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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.
The Peterbilt 281 emerged from Peterbilt's assembly plant in Oakland, California in 1954.
It earned the nickname "Needlenose" from its narrow nose and butterfly hood, popular with truckers for ease of engine access and superior visibility. Like its companion series 351, it had only two small round headlights.
Remaining in production until 1976, the 281/351 was likely the most durable and popular series ever produced by Peterbilt. The basic design made way for different models, with tilt cab-over-engine models introduced in 1959.
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The 1971 release of Duel, Steven Spielberg's first feature film, imprinted the 281's intimidating image on the public. The film involved a psychotic trucker in a rusty, old 281 chasing a terrified motorist down a lonely California desert highway. After considering four big rigs, Spielberg chose the 281 for its anthropomorphic appearance; feeling it suggested a face viewed from the front. Throughout the picture the truck's driver remaines unseen, with the truck serving as proxy for the film's villain.
The original 74-minute TV movie used a tag axle 1955 Peterbilt 281. 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. The surviving truck also made a cameo in the beginning of the 2004 movie "Torque".
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 Peterbilt 351, virtually identical to the original, except for its air intake. It was used to film additional scenes, but was later destroyed in another production.
The final truck was a short-wheelbase 351 that never appeared in Duel, but was used in a 1978 episode of the CBS-TV series The Incredible Hulk. The episode, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break", added stock footage from Duel to new scenes with the 351, making Spielberg furious. However, the usage was legal as the movie and the episode were both produced by Universal Studios, and the Duel contract said nothing about reusing the footage in other Universal productions.
The 281 seen in the movie had to be modified so it could hit speeds up to 90 miles per hour. The engine was a CAT 1674 twin-turbocharged engine with a 13-speed transmission. The 1960 281 had a Cummins NTC-350 and a Spicer 5-speed with a 3-speed auxiliary.