15 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineAugust 18, 2020

A bright idea in lockdown spawned a fun and fantastic ‘through the decades‘ online competition. The champion of champions shootout came down to some of history‘s heavy hitters, but nobody can really knock the eventual winner!

Photo: Like a Phoenix from the fire, literally! W Models are getting a new lease of life all over the country and Ed Solly‘s ‘Rocky‘ is a classic example, having been completely rebuilt following a devastating fire in 2010. A 1980 model W924AR, the truck was originally owned by Mytton Bros in Nelson operating under Grey Valley Contractors licence. A beautiful example, Rocky is no show pony, working most weeks on machinery relocations, and overflow work for Sollys Contractors Ltd.

This‘ll be interesting,‘ we all thought in the New Zealand Trucking Media offices. Consult a group of respected truck-heads from an industry cross-section, a sample group generous in terms of breadth and strata, and ask them for a base list of favourite truck models for each of the past five decades. Then take their selections and throw them to the lions and lionesses in the online world for a vote on who wins each decade, followed by the grand accolade of favourite of the favourites. The deal was nothing to do with individual trucks owned by specific people, but models, and neither was it relevant to a model‘s release date, it was about proliferation – ‘when was it King?‘ so to speak. At the end of it all, when the dust had settled, the decade winners‘ list read as follows:

70s – International 3070
80s – Kenworth W Model
90s – Mack MH
00s – Mack CH
10s – Volvo FH
Grand Champion – Kenworth W Model

Photo: In its day it dropped the jaws of anyone peering through the window.

There‘s not much you can say that knocks the final winners‘ list. Scania came so close in both the 80 and 90s, and International‘s mighty T-Line almost upset the W Model apple cart in the 80s. Trucks we thought might feature in the 80s – trucks like the S26 Scamell and Foden S108 – didn‘t really light up the voting, but that‘s probably a sign of how old some of us are getting. So many truck fans nowadays never knew the roads when they were a lolly scramble of truck brands from all around the world in a kaleidoscope of company liveries. The 80s truly was the greatest decade to be a truck enthusiast. It was heartening to see the International 3070 slam dunk the 70s; what a great machine to so many, and although Kenworth‘s K200 carried itself with aplomb in the 10s, the head and shoulders winner was the FH Volvo, and that‘s certainly a reflection of what a winner that Viking‘s been for them.

‘…and the winner is?‘

But there can only be one winner of winners, and the title of New Zealand‘s favourite truck of the past 50 years went to Kenworth‘s W Model. And what a deserved recipient. Harking back to the start of the piece, when we first mooted the idea with our sample group of experts, and said ‘Right, give us your list‘, everyone had the W Model Kenworth in their first three or four names, whether or not their personal preference included what is arguably the most famous truck to ever carry the bug emblem.

Photo: Arguably the most iconic configuration the W900 had in New Zealand was that of a dedicated ‘longs‘ log truck towing the classic 3-axle pole trailer. This beautiful example was owned by Barry Towler, and was new at the time the photo was taken in the Bay of Plenty‘s Rotoehu forest.

Get a group of people together and if they‘re old enough they‘ll tell you where they were when Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, where they were when they heard about Lady Di, Erebus, or us winning the America‘s Cup for the first time. If they‘re truck people in their 40s or older, they‘ll also tell you where they saw their first W Model Kenworth, such was the impact the truck had. When it landed on our shores in the early 70s, the W900 Kenworth, or W Model as it would come to be known, was in a different league from any highway truck that had preceded it. It would raise the bar on what operators could rightfully expect from a truck, both in terms of performance, and on return for dollar spent. But the W Model brought with it a look, a presence, a new dimension – literally. For most of those early buyers, the truck ended up as much a marketing tool as it did a productivity one, and when the first round were eventually sold into their second owners, most were traded for more than their purchase price when new.

As we said in the Satherley Kenworth T900 Legend test (New Zealand Trucking magazine June 2018), the W Model had a Pied Piper effect on a generation of kids, and did much to lift the perception and value of both the truck and those who drove them. Adults who had never shown an interest in man‘s mechanical beast of burden now peered inside the driver‘s window, and for the first time the imagery that sprung to mind was that of an aeroplane cockpit. Gone were the two or three gauges in a Bakelite mould hose-clipped around a steering column; here was woodgrain, door-todoor gauges, chrome, and a view from a windscreen that will only ever be ‘that view‘, unique and unsurpassed. The Kenworth W Model was the first true celebrity truck, drawing onlookers wherever they turned up. They starred on the small screen in shows like Movin‘ On, and the silver screen in the likes of Smokey and the Bandit, and it largely instigated the horn-toot arm action still used today by kids the world over when they petition a driver to wake the neighbourhood as they pass. This then is a celebration of one of the world‘s great machines. A truck that heralded what would be a golden era for trucking on our shores. “We are delighted to hear that the trusty old W Model is the champion of the past 50 years,” said Southpac general manager for sales, Richard Smart. “What a great honour for the Kenworth brand and all the great New Zealand customers who make it the bestselling US truck in New Zealand year after year.” So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we give you New Zealand‘s favourite truck of the past 50 years … the W Model Kenworth.

Photo: They were big rugged and tough and changed the game on what an operator could expect from a truck. This 1974 example was one of three run by Baigent Sawmills in Nelson. Photo Credit: Richard Lloyd.


Dalhoff and King in Rotorua was the original franchisee for the Kenworth brand. Ken King had been to the States in the early 50s, seen the Kenworth product, and loved its custom-built nature. Although he knew his young country was screaming out for such a capable machine, import duties at the time made competitive pricing almost impossible, and sales were slow, more often than not into boutique applications. Two things changed all that. Firstly, an easing of duties for Commonwealth-assembled vehicles brought the trucks produced in Kenworth‘s Vancouver factory into play, and secondly, their sheer capacity for work and whole of life cost began to realign the investment proposition in the minds of operators. This was particularly so in regions where the demographic, commercial, and infrastructure stars aligned. Places like the Waikato, Mount Maunganui, Auckland, and Hawke‘s Bay. By the time Kenworth‘s most famous profile arrived on our shores, the W900 highway truck with its trademark onepiece tilting fibreglass snout had been carving up the young interstate network in the US for a little over a decade. Our first example ex Canada was a W925 purchased by J. V. Geany Ltd in Rotorua, and the first W924, by Road Haulage (Lendich) in Auckland. The Canadian trucks came in SKD (semi knocked down) and final assembly was finished here in New Zealand. In terms of deciphering model nomenclature, the last two digits designate the rear end, the 25 being a torsion bar, 23 being Hendrickson Walking Beam with 38,000lb rears, and 24 being Hendrickson Walking Beam with 44,000lb. By the late 70s, Kenworth required New Zealand builds to be sourced ex the Australian plant in Bayswater, Melbourne, with those trucks suffixed AR for Australian right-hand drive.

The first W900AR for New Zealand was again a ‘25‘ truck that went to the NZ Lumber Company, and the second, a W924AR, was Barry Butterworth‘s famous sleeper-cabbed ‘Black Bitch‘. Bayswater continued building the W900 model until the mid-80s, about the time the streamlined T600A was launched. But were the classic lines of the W900 over once and for all? To lean on a Star Wars classic, the force was still strong, and in 1993 Kenworth released the T900, a modernised rebirth of the classic big bonnet line on the back of a strong demand for such a truck. New Zealand‘s own Mike Lambert ran a considerable log cartage and wood processing business at the time in Mount Maunganui, and was himself a diehard W Model fan. He proved an influential voice in the new truck‘s genesis. When the requirement came to increase the frontal cooling capacity of trucks to cope with new emissions systems, Kenworth made sure to retain the critical elements of a classic look in the higher bonnets of the T900‘s successors over the years, the T904, T908, and today the T909. Then of course there was 2017 and the T900 Legend, the commemorative model of the 1993 truck. Kenworth sold 256 of them in the 24 hours the phone lines were open for orders. The reality was, people weren‘t paying for a truck, they were paying for a shape. So, the question has to be, will the T909, today‘s custodian of the classic Kenworth look in our part of the world, be the last? If history holds tomorrow‘s greatest lessons, then you‘d certainly hope not.