabs to reduce weight. This began with the Model 352. In 1967 the Model 359 was released, which was meant for the long-hauler who needed something reliable. If a trucker desired the long-hooded style, the 359 was usually a top option. Not to mention it had an ability to fit any need, a light aluminum cab, and exceptional style.
In the 70s, the Model 348 released the sloped-style hood and a top made of fiberglass that featured a walkthrough sleeper. By listening to customers, something Peterbilt had adapted to since Peterman took control of the company, the company was able to adopt their trucks to fit any customer's needs, and, like the Model 359, this made the 348 highly desirable. A decade later, Peterbilt released a series of models they called "the Successors," which featured legendary models like the Model 379, which, in the Transformers movies directed by Michael Bay, was used to depict Optimus Prime's alternate mode. It also became one of the most popular trucks built by Peterbilt. By continuing to adapt to the ever-expanding truck market, Peterbilt introduced the Model 330 and entered the medium duty class, offering trucks that could fit several specifications.
As part of PACCAR, Peterbilt is seen as one of the top brands in the trucking industry. Advancements like the Model 386 aimed to boost fuel economy. The shape and design of Peterbilts are much different now, with a sloped hood and top to achieve a more aerodynamic form, prevalent in models like the 587 and 579. As a part of PACCAR for over fifty years, Peterbilt continues to adapt to the industry and provide quality trucks. To be a perennial favorite at the top of the class is a hard feat that Peterbilt has achieved since its inception, and hopefully will continue to do so in the years to come.