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Ground Breaker: Kenworth's T600 Celebrates 20th Birthday
TORONTO, (Aug. 22, 2005) -- Hoots of derisive laughter, expressions of utter disgust. That's what a veteran Today's Trucking writer heard two decades ago as the first Kenworth T600 in Canada was unveiled at the fuel island of a truckstop just west of Toronto. The hoots came from the dozen or so truckers who had gathered to take a gander at this odd looking beast that would soon be dubbed the "anteater". They didn't like it. The occasion was the T600's Canadian introduction in the summer of 1985, which Kenworth decided to stage at the Fifth Wheel Truckstop in Milton, Ont. The whole Canuck press corps was there -- all two of them. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the T600's introduction was one of trucking's milestones -- marking the beginning of a new era in truck design. The ground it broke is ground we're treading still, and will be for some time to come. Its key styling features -- all of them with a function, not just a form -- began with the sloped hood, lowered bumpers, sleek fenders, side skirts, and roof fairings. And the air cleaner was under the hood. More than that, it offered gains in weight distribution, handling, and ride, thanks to the setback front axle, longer springs, and new steering geometry. The crowning glory was a huge drop in the drag co-efficient of the W900 on which the T600 was based. And that translated into serious fuel savings of more than a mile per gallon. Most of this was lost on the old-school crowd at the Fifth Wheel, who, as intrigued as they were, thought hoods should be straight and broad and the longer the better. In fact, 38-year Kenworth veteran Wayne Simons, who was engineering manager at the time and much involved in the T600 project, remembers those comments only too well. Even some KW insiders weren't terribly sure about its looks, he says. On a fuel-test run in 1985, he remembers so many insults that he had to turn the CB off. "We heard comments on the CB all the way from Arizona to Florida," he says. But no one inside Kenworth doubted the new truck's ability to save fuel, so the company was pretty sure it had a winner on its hands. The T600 grew out of the oil embargo of 1973 and the rapid rise in the cost of diesel, which had thrown the industry into a tizzy. In 1976 the late Larry Orr, soon to become Kenworth's chief engineer, led a team that set out to design a truck that would employ aerodynamics to cut a more efficient path through the air. Ironically, the conceptualizing began with a cabover and it didn't become a conventional tractor until the early 1980s when U.S. size-and-weight regulations dispensed with the 55-ft overall length limit for tractor-trailers on Interstate highways. That was the end of the cabover as the dominant truck on U.S. roads, so the Kenworth engineers looked to the W900 as the new starting point for their aerodynamic development efforts. With wooden and clay models, and much work at the University of Washington's wind tunnel, they slowly put the T600 together. "We knew what we could do with a conventional shape," says Simons, adding that what took them a year to accomplish back in the day could be done in a month now. Winnipeg's Kleysen Transport was the first Canadian fleet to order a T600, but the ice-breaker was Glenn Brown, president of Contract Freighters in Joplin, Mo. Admitting now that it was a gamble, he ordered 100 copies of the radical new truck in 1985. Drivers first refused to pilot the thing but his fleet-average fuel efficiency improved by almost 2.0 mpg. Now, two decades later, with more than 105,000 T600s sold, Simons and his colleagues are still working on the aerodynamics. In fact, he says there's been a further 26 percent drop in the truck's drag coefficient in the years since its introduction -- improvements like the corner treatment on the front of the sleeper, the curved one-piece windshield, longer fairings right to the rear axle, and many other smaller tweaks. The T600 is a success at large. It broke ground, brought aerodynamics to modern truck design, and it put money in truckers' pocket even if they never owned one because it made other trucks better too. -- by Rolf Lockwood
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