The Making of Legends
Spawned in the shadows of the iconic W-model, it was perhaps inevitable Kenworth’s classic T900 would one day notch ‘Legend’ status. Yet embedded in this story of a remarkably resilient truck are the steely pride and erce passions of people devout in the
Spawned in the shadows of the iconic W-model, it was perhaps inevitable Kenworth’s classic T900 would one day notch ‘Legend’ status
The year was 1990. Businesses across the board were taking a severe belting and, among many, Kenworth was doing all it could to simply endure Treasurer Paul Keating’s interminable ‘recession we had to have’.
Almost a decade into his long and laudable career as Kenworth’s fi rst Australian managing director, Andrew Wright had been quick to react to the downturn. As he saw it, the economic signs were foreboding.
With his bean- counter brain kicking into survival mode, retrenchments at the Bayswater ( Vic) head office and factory came hard and fast.
Everything depended on the factory’s ongoing viability and Wright was uncompromising in his determination to protect the future and avoid Kenworth becoming just another importer.
Yet seemingly overnight, Kenworth, generally, and Wright, specifically, became pariahs as commentators and competitors publicly lambasted the cuts
“Something was missing and it was that ‘something’ which at the back end of 1990 rst came to life as a prototype T900”
as corporate overkill. Cries of ‘too much, too soon’ and ‘putting profit before people’ were loud and long.
As time would soon show, an astute Wright had simply seen the writing on the wall clearer than his contemporaries. In fact, as the extravagance and excesses of the ‘80s collapsed into the economic doldrums of a new decade, and truck sales continued to slip lower than a frog’s freckle, there were more than a few executives openly wishing they’d followed Wright’s lead and made the tough decisions sooner rather than hovering in vain hope of a quick recovery.
Whether we had to have it or not is debateable, but this was certainly a recession that hung around far longer than anyone expected. Road transport was hammered particularly hard, and difficult decisions were forced on companies of all persuasions – especially those with significant investment in local manufacturing tailored almost entirely to the domestic market. Companies like Kenworth.
In fact, things were so crook in the Bayswater bunker that then sales manager Russell Davey rang a town crier’s bell after every order that had been credit-approved. A collective cheer went up every time it rang, but the clangs were few and far between.
Behind the scenes, though, with business in the pits and the factory building barely half a truck a day, Kenworth was quietly working on the creation of something new. Something for better times ahead but with the immediate ability to generate interest and excitement in an otherwise depressed and depressing market. Something big, bold and home grown.
Back then, the star of the Kenworth camp was unquestionably the revolutionary T600. Launched on the Australian market in 1987, the slippery ‘Anteater’ had turned conventional truck design on its head with its intense accent on aerodynamics. Yet as well received as it was by fuel-focused operators, T600 did not tick all the boxes for everyone.
Something was missing, and it was that ‘something’ which, at the back end of 1990, fi rst came to life as a prototype T900.
Probably the most respected engineer in the heavy- duty truck business, and regarded by many as one of the most likeable and principled people you’re likely to meet anywhere, Gary Hartley recalls those days with the relaxed confidence of one who has both survived and succeeded.
In years to come, Wright would promote him to chief engineer and under his watch would evolve an eclectic range of trucks which, whether they made it to production or not, would at least typify Bayswater’s capacity for application engineering on a defi antly Australian scale.
Examples are plentiful but in some minds, including this one, the ability to radically transform an archaic K-series cab- over into the modern form of the K200, and most recently create an entirely new future with the
Above: The original T900 prototype. Born tough in tough times
Opposite: The retiring type. Gary Hartley just a few weeks before his last days at Kenworth Right: Steady! The one and only Allan Stead