Peterbilt 281

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Line-up of three mid-1960s Peterbilt 281s

The Peterbilt 281/351 was a line of tractor units built by Peterbilt that ran from 1954 until 1976. The 281 series had a single drive axle, the 351 two. It was very popular with truckers, with the 351 series outlasting the 281.

A "Needlenose"[1] model 281 was featured in a made for TV film Duel [2] in 1971, Steven Spielberg's first full length film.[3]


A 1955 Model 281

The Peterbilt 281 emerged from Peterbilt's assembly plant in Oakland, California in 1954. Like its companion series 351 it had only two small round headlights.

It earned the nickname "Needlenose" from its narrow nose and butterfly hood, popular with truckers for ease of engine access and superior visibility.

Remaining in production until 1976, the 281/351 was likely the most durable and popular series ever produced by Peterbilt.[citation needed] The basic design made way for different models, with tilt cab-over-engine models introduced in 1959. [3]


The 281 as it appeared on the Duel theatrical poster

The release of Duel, Steven Spielberg's first feature film, in 1971 imprinted the 281's intimidating visage on the public. The film involved a psychotic trucker chasing a terrified motorist down a lonely California desert highway with a rusty, grimy 281. After auditioning four big rigs, Spielberg chose the 281 for its anthropomorphic appearance; feeling it suggested a face viewed from the front.

Throughout the film, the truck's driver remained unseen; as the director sought for viewers to see the truck itself as the villain.[citation needed].

The suspenseful film was popular with the public; making surviving examples in similar condition collectible with fans of the movie.

The original 74-minute TV movie used a 1955 281 with tag axle coupling the cab and trailer. It was destroyed in the film's climactic crash scene. A 2nd 281, a 1960 with tag axle, was prepared as a backup but went unused. It has been in and out of its Duel "make-up" since; this is the surviving truck.[2][4]

When the film was expanded to 90 minutes for theatrical release, two additional 281/351 stunt rigs were purchased.

The first of these was a 1964 351, virtually identical to the original but for its air intake. Used to film additional scenes, it was later destroyed in another production.

The final truck was a short-wheelbase 351 that never figured in Duel but was used in a 1978 episode of the CBS-TV series The Incredible Hulk, which like Duel, was produced by Universal. The episode, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break", added stock footage from Duel to new scenes with the 351, making Spielberg furious.

The truck that you see in the movie had to be modified so it could hit speeds up to 90mph. The engine horsepower was a 350hp Cummins NTC Twin Turbocharged engine with a 5 speed main transmission and a 3 speed auxiliary transmission.


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