A Family Heirloom

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By any school of thought, a truck ordered or owned by the one-and-only “Man in Black” Johnny Cash would be very valuable today.  But for the Hale family of Russell Springs, KY, this particular rig is much more than just that – it is a family heirloom.  This rare V8-powered 1985 Peterbilt 359, which was originally ordered by Johnny Cash, was ultimately purchased new and owned by the Aaron Oil Company of Russell Springs, KY.  This company was owned by the grandfather of the rig’s current owner, Charles Hale (55), who is also from Russell Springs, KY.  After the truck was traded in for two new ones in 1994, the family lost track of it for many years, but in 2019 it found its way back home.  Today, Charles Hale vows to never let this unique family heirloom ever go away again.

The story of this family and their trucking heritage dates back to the mid-1940s, when Charles Aaron founded the Aaron Oil Company in Russell Springs, KY.  This company had a bulk oil plant that sold and delivered various fuels and heating oil to nearby homes and service stations.  In 1957, Don Hale married Charles Aaron’s daughter, Charlene, and then went on to work in the family business, doing whatever needed to be done.  Sometimes that meant making deliveries, working in the office, or selling barrels of oil to customers who came directly to the plant, but Don always worked hard and stayed very busy.  In 1966, Don and Charlene welcomed their son Charles into the world.

Growing up around trucks and the bulk oil plant, Charles loved driving and going out with the other drivers anytime he could.  One of the company’s longtime drivers, Larry Downey, taught Charles how to drive in a 1979 Kenworth owned by the Aaron Oil Company.  Larry was a special employee, and he was the smoothest driver Charles has ever known.  When it came time for Larry to get a new truck, Don said he could order anything, and Larry knew exactly what he wanted – he wanted a Peterbilt 359, with a V8 Cat, backed by a 5+4 transmission, so that is what they set out to find him.

Heading out to the Peterbilt dealership in Nashville, they spoke to a salesman named Burt Towry.  Burt explained to them about how the 3408 was being phased out and that they could not order any more trucks with one under the hood.  However, he notified them that they were in luck, because they just happened to have the very last one sitting on their lot.  Unfortunately, this truck did not have the 5+4 transmission Larry wanted, but after hearing the story about the truck, he decided the 3408 engine was more important than the two-stick transmission and told Don this was the truck he wanted.  After three weeks of heavy negotiations, the Aaron Oil Company finally bought the truck.

The story of this truck began on December 22, 1984.  That is the birth date of this Peterbilt 359.  The order for this truck was placed by none other than music legend Johnny Cash (his name is on the order and build sheet for this truck).  When Johnny ordered his trucks, there were two options he required from the factory – they had to have a 3408 V8 Cat and a Varashield had to be installed on the roof.  The Varashield was important because Johnny used it to advertise on his rigs, having “The Johnny Cash Show” lettered on the Varashield atop all his trucks.

When this particular truck was delivered to Peterbilt of Nashville, it had the 3408 V8 Cat engine, but somehow the Varashield did not get installed at the factory.  As a result, Johnny Cash opted not to purchase this truck.  It’s interesting to note that Johnny Cash was also part owner of the Peterbilt dealer in Nashville at the time.  The dealership decided to sell the truck and parked it in a special place, right beside the front doors, so that it was prominently displayed for potential buyers.  This was the last 3408-powered truck acquired and sold by that particular dealership, as that engine was being phased out because it could not comply with the EPA requirements of the day.  Obviously, this was the truck Don bought for their company driver, Larry Downey.

Because this beautiful two-tone red truck with gold striping was ordered by Johnny Cash, no expense was spared.  Along with the Cat 3408, which was a $12,000 option at that time, it was also equipped with a 15-speed overdrive transmission and 3.70 rears.  The truck had several other cool extras, including a 100-mph speedometer, a chrome steering column and shifter, factory installed 15” stainless Vortox air cleaners, polished aluminum wheels and tanks, and two Eldorado VIP air-ride seats.  To help raise and lower the heavy extended hood, the truck was also fitted with an air-assist tilt hood.  Most of these options were not common at this time.  Because of all these added extras, the price of the truck was $95,000.  In comparison, a typical Peterbilt 359 at that time was selling for around $78,000 to $80,000.

Larry drove this truck from 1985 until around 1988, but after developing some back problems, he had to quit driving altogether.  After that, several different drivers drove the truck, including Charles Hale, the truck’s current owner.  At 21 years of age, Charles got his Chauffeur’s license (the precursor to the modern day CDL) and began doing local deliveries for the company in their straight trucks.  Eventually, he graduated to the big Peterbilt, pulling tanker trailers, and he loved it.  But full-time truck driving was not in the cards for Charles.  His father Don convinced his son to seek steady employment elsewhere, and Charles actually listened.  In 1989, he got a job in the Right of Way Department for the State of Kentucky, and still works there today.

Over the years, Charles continued to drive part time, on nights and weekends, for the family company and others, including a 15-year stint with the White Oil Company.  When it came time for the 359 Peterbilt to be traded in for two new Peterbilt 379s in 1994, Charles was the one who drove it back to the Peterbilt dealer in Nashville, so he was the last one at Aaron Oil Company to drive it.  When the Pete was traded in, it had over 845,000 miles on the odometer (it currently has just over a million miles on it today).  The truck was eventually sold to a gentleman in Scottsville, KY who was a bull hauler, but after that, the family lost track of their family heirloom.

Born in 1990, Charles’ son Ethan never officially worked in the family business, but he did spend a lot of his early years at the bulk oil plant.  Anytime he could play hooky from school and work at the plant or go out with a driver, he did it.  Ethan was only ten years old when his grandpa Don sold the family business in 2000.  Ethan remembers when the company bought those two 1994 Peterbilt 379s – one was red and one was yellow – and he thought they were the coolest things ever.  The yellow one his dad drove on nights and weekends really made Ethan want to be a trucker, and he went out with his dad whenever possible.  He hated to see his grandpa sell out, but he now understands why he did.

In 2005, Ethan (who was 15 years old at the time) and his younger brother Austin got into an ATV accident and Ethan lost his left eye.  At that point, he wondered if he’d ever get to be a trucker.  But he was very determined.  Doing lots of research and jumping through all the necessary hoops, at 21 years of age Ethan was able to finally get his CDL.  At the time, his other grandparents owned a manufacturing company that made gates, fencing, and feeders for farmers called H&S Gates, so Ethan went to work for them, making deliveries to various states in the Southwest, Northeast, and Midwest.

After a few years, those grandparents got a divorce, and Ethan’s grandmother Judy ended up with the company, which she sold to another outfit called Davis Gate & Wire.  Both Ethan and his grandmother still work there today!  This new company had a few trucks, but their fleet was in desperate need of attention, and Ethan was given the task.  Today, he is their Transportation & Wire Manufacturing Manager, and along with overseeing their nine-truck fleet and several owner operators, he also gets to go out and make deliveries from time to time, as well.

A few years ago, Ethan started searching for an older V8-powered Peterbilt 359 for he and his dad to tinker with together, but in the back of his mind, what he really wanted to find was his grandfather’s old Johnny Cash Peterbilt.  He had heard all the stories about this truck over the years and thought it would be cool to one day find the illusive unicorn – this family’s holy grail of trucks.  Going on several blogs and discussion pages online, Ethan was able to get in contact with Burt Towry, the salesman that sold the truck to them and took it in trade for the two new 379s ten years later.  Burt remembered the truck and Ethan’s father and grandfather, but he didn’t know anything else about the old 359.

Then, a gentleman by the name of Blake Wurmnest saw a post that Ethan made, about looking for the truck, and messaged him that he knew where there was a Johnny Cash truck.  He asked Ethan for the VIN number of the truck that he was looking for.  Ethan didn’t know the VIN, but he called his dad and asked him, and Charles knew it off the top of his head (at least the last six digits) and gave it to Ethan.  After messaging Blake the VIN number, Blake contacted Mickey Gwillim who checked the VIN on his truck, and low and behold, there it was – the exact VIN that Ethan had sent matched the number on the truck that Mickey had.  Against all odds, Ethan had found their holy grail.  After contacting Mickey and telling him their story, plans were made for Charles and Ethan to go see the truck.

Mickey Gwillim had been trying to buy this Johnny Cash Peterbilt for nine years.  It had sat in a temperature-controlled space from 1998 until 2014 while in the previous owners’ possession, so it was still in good shape.  After getting a divorce in 2014, this man’s ex-wife ended up with the truck, so she called Mickey – and he jumped at the chance to buy it.  Sending his friend Dave Marcotte to pick it up at night, so nobody saw, pieces and parts were everywhere, as the previous owner had intentions of restoring the truck, but it never got done.  Hauling it from Chicago to Carlinville, where Mickey lives, there were three pickup truck loads of parts piled on the trailer, along with the Peterbilt.

Parking the truck in a back corner of his shop, Mickey kept the Pete hidden for several years before finally starting on the restoration project in 2018.  Wanting to make everything as period correct as possible, Mickey did his best to keep the truck stock and not go crazy with the customizing.  As an aficionado of everything Peterbilt, especially 359s, Mickey had tons of NOS (New Old Stock) parts he had collected over the years, and that is where most of the parts for this build came from.  Things like the roof cap, front bumper step, miscellaneous lights, sleeper vents, windshield rubber, 5” exhaust with the proper heat shields, a 359 rubber floor kit (quite possibly one of the last ones in existence), classic Panelite cab and sleeper extensions (which are chrome plated) with lights, and so much more was used on this truck.

Many of the parts on this truck are original, and they just needed to be cleaned up and/or rebuilt, including most of the “Classic 3” red interior.  Mickey rebuilt all the components to the drivetrain, including the 450-hp V8 Caterpillar engine, transmission, clutch, and rear ends, along with the suspension and the entire braking system.  The truck retained its original modest wheelbase of 252 inches, and the tanks were polished all around.  Some of the parts Mickey did not have were purchased from Nick at AMCAN Truck Parts in Wisconsin.  Repainting the entire truck in its original base color of Light Firethorn and Dark Burgundy stripes outlined with Medium Gold, again Mickey did his best to keep this truck as original as the day it was born in 1984.

One of the things Mickey added that wasn’t stock was the bus glass, which features the tint on the bottom of the windshield, which not only looks cool but supposedly helps block glare from the top of the hood from shining in the driver’s eyes.  The truck was also fitted with stainless steel full fenders from Hogebuilt, white Peterbilt mudflaps, and a metal placard that jokingly reads “Notice: All Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work” affixed to the side of the frame rail.  Mickey wanted to thank Donnie Lawrence for doing most of the paint work, along with Pat Martin, Mike Venrick, Charlie Gunn, Rick Conner, and Chris Starks.  Also, thanks go out to his son Tyler for helping with the build, Blake Wurmnest for getting everyone connected, and pinstriper Van Gough for laying down some clean lines on the back of the sleeper.

The restoration process was finished in September of 2019.  After the restoration was complete, Charles and Ethan met Mickey in Carlinville, IL and finally got to see the truck in person – fully restored to its former beauty and glory.  With no intentions of buying the truck (nor was it for sale), once Charles saw it and sat in it, he immediately started making offers to Mickey.  After some lengthy negotiations, Mickey realized this was where the truck needed to be, and he agreed to sell it to them.  The Hale family once again owned the fabled Johnny Cash Peterbilt that their father/grandfather had purchased new in 1985.  Charles was the last one to drive this Peterbilt when it was traded back to the dealer in 1994, and now here he was driving it back home, where it belonged, as its rightful owner.  Both Charles and Ethan assured us this Peterbilt would never again leave their family.

Our salesman Eric Hill first saw this truck and met Charles and Ethan at a truck show that Mickey hosted at his house in early July of 2020.  The three men hit it off, and Eric loved the truck and its story.  He immediately sent me pictures he took of the truck while at the show and began trying to convince me that it needed to be a cover truck.  Because it was not a working truck, I was hesitant, but after hearing the story and seeing the pictures, I thought it was a worthy candidate for the cover.  Later that month, after attending a truck show in central Illinois, we headed down to Carlinville to shoot this truck.  I have to thank Eric Hill for not only finding this truck and convincing me to shoot it, but for also helping me to collect some of the information for this story and a few of the pictures.  I would also like to thank Charles and Ethan for their patience.  We have never made anyone wait this long to finally land on the cover, but these days you just gotta roll with what life throws at you.  But we think it was worth the wait!

The truck is currently stored at a facility near their home in Russell Springs, but there are plans to build a heated shop behind Charles’ house in the future.  Charles has been married to his wife Amber for ten years, and he has three sons – Ethan, Austin, and Connor.  Ethan and his wife Kayla just had their first child – a one-year-old son named Tripp.  This is Charles’ first grandchild, and he couldn’t be more excited about it.  When people ask why he bought the truck, Charles says, “Some people like to restore and own hot rods, I just bought a Peterbilt to play with.”  Currently, the truck is enjoying its retirement and is only used for parades, truck shows, and other fun events.  Ethan would like to one day maybe buy a trailer to put behind it (we suggested that he put a tanker behind it in honor of its years at the Aaron Oil Company).

The V8 still runs strong and will black-out the road behind it if you want it to, but it will also chug a lot of fuel along the way.  But nobody buys a “hot rod” because they get good fuel mileage, right?  Charles Hale has no plans to retire from his job with the State of Kentucky yet, but he could at any time if he decided to.  One thing he knows for sure – this truck will stay in the family and be passed to his son Ethan when that time comes.  And he is fully confident that Ethan will pass this family heirloom on to the next generation, as well, and keep the memory of all those who owned it before alive and well.

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