Whittmore Peterbilt 379 1991 60635314be2ab

Prodigal Pete: Son helps dad find long lost truck

March 31, 2021
An Arkansas family comes together to find and restore their dad's long-lost '91 Peterbilt 379.

Thirty years ago this April, a 21-year-old named Jerry Whittmore from Arkansas received the brand-new bright blue 1991 Peterbilt 379 sleeper he ordered so he could fit in as National Carrier driver. He was the youngest of their drivers at the time, and this truck made him feel like he belonged.

“It was top of the line,” Jerry recalled. “National Carrier trucks back in that day were all top of the line.”

He instantly fell in love with that truck, which had his name emblazoned on the dash, but a trip to the Southwest and contracting a food-borne illness took him off the road. His father, also a National Carrier contractor, took over the lease before selling it off to Potter Transport in Boonville, Mo., in 1993

That’s the last Jerry, now the owner of a sawmill and logging operation in Huntsville, Ark., knew about the truck until 2014. His teenaged son Jeron happened across some old tax paperwork with the truck’s VIN and he began an exhaustive search to track the truck down, which Jerry thought would be rusting in a salvage yard. But Jeron would not let up.

“I just always thought it'd be pretty cool to find one of my dad's old trucks,” the younger Whittmore said. “It meant something to him because it was his first truck.”

The formerly top-of-the line truck was anything but when the Whittmores finally found and went to buy the old Pete 600 miles away in Olton, Texas. It had 2.6 million miles on it and looked worse than that sounds. The brilliant blue hue was now wrapped in white with a barn red top. The front fenders pointed straight back. The factory blue leather interior was a replaced by mix of weathered materials, the African Rosewood dash bleached white by 24 years of sunlight.

“The gauges had enough dust in them that the little Peterbilt emblem in the middle looked like an hourglass,” Jerry recalled.

“Son, let's just leave it here; it’s a mess,” he said.

But after some persuasion from Jeron, they were on the road back to Huntsville. A rainstorm on the way home revealed the wipers hit more mirror than windshield, but they got home safely— with one thing on their mind.

“We're gonna rebuild this truck,” Whittmore asserted.

The whole family, including Whittmore’s wife, daughter and two other sons, pitched in, as they always had when someone brought home a stray truck. Rebuilding pulling tractors was a common family activity.

People who saw the decaying truck thought it was a lost cause, believing the Whittmores “were plum out of our minds,” Jerry mused.

Despite the age and condition, TLG Peterbilt in Lowell, Ark., vowed to help in any way they could finding the parts they needed. Retired Peterbilt parts expert Leroy McCart also came by on the weekends logging serial numbers and finding replacements as well. He gave the truck the nickname “Rat Rod.”

“It was difficult, but yet exciting at the same time, because it's like a kid building an old model truck, and you're having to go through a box of parts to try to try to figure out how to make it work,” recalled Shawn Smith, regional sales at TLG, who sells the Whittmores Peterbilt trucks for their business and helped find parts. “Exciting yet tedious,” he added. It was worth it, as Smith called the family “loyal” and “represent what our country was founded on and that's the sweat and hard labor.”

Whittmore estimated the family spent thousands of hours sandblasting and replacing parts, nearly all of which matched the original serial numbers, though the 3406 Caterpillar engine had been previously  rebuilt. Jerry even found Jeron sneaking away to the shop on their property well past midnight and proudly explained how his son put the 150-lb. wiring harness in by himself, and it worked the first time. 

Now everything save for the frame rails and cab are replacements, from the motor and transmission to the fuel pump, and the repainted truck goes by a new name: Old Blue. The time of completion was one year and two days because of a blown a/c hose that had to be reordered.

“It drives as good as any truck I've got right now,” Jerry said. Jeron, who got his commercial driver’s license a day after he turned 18, is known to take the truck into town a few times a week when weather permits.

Jeron also entered the truck in Shell Rotella’s 2020 virtual SuperRigs, and Old Blue helped Jeron earn the Hardest Working Trucker honor.

While Jerry is proud of that award, and the various local show wins, the effort shown by his son and the whole family is what matters most.

“It just means the world to me,” he said.

As for the long-lost family member Old Blue? “It's not going anywhere,” Jerry said. “It’s home this time for good.”

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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