COVER FEATURE - MAY 2004
By Daniel J. Linss - Editor
What could be more menacing than a psychopathic trucker, behind the wheel of a derelict truck, harassing innocent motorists out on the highway? To most drivers, not much. Based on this simple yet frightening premise, Steven Spielberg directed Duel, his first full-length movie, in 1971. In the film, a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) is suddenly menaced on the highway by a rogue narrow-nose Peterbilt pulling a tanker trailer. Although he can never see the psychopathic driver of the truck, he soon realizes that this guy is out to kill him! This month’s cover may not be the prettiest truck ever (in fact, it might be the ugliest), but for fans of the movie, they quickly realize that this is the rig from the film. In fact, it is the only surviving truck from the movie.
Not technically Steven Spielberg’s film debut, Duel began as a TV-Movie, but was later expanded for theatrical release outside the United States when Universal Studios saw its box-office potential. The original story was written about a real-life situation that happened to author Richard Matheson. As the story was told, Richard and a friend were crossing the desert in 1963, when, for no apparent reason at all, a trucker began harassing them on the road. At one point, the situation got so heated that the two men had to swerve off the road into the dirt to avoid a collision with the truck. No one was hurt, but it scared the two guys half to death. Years later, Richard’s story was published in a 1971 edition of Playboy magazine. Someone at Universal read it and decided it might make a good movie. At that time, Steven Spielberg had dropped out of film school and was working at Universal, directing episodes of Columbo, Night Gallery and Marcus Welby. When he saw the screenplay, he knew he had to do it.
Universal wanted to film the entire movie on a sound stage, but Steven wanted to shoot it all on location. To pick out the appropriate beast, a row of old trucks were lined up on the Universal lot. Steven went directly to the 351 Pete and said, “This is the one.” Having only 10 days to complete the filming, they said it couldn’t be done. Although it ended up taking 13 days to film, Universal couldn’t have been happier with the final result. The entire film was shot in and around Agua Dulce, California, on Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce Canyon Road, Soledad Canyon Road and Angeles Forest Highway. Many of the landmarks in the movie still exist today, including the famous tunnel, railroad crossing and Chuck’s Café, a place where Dennis Weaver’s character (David Mann) abruptly stops for lunch and a break. The building, unchanged on the outside, still sits on Sierra Highway only now it’s a French restaurant.
Some might ask how this truck survived the big crash off the cliff at the end of the movie. Well, it didn’t. That truck was destroyed. While filming, the truck’s Cat engine (at that time there was only one truck) began having problems, and they were afraid it might not make it to the end so a second truck was built as a backup. The truck you see on our cover this month is that truck. The truck that was featured in most of the film was a 1955 Pete 351 with a Cat engine. The backup truck is an exact copy, but it is a 1960 model with a Cummins engine. The only difference between the two trucks was the air cleaners – the Cat had a square air cleaner while the Cummins had a round one. After the film was shot, the truck was parked in George Sack’s yard in Agua Dulce, where it sat for years.
In 1974, a third truck was built to shoot a few extra scenes (the railroad crossing scene and the school bus scene), but that truck (a 1964 Pete) is long gone now. The movie was extended from 74 minutes to 91 minutes and released in theaters in Europe. It was a box-office hit. After years of exposure and many reruns, the movie eventually become a classic and its director went on to become the biggest name in Hollywood, directing amazingly successful movies like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and many more. Over the years, the truck was requested from time to time to be featured in music videos and movies, but mostly it just sat. Its last “job” was a scene in the motorcycle-action movie Torque, which was released in January of 2004.
Neil Losasso has been a fan of the movie Duel all of his life. He remembers how scary he thought the movie was when he was a kid. Years later, after finding out that there was a Duel truck still in existence, he began looking for it. After years of searching, he found it last year in George’s yard, just sitting there, like it basically had done for 30 years. He climbed inside and pushed the button and low and behold, it fired right up. He was so excited! It took him about three seconds to decide that he wanted to buy it. Two weeks later, he sold his brand new, custom-ordered Harley to pay for the truck and trailer, which he now parks in the driveway of his home in Burbank, California. Thankfully, Burbank is a Hollywood-friendly town, so Neil doesn’t get harassed much for parking it in his driveway. But his neighbors think it’s pretty creepy – one even says that the truck is always “looking” at him and is sure it will someday roll down the driveway to come get him.
With a background in the movie industry and trucking, Neil (42) is the perfect owner for this infamous rig. Growing up in and around Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, it was only natural for Neil to get involved in the television industry and become a stagehand. Getting acquainted with a lot of the drivers around the sets, Neil became more interested in trucking and got his Class A (Class 1 back then) in 1984. For a few years, he flip-flopped between television and trucking, taking jobs where and when he could find them. In 1988 he went to work for a ready mix concrete company in Burbank. He drove for them for eight years, until they went belly-up in 1996. After a couple years of hauling generators to movie sets, Neil went back to work at the studios and has been there ever since.
Neil always loved trucks and driving, but he hated the pressures and hassles of being a truck driver. As much as he loves trucks, he never wants to have to drive one to earn a living again. One of the reasons he loves driving the Duel truck around so much is because he drives it strictly for pleasure – like someone might drive a hot rod or classic car on the weekends. He gets a kick out of seeing people’s reaction when they see it on the road and realize what it is.
Purchased new in 1960 by Oil Transport Company, the truck ran hard and heavy for over ten years, racking up almost a million miles, until George Sack purchased it for Universal to be made into a backup rig for the movie. Originally, it was powered by a Cummins 262, but, during the filming of a music video in the early 1990s, the truck coughed up a liner so the engine was replaced with a new NTC 350 Small Cam Cummins. The twin stick truck has a 5+3 transmission with double overdrive and is geared really low. Even with the double overdrive, the truck still only tops out at 65 mph – but boy can it climb the hills. Many people think that the extra mirror on top of the radiator was added for the movie, but it was not – it was already there. Back then, drivers used mirrors like that to keep an eye on the exhaust coming from the stack. And since the pump has been “turned up” so the truck can belch smoke on command, there is plenty of black stuff to see in that mirror while driving. The truck is pretty stock except for the “extra” items added for the movie, including a piece of mining railroad car track welded to the front bumper, old rusty license plates mounted on the front, and a lot of rust-colored paint.
For the movie, the truck was actually coated with oil and dirt to give it that nasty old look, but that is not practical for long term use. One of Neil’s friends, who specializes in scenery painting for television and the movies, gave the rig and brand new “old” paint job. Yes, this truck now has a fresh, new, permanent paint job that replicates (as close as possible) the look the truck had in the movie. Using “aging” techniques, they regularly touch up any spots that start to shine or look too good – can’t have that! This is the only photo shoot we ever did where the owner was actually throwing dirt on his truck’s wheels because they were too shiny. The 32’ tanker trailer was also purchased from Oil Transport, but not much else is known about it (the original title was lost years ago).
Future plans for the truck include adding the last couple of pieces that separate this rig from the one featured in most of the movie, including putting an old swamp cooler into the back window and rigging up a Cat air cleaner to replace the Cummins it has now. Neil would someday love to have Steven Spielberg officially authenticate the truck by autographing the dash, but he’d be happy just to shake his hand and take a photo. Wanting the truck to earn its keep, Neil would still like it to work once in a while, so if anyone out there wants it for still photographs, music videos, commercials or movie roles, contact Neil through his e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the magazine at (714) 378-9990 and we can hook you up with him.
Steven Spielberg once referred to this truck and its lunatic driver as Murder, Inc. Neil had to overcome some primal childhood fears to own this truck, which he never thought he would ever be able to do. Now, to calm his fears, he tries to equate the truck to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character in the Terminator trilogy – it was bad at first, but then it was good. I guess this helps Neil sleep better at night, knowing that this once-feared monster is sitting right outside his window. If you happen to see this truck and trailer out on the road (especially if you drive a red Plymouth Valiant), we suggest you get the heck out of the way and let him pass!
If you want to see this truck in person, come out to the ATHS 25th National Show and Convention at California Speedway in Fontana on May 27-29. Look for 10-4 Magazine’s red canopy near the Show & Shine trucks. The Duel rig will be on display next to our booth for the entire show. Come over and check it out - if you dare! We hope to see you there.