Thursday, February 26, 2009

Big Rig Chronicles: The Kenworth

The Kenworth. Oh I love them. Rolling down the American interstate, they are so majestic and dominate the road completely.
The big classic Kenworth grill reminds me of the Greek columns on the Parthenon. Tall and upright, giving the truck a very impressive look and quite intimidating too, should they happen to roll up on you in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I have no idea if those Greek columns were an inspiration for the design of the truck. I do know, however, that the inspiration for the Kenworth itself was born in 1915, when the Gerlinger Motor Company blessed the world with its very first 6-cylinder truck. Although the Kenworth that is rolling down the highway today is a far more impressive sight than the Gersix they unveiled in 1915, that old truck made a powerful statement at the time it was put on the road and it became the mother of all Kenworths that were to be produced in the future.

(Gensix - photo borrowed from

When Ed Worthington decided to rent out his mother’s building to Gerlinger in 1916, I doubt he knew what an impact this decision were to have on the trucking world. As a business man, he became fascinated with the company and started studying the way it was running. The Gersix became a frequent sight on the road, especially up North where they used it for logging.
Luckily for Ed, despite the Gersix’ popularity, the company itself wasn’t doing so well and was put up for sale in 1917. Ed and his partner, Captain Frederick Kent, acquired the company together and renamed it to Gersix Motor Company.
In 1923, company growth and an increasing need for more capital made Ed and his new partner, Harry Kent (son of Frederick), reincorporate their business and they named it Kenworth. (Kent + Worthington…. Brilliant, huh? :-))

What was so unique about Kenworth back then was the fact that they went out and sold their trucks before they were built. As opposed to selling standardized trucks, like their rival truck companies, they went out and asked the customer what they wanted, then went back to the factory and customized the truck based on the buyer’s wishes. This way of doing business apparently seemed to be somewhat of a magic formula for Kenworth, because their business was growing rapidly. They even outgrew their own workspace and eventually had to move to a bigger factory in Seattle, which was big enough to accommodate future growth.

Kenworth’s ability to build custom trucks for customers helped them through the rough years that were spawned by the depression era. Forced to find new ways of survival as business declined, they started producing fire trucks in 1932. Since the rest of the truck market seemed set on standardized trucks, Kenworth had the upper hand when it came to these fire trucks because each fire chief had his own ideas regarding what he wanted on his fire truck, and Kenworth was able to accommodate the specific wishes from the fire stations.

In 1933, Kenworth developed the very first diesel driven truck in this country. Looking at all the big rigs rolling down the highways today, we can clearly see what an impact this move has had on the trucking industry as a whole and it was no doubt a great success for Kenworth back then. That same year, Kenworth also produced and sold its first sleeper cab.

In 1935, the Motor Carrier Act was passed. I may post the act itself in a blog of its own at a later time, but for now I won’t go into detail. (This post is about Kenworth after all, not about the government….)
A very brief summary of the act is that it allowed the ICC to regulate interstate trucking. The ICC could now decide which companies could become motor carriers, how much these companies could charge and what type of services they would provide.
This act enforced a lot stricter regulations on trucks regarding size and weight. Overall, the restrictions provided new challenges for the trucking industry and its manufacturers.

(A 1951 Kenworth - photo borrowed from

In all its history so far, Kenworth had never backed down from a challenge, and this time was no different. They turned the challenge into another golden accomplishment by introducing the manufacturing of aluminum truck parts, such as hubs and cabs, on their Kenworth trucks.

In 1957, Kenworth was one of the first companies to come out with the cab-over engine (COE).

Since its beginning, a variety of Kenworth models have been manufactured, and I’m not going to write about the truck models in this post, partially because I think that the Kenworth models deserve a post of their very own (maybe even 1 post per model). Also, I don’t want to make these posts too long and I want to make them focused around a particular topic, which in this post is the history of the Kenworth.

I chose to delve into this topic since Kenworth is one of my favorite trucks. I wanted to start my education with the very beginning and it was indeed an interesting lesson. Looking back at my post, it’s interesting to observe the overall development of the Kenworth over time. It just adds another dimension to the truck itself when I know more about its background and where it came from. The truck we see today is a result of collaboration of generations, through time and the cool part is, it's only going to keep getting better.

(Kenworth W900 - photo borrowed from

(Note: A lot of the info for this blog was obtained from and ... Thanks for being out there!)


Marie Reed said...

Now this is wild! I am mesmorized from the huge chromy rig! What powerful images! I have a blog event called postcard friendship friday... If you want to join with this post go for it! You even have a vintage postcard in your post!

Laila said...

I sure do! :-) hehe. It's fun to see then & now! I'll join your other blog, I really like the one I already joined.