A Star Is Born

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When you hear the phrase “a star is born” you probably think of a movie, an actor, or an entertainer – but this ain’t Hollywood – this is trucking!  The “stars” this month are a company (Star Trailers), its founders and owners, and their amazing mascot – a highly-customized 1981 Peterbilt 359 which they have owned since it was new.  Over the years, “Sweet Lorraine” has gone through many transformations, but it still retains much of the original look it had when it was picked up from the factory in Newark, CA in 1980 by brothers David (71) and Gene (79) Waller, who still own and operate it today.

It’s not often these days for a family-owned business to thrive for more than 50 years when those family members work side-by-side for almost that entire span of time every day.  It’s also not that common anymore to find a one-owner truck that is over 40 years old – and still being used!  This story (and truck) has so many twists and turns that were exciting to discover as I spent time with, talked to, and got to know brothers David and Gene Waller.  But this story does not start with them, it starts with their father Homer Waller and their uncles, Mel and Ed, and dates back to the 1930s.

Born in 1917, Homer and his brothers, Mel and Ed, grew up in Central Washington.  In 1933, Homer, who was just 16 years old and a junior in high school, quit school for a year to work on the monumental Grand Coulee Dam project.  After that, he went back to school where he finished and earned his diploma.  Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1930s, Homer and his brothers went into business together and opened a service station in Wenatchee, WA.  After World War II broke out, Mel went into the military in 1940 and Homer and Ed stayed home and started log hauling.  Homer tried to enlist but was denied because the government thought it was more important for him to continue hauling logs.

As the war churned on and raw materials became scarce, it was very hard to buy a truck or trailer, as those resources were being allocated to the war effort.  However, Homer somehow was able to find and buy a brand-new 1942 Sterling truck to haul logs.  At that time, they were logging in the Pilot Rock and Pendleton areas of Oregon, but as Homer began having children, he did not want to raise them in that area, so in 1945 he moved the family to Sunnyside, WA in the Yakima Valley.

Getting back in business with his brothers, Mel and Ed, along with some friends Mel had met in the military (Ken Robinson and Robbie Adamson), the five men purchased the Herrett Trucking Company, which was also in Sunnyside, and had three or four gas-powered trucks that hauled fruit and other farm products.  At that time, trucks and trailers were still almost impossible to get, so Homer started rebuilding old trailers from parts from other old trailers to get by.  At some point, he began building trailers for other customers, so they opened a trailer shop.  They also had a truck repair shop, called Star Truck Repair, which serviced not only the Herrett trucks, but other customers, as well.

Born in 1941, when Gene got a little older, he enjoyed going on trips with his dad.  Later, when some of their van trailers included small “sleepers” in the front, Gene would be forced to ride in there, and he remembers how boring those trips were because there were no windows.  As a young teenager, Gene worked in the truck shop, doing a lot of grunt work and changing tires.  After graduating high school, Gene went off to college, got married, and joined the Air Force, where he was an officer and studied aircraft maintenance.

Born in 1949, David, like his brother Gene, also spent time “cutting his teeth” in the truck shop, but he started working there when he was just nine years old, servicing oil bath air cleaners and batteries, along with moving trucks in and out of the shop.  After high school, he went off to college in Texas for about a year, but he already knew what he wanted to do – work in the family business – so he quit and went back home.

In 1968, Homer bought the trailer shop, separated from the rest of the company, and formed Star Manufacturing, which built specialty trailers for various industries.  David joined the company in 1969 and his brother Gene came on board in 1970.  Their claim to fame was building custom, durable, heavy duty, steel trailers that were engineered to be as light as possible.  Using high-strength steel that was thinner, they built hopper trailers, flatbeds, low boys, chain/belt trailers, bottom dumps, and “board puller” belt trailers, to name a few.  No two trailers were alike unless that’s what the customer wanted.

When David began working at the company in 1969, six people made up the entire operation.  In 1977, the name of the company was changed to Star Trailers.  As trucking companies began looking for more efficient purpose-built trailers, Star Trailers answered those calls and developed then produced new designs including drop deck hay trailers, walking floor refuse trailers, end dumps, and side dump trailers.  By the 1980s, they had grown to 50 employees, and were known for their innovative trailer designs.

Today, several decades later, Star Trailers is still in Sunnyside, WA and still specializes in custom, built-to-order trailers including tippers, self-unloading trailers, walking floor trailers, drop decks, hoppers, side dumps, end dumps, tank trailers, pup trailers, converter dollies, and custom truck beds.  They don’t offer dry vans or reefer trailers, but they will build just about anything else.  The boy’s mother Lucy died in 1994 from cancer, and Homer, who worked until he was 94 years old, died in 2014 at 97 years old.  Leaving the company to David and Gene, who continue working today, the brothers fully expect to keep doing so for years to come.

What made this company run so smooth over all that time was the solid and steady relationship these three men had with each other.  Each man had his specialty – Homer oversaw designs and sales, Gene ran the office, and David managed the manufacturing facility – and it was always “majority rules” when it came to making decisions.  Sometimes only two would agree on an idea, and often it was unanimous, but either way, they respected the majority, so even if one of them was not on board with an idea, if the other two were, the third one went along and supported it.  That created a great environment for these three men to work together for almost 50 years – and the two brothers still do.

Over the years, the company had several trucks to help run the operation, starting with a 1969 International cabover, which is the truck David started driving at 20 years old.  The next truck was a 1973 Freightliner cabover, which also got a brand new 40’ single-drop step deck to pull behind it, built by Star Trailers, of course.  This trailer was later stretched to 45’ and painted to match “Sweet Lorraine” – this month’s cover feature truck – and is still the main trailer she pulls today.  The next truck was a 1977 Peterbilt 359 with a 36” crawl-through sleeper.  Painted white with metallic green, metallic gold and gray stripes, this truck, like the ones before it, was used primarily to deliver trailers throughout the country and pick-up suspensions in Missouri and steel in Portland and Seattle.

Running that 1977 Pete 359 for about three years, they sold it 1979 and then went a year without a truck.  During that time, David and Gene flew down to attend a big truck show being held in Anaheim, CA in 1980, and while there saw a cool yellow lumber truck with the “heartbeat” paint scheme in brown, black and white, and liked it.  When they ordered their next truck a few months later, the 1981 Peterbilt 359 seen here on these pages and on our cover and centerfold this month, they ordered it in these colors with this scheme (the only change they made was to make the yellow a little brighter than the color that was on that lumber truck they saw).

In addition to the bright yellow paint and factory “heartbeat” paint scheme, this new truck was ordered with Peterbilt’s just introduced 63” walk-in sleeper, a 400 Big Cam Cummins hooked to a 15-speed transmission, and 3.90 rears.  David ordered the truck with this transmission specifically so he could get a glitter knob and have a clean shifter – and that glitter knob is still on the shifter today!  Originally fitted with a fiberglass short hood and double-round headlights, the boys also opted for a short 235” wheelbase to accommodate the length laws back then in the Midwest.  Later, when those rules were changed, the truck was stretched out.  The truck was also ordered with air conditioning, which meant it came with factory shudders on the front grill, which are still on it today.

Flying down to the factory in Newark, CA where the truck was built, David and Gene picked it up and drove it back together.  After spending a week or so in Portland getting a few things done to it, David immediately took the truck on its first run, delivering a load of cedar split rails and posts to Los Angeles and then bringing back 48’ high-strength flat bar steel for building their trailers back.  Naming the truck “Sweet Lorraine” in honor of a popular song released in 1972 by the psychedelic rock band Uriah Heep, David felt the lyrics described the truck’s personality and his feelings toward it well.

Always looking to change and innovate, David has continuously made unique one-off modifications to this truck throughout its life.  To list them all would be exhausting, as many things (like visors) have changed several times during the truck’s life.  Being a trailer manufacturer, David has materials and machines, along with tremendous creativity and skills, available to him to produce his own custom parts.  He told me it was not uncommon for him to work on something new for weeks and then, upon its completion, realize he didn’t like it and just throw it away.  Apparently, that has happened a time or two.  His latest creations when I visited him were stainless suspension hanger covers that took him several weeks to make.  At the time, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep them, but they were growing on him (he eventually did decide to keep them).

Many of the modifications David made to “Sweet Lorraine” would not be considered to be revolutionary by today’s standards, however, when he did them, they were.  Case in point, back in the late 1980s, he eliminated the wind wing windows on his side doors and replaced them with one-piece smoked glass.  Other changes made throughout the late 1980s included installing polished stainless filler panels to hide the gap between the cab and sleeper, removing the vents from the sides of the sleeper and replacing them with smoked glass windows, switching to single-round headlights, swapping out the original breathers to Vortox air cleaners, and adding lots of lights.

Around 1990, the truck underwent a major transformation when David installed an aluminum long hood, stretched the frame 9” in the front and 24” in the rear (to a 268” wheelbase), and swapped out the motor with a Cummins 440 Plus engine.  After the new engine was broken in (about 20,000 miles), he had it turned up to 500+ hp.  At this time, he also did what’s best described as a “reverse chop top” by chopping the bottom of the windshields and raising the trim underneath them instead of chopping the roof shorter.  He did the same thing to the side windows, also raising up the sills.  This gave the truck a “chopped” look without losing any room inside.  During this remodel, he also converted all the doors to suicide style and shaved all the handles, switched to 379 headlights, built another visor, added a wood floor inside, and built an overhead console where he moved all his toggles and switches.  Lastly, his favorite upgrade done at this time was widening the  sleeper opening, making it a big hole, so he could slide his seat back and get more legroom.

Having lowered the truck as much as he could, David was still not satisfied.  Wanting to get the rear end down closer to the ground, he decided to swap out the original suspension with a Low AirLeaf system.  After purchasing the new suspension, he prepared to take it apart to paint it.  On March 4, 2008, he and his dog were in the shop alone at night and he had the complete unit hanging on a forklift while he worked on it.  Suddenly, it spun around and hit him in the face, breaking his jaw in three places, and then fell on his right leg, causing two compound fractures to his right knee and ankle.  Thankfully, he had his cell phone in his pocket and was somehow able to call for help, even though he could barely speak with his severely broken jaw.

While waiting for the paramedics to arrive, David almost bled out.  Once they got there, they immediately infused him with six units of blood right there on site, and then flew him by jet ambulance to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he spent the next two months recovering.  Throughout that time, he had twelve surgeries to deal with ongoing infections, which they were finally able to stop.  While there in the hospital, his family was told that he probably wouldn’t make it, and if he did, he probably would lose his right leg.  By the grace of God, he not only survived, but he kept his leg!  Today, he can’t really bend his right knee, but his ankle healed up fine, which allows him to still walk and drive.

In 2011, David began taking the truck apart for its most recent build, which didn’t get finished until 2019.  Stretching the wheelbase again, this time to 322 inches, he also added 11 more inches to the spread between the drive axles.  After two frame stretches, he went ahead and sleeved the frame on the outside, from practically the front to rear, which also cleaned up the rails.  At this time, he also bagged the front end, added modified fiberglass fenders to the front and rear, re-skinned the back of the sleeper, and shaved many of the rivets from the sides of the hood and the sides and back of the sleeper for a cleaner look.  The grill surround on the front of the hood is fiberglass, which is why it looks thicker than normal, but this made it much easier to “bury” the rivet heads on the surround.  The shudders on the front are still the factory originals.

Another big change made was moving the engine forward nine inches.  During the first stretch, when David added 9” to the frame in the front to accommodate the longer hood, he did not move the engine or the cab (typically, in this scenario, most people move the cab back to allow for the longer hood).  Dave merely made 9” longer engine mounts and kept everything else basically the same.  During this latest remodel, David found the original engine mounts and used them.  Peterbilt said it couldn’t be done, but he did it – and it works just fine.  With the engine moved forward, David was able to build a custom painted firewall cover out of pleated aluminum and clean up the space behind the engine.

Throughout its life, David has painted the truck several times, but the “heartbeat” scheme remained, even though it was modified a little bit each time.  For this go around, the stripes were brought to a point in the front and were changed behind the sleeper to not wrap around, but instead turn downward and end at the fuel tanks.  David was able to line-up the stripes on the rear fenders with the stripes on the back of the sleeper and theoretically continue the scheme all the way to the back.  Before spraying this most recent paint job, David also built and installed aluminum 10” drop panels on the cab and sleeper, shaved the cab lights, and fabricated yet another visor (this one has integrated marker lights).

Getting to the exterior accessories, David rolled his own 10” pipes and then mounted them to store-bought elbows.  He also built his own battery boxes, with pleated stainless fronts, but the boxes no longer contain the batteries, which were moved to a compartment behind the sleeper between the frame rails.  He did this to lighten the boxes, and then mounted them on a track and installed air actuators that, at the flip of a switch or remote control, can raise or lower the boxes a full 12 inches.  The batteries and other storage compartments are located under the polished deck plate, which is hinged near the fifth wheel, and raises up about two feet for access via a small motor.  At this point, David reinstalled the original double-round headlights after painting the buckets, added load lights to the sides and back of the sleeper, installed a Valley Chrome bumper, and finished it off with small stainless-trimmed “mudflaps” under the bumper and on both sides of each wheel.

Going with a “star” theme on the lighting for obvious reasons, David has several panels with star-shaped lights, including a polished I-panel between the tanks (which is hinged so he can get under the truck), front and rear breather light panels, a rear bumper/light bar, and a polished panel that covers the front of the differential.  Since David does not have a “burn table” (laser cutter), he sent the blank panels to Cd’A Metals in Spokane, WA and they cut out the preliminary star-shaped holes.  After that, David mounted LED lights behind each hole, then put a diffuser in front of them so the diodes would not be seen, and then added the appropriately colored piece of Lexan.  On the rear bumper/light bar, David had Cd’A Metals also burn stainless star-shaped inserts to trim the front of the holes.

Under the hood, more “stars” can be found, as David made a custom engine cover, with five rows of small stars cut out, that is back-lit with red lights.  He also made a stainless reservoir and cap, along with a stainless mounting bracket, for his windshield washer fluid (which was moved from inside the cab to under the hood), had the valve covers and intake rails chromed, and added plenty of stainless accents.  Along with that, he mounted a large chrome bell from a train with his own custom bracket, an authentic steam whistle, a higher-pitched bell from a train crossing signal, and two sets of three-bell Nathan AirChime Train Horns.  This guy is ready to make some noise!

Moving inside the truck, the Peterbilt got a completely new interior, which included a smooth fiberglass replacement dash painted yellow, stainless dash panels, and custom stainless kick panels under the dash.  As previously mentioned, the glitter knob on the shifter is original, and the Splitter and High/Low switches were moved to the side of the passenger seat, as was the Jake brake toggle switch and aftermarket cruise control (another one of David’s favorite things).  David made custom foot pedals and mounted them forward a few inches to make it easier for him to drive, along with custom polished stainless windowsills and sleeper closet door (which he pressed a diamond pattern into), polished seat bases, a wood steering wheel, and suede and leather door panels and headliner, which were stitched by Leo’s Upholstery in Sunnyside, WA.  An 8-speaker sound system from Pioneer rounds out the interior modifications and provides plenty of clean sound when David wants to crank up “Sweet Lorraine” and sing along.

After the project was finally completed, David took the truck to two shows at the end of 2019 – one in Brooks, OR and one in Fresno, CA (where I originally met him) – but then the COVID pandemic came along and derailed any plans for attending any shows in 2020.  When first seeing the truck, most people, including me, were amazed at the fit and finish on everything.  And when it was noted that David did all the work himself, I was blown away, because the level of quality and craftsmanship is second to none.  David is a true artist at fabrication.

We had a great time spending the day with David at an equally phenomenal location near their shop – Upland Vineyards in Sunnyside, WA.  Located within the Snipes Mountain Viticulture Area in the heart of the Yakima Valley, Upland Vineyards and the Newhouse family has farmed wine grapes since 1968.  Four generations of the Newhouse family have helped maintain the Upland legacy, which started over 100 years ago.  Originally planted by William B. Bridgman in 1917 (the same year Homer Waller was born), Snipes Mountain is widely considered the birthplace of Washington wine.  Today, that original vineyard is still bearing fruit and the vine’s longevity is a testament to the favorable weather conditions bestowed upon the mountain.  Special thanks to Steve Newhouse for allowing us to freely move around their beautiful property for the entire day taking our pictures!

Married to his wife Colleen since 2017, the two met ten years ago and have been together ever since.  Colleen is an esthetician and a former Deputy Sheriff who loves to ride her Harley, and she also has a CDL and is a CDL trainer, so these two are a great fit.  She goes out on the road with David from time to time, but his faithful chocolate lab “Molly” goes everywhere with him.  David has two boys that live near Phoenix, AZ – Brenden (50) and his wife Angela, and Trent (45) and his wife Rikki – and Colleen has two boys that live in Kennewick, WA – Chris (40) and Travis (33).  David’s brother Gene is married to his wife Carol, and Gene has three kids – Steve (53) and his wife Kristen, Liane (50), and Jolene (44) and her husband Kyunghwee.  David and Gene also have a sister who lives in Vancouver, WA.

Although they presently have no succession plan in place when they decide to retire or can no longer work, both brothers would love it if someone came in and took over, not for their legacy, but for the community of Sunnyside.  Plus, they have a great product that people still want, and the industry still needs.  Also, since their dad worked until he was 94 years old, everyone kind of expects these two to do the same.  David always said his mission was to build the kind of quality product that he’d want to own himself – and I think he and his family have accomplished that goal.

When asked who they might want to thank, David said, “I would like to thank the Lord for the Christian family I was born into, for co-owning a business that has been both satisfying and rewarding throughout my life, a brother and dad for being the best business partners anyone could ask for, and my loving wife for supporting me in life and through the years of this build.”  Gene said, “I thank the Lord for giving me a job that provided income to support my family and work with my dad and brother David!”

Keeping a company going for five decades and working closely with members of your family can be difficult – in fact, it can be downright problematic.  But these guys, a father and his two sons, found a way to make it work.  And, in the process, they built thousands of nice trailers, along with one incredible Peterbilt, that has “star” quality built into it.  Yes, she was born in California in 1980, but “Sweet Lorraine” was rescued from there and taken to scenic Washington, where she flourished and became a glowing star that shines brightly in the trucking world – literally – thanks to David Waller!

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