The trucking industry is a loyal one, and for good reason. Truck brands that treat drivers well top the popularity list time and again. Heavy-duty pioneer Peterbilt is one of those Class 8 manufacturers that remains a favorite among truckers and fleets.
The company got its start rebuilding existing trucks and tweaking technology along the way. Though it changed hands a few times over the years, topping itself has remained a core goal throughout Peterbilt history.
Let’s take a look at how it began, some of its notable contributions, and where the company is headed.
Peterbilt History Began as a Solution to a Problem
Innovators are successful because they can imagine the solution to a problem—and make it a reality.
In the late 1930s, Theodore A. Peterman’s problem was lumber. At that time, the typical way to move felled logs—floating them downriver or carrying them by horse or steam tractors—was slow and inefficient. As an owner of a mill, Peterman wanted to get the raw lumber faster. He thought the brand-new automobile industry was the answer.
Peterman started off by buying a few surplus trucks from the Army. He’d rebuild them, always looking for ways to improve the equipment. For instance, he would put in battery-powered starters in place of old-school cranks.
Even during the worst part of the Great Depression, Peterman did well. For example, he was able to buy a failing motor company headed for bankruptcy. That shrewd move in 1938 gave his company the ability to make custom-built chassis. By 1939, Peterbilt was (get it? Peterman built it) officially established and began selling trucks on the open market.
Through the Years
Peterbilt history has seen a few changes in ownership over the years. T.A. Peterman only lived long enough to enjoy his success for about six years. After he passed away in 1944, a small group that worked for Peterman bought the company from his wife, though she held onto the land the factory was on. Over the next 14 years, Peterbilt grew to become a major heavy-duty truck builder.
Peterman’s widow decided to sell the property in 1958. With that decision, the company owners chose to sell the business rather than build a new plant.
That’s when the Pacific Car & Foundry Company stepped in to buy Peterbilt. It already owned Kenworth, another heavy-duty truck builder. The new parent company soon began building a new plant in Newark, California. Peterbilt moved in when it was finished in 1960.
Today, Denton Texas is home to Peterbilt Manufacturing. Pacific Car & Foundry eventually changed its official name to PACCAR and became a Fortune 500 company—it still owns Peterbilt.
The changing ownership over Peterbilt history didn’t affect the quality or status of the brand. That’s likely because the company has continued to embody T.A. Peterman’s goal of constantly making a good product even better. The company’s track record with sleepers is just one example.
Starting out, sleepers were only available in 30” and 36” sizes (and that refers to actual space available for a trucker to sleep in—a 36” compartment is three feet wide!). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Peterbilt would customize larger sleepers when buyers asked for them. They would contract out to Mercury Sleepers to build 40” and 60” sizes. Then, in the late 1970s, they took on the challenge to make an even bigger sleeper.
Over the next 10-plus years, Peterbilt sleepers grew to 63.” They included things like walk-through doors from the cab to the sleeper and raised roofs. Other improvements include air-ride suspension and one-piece and separately affixed airbag/shock mounts.
Peterbilt continues to focus on improving driver comfort. Some models include two bunks (usually in the form of a loft that can otherwise be used as storage). The 579 UltraLoft is almost a home away from home, with storage space, a fridge (optional), closet, charging ports, and areas for a microwave and flatscreen television.
In 2021, Peterbilt began taking orders for electric vehicles. They’ve currently got three models in service, among them the 579EV, which has a range of 150 miles and a three-hour charge time. No, it’s not a long-haul prospect yet, but it’s a start!
A Bright Future for Peterbilt
One thing is for sure: Peterbilt’s future is promising. The last decade saw a growth surge, recently locking up over 15 percent of the market for the company. It looks like the plan is to keep on following the formula of success that made Peterbilt history and carried it into a new century.