Kenworth’s new limited edition version of its old-school W900L
In the pantheon of North American heavy trucks few models have enjoyed as much status and longevity as the Kenworth W900.
Some version of the “W9,” as truckers call it, has been in production since 1961, when the first one (eventually named W900A) rolled off an assembly line in Seattle, Washington. In the 54 years since, the truck’s popularity has grown steadily among owner-operators and small fleets. Its classic styling recalls a romanticized, simpler era in the trucking industry, when fuel sold for $0.30 a gallon and long, squarish hoods ruled the roads, at least west of the Mississippi River. This mystique was bolstered during the 1970s and ’80s by several Hollywood movies and at least one television show, which featured the W900 involved in all sorts of high jinks and mayhem.
But, in the lyrics of a Bob Dylan tune, “…The times, they’re a changin’.” Actually, they’ve been changing for some time. Today — and for the past 25 or so years — heavy automotive design has been dictated by smoother aerodynamics, tighter maneuverability, bigger and quieter cabs, softer rides and greater frontal visibility. Tradition-bound purists, however, aren’t amused. They want “real” trucks, not something shaped like a cheese wedge that any newbie could drive with one hand.
This is the select group of truckers that Kenworth executives had in mind last March, when they introduced the limited edition ICON 900, to commemorate the silver anniversary of the “L” (long hood) model.
The newest version of the classic model, the ICON 900 is named in part for the stylistic contribution of California-based ICON Inc. (an automotive customizing powerhouse), and features special branding inside and out.
The truck’s exterior is awash with shiny metallic accents, starting up front with a unique silver hood badge to note the W900L’s 25 years of production. Behind that, stainless steel adorns fender guards, under-door panels, sleeper panels, grille closeout panels, dual cowl-mounted air cleaners, a large sun visor and headlamp covers. This is either a work-ready show truck, or a show-ready work truck. You decide.
The bold — or should I say, iconic — theme is continued inside as well, with ICON logos embroidered on the high-back leather seat headrests, added chrome trim on the dash and door pads, and a prominent plaque announcing each truck’s build number and the model’s intended limited edition production. I had the rare opportunity to pilot one of these impressive large cars during a corporately sponsored press romp in August. My rig was one of three being driven from Kenworth’s headquarters in Kirkland, Washington, to the PACCAR Technical Center outside of Mt. Vernon, a distance of roughly 70 miles. Each truck was hitched to a 53-foot dry van and apparently loaded with about 40,000 pounds of concrete blocks.
In the driver’s seat
The first thing one notices from the helm of an ICON 900 is the hood that stretches 66 inches horizontally ahead of the windshield, obscuring anything the size of a Mazda Miata sitting within two or three feet of the front bumper. I hadn’t driven an old-school conventional since the late 1990s, so this reintroduction required a mental adjustment, bringing back memories of the W900A I owned and operated between 1978 and ’84.
The second most noticeable thing about the model is the sound of the engine under load. It’s distinct, for sure. Although the drive-test truck was several decades newer than my old “A” model, both sounded strikingly similar with the accelerator mashed to the boards and the side windows open. Two inputs contribute mightily to this resonance: a cab-mounted exhaust pipe and cowl-mounted air can, each an arm’s length from the driver’s seat. Many truckers appreciate a throaty report from their engines, but I’ve been spoiled by today’s aero-style cabs in which the raw business of combustion is kept at a comfortable distance. Yeah, I know: I’m a wimp.
The route between Kirkland and Mt. Vernon (I-405 north to I-5 north) is broad, reasonably straight and jammed with traffic. The ICON 900’s road manners in such a setting were good. The truck seems to find its place in a lane and stay there with scant guidance from the steering wheel. Ride quality, dished up by taperleaf springs on the front axle and Kenworth’s Airglide 400 on the rears, was good, about mid-distance between mushy and jarring.
Several gentle pulls dotted the landscape during the first 20 or 25 miles of our journey, but these had little effect on the robust engine at my command: a Cummins ISX15, rated at 550 horsepower and 1,850 lbs-ft of torque. This oomph was delivered to the ground through an 18-speed Fuller transmission and 40,000-lb Meritor (3.55) rear drives.
Off the highway
I have a lot of fond memories of the W9 I once owned, but that truck’s rather expansive turning circle isn’t among them. I often found myself in some tiny urban parking lot or alley, thinking about the lyrics of an old country song, “Give me 40 acres to turn this rig around.”
Fortunately, steering doesn’t pose a big problem with the newest model. To be sure, people won’t — and shouldn’t — buy these trucks for local P&D work, but the ICON 900’s 38-degree wheel cut is sufficient for navigating most narrow, congested city streets.
I made this astute observation near the end of my drive test when I unintentionally rolled into the heart of La Conner, a small, quaint and apparently very popular tourist haven near the PACCAR Technical Center. Judging from the number of craned heads on the sidewalks, I guess a lot of these folks hadn’t expected to see such a big vehicle threading through the maze of tight turns, skinny lanes, parked cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. Or perhaps they were just impressed with all of the ICON bling glinting in the late afternoon sunshine. Whatever the case, I was able to escape the cozy downtown without sideswiping anything or even jumping a curb — this despite my trailer tandems being set in the rear-most holes.
So what is the “key demographic” for this classically styled truck? Kenworth managers expect most ICON 900 buyers will be a little older than the general population of truckers. This is the crowd that still fondly recalls the good old days of truckin’. They’ll also be a bit wealthier. The ICON 900 is, according to one Kenworth executive, “a premium version of a premium model.” Prices depend on specs, of course, but many of the ICONs will sell for roughly $170,000 (plus taxes and setup). Finally, the target market will probably skew toward the heavy-haul or open-deck segments of the industry, where vehicular aerodynamics is less important than it is with vans or reefers.
The company reportedly sold 350 ICON 900 trucks in the first five months after the model was launched at the 2015 Mid- America Trucking Show. Kenworth management is expecting the full production to be measured in hundreds, not thousands, of units. The actual total will depend on customer demand. This is, after all, a limited edition product.
Kenworth has built several limited edition versions of the W900 since the mid 1970s. These were meant to commemorate important anniversaries, for both the company and the United States, or tout the truck’s role in certain movies (the James Bond film, License to Kill, chief among them). It’s likely that the ICON will be the last specially designed W900. Current and forthcoming emissions regulations are making traditionally styled trucks increasingly more difficult to justify, for both OEMs and buyers.
If the ICON 900 does represent the W900’s swan song after more than a half century of manufacturing, it will be a fitting tribute to a proud and storied vehicle that was an industry icon long before it was any other kind of ICON.