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Test drive: Kenworth gives its old school W900 the spotlight with the Icon edition

Jack Roberts | Commercial Carrier Journal

Kenworth has been building W900 tractors since 1961. Commercial truck designs generally enjoy long production runs. But any design that can last for close to 55 years clearly has a lot going for it.

If you run a Google search for the 61 W900s, the first thing you notice is that design-wise, Kenworth has done little to change the overall appearance of this tractor over its long life.

Under the hood and behind its panels, its a very different story: Continuous tweaks and upgrades have kept place with virtually every modern advance, meaning that in many ways, todays W900 is the quintessential blend of old and new. Maybe thats why the truck has been a perennial favorite among drivers and even became a Hollywood star of sorts, keeping Jerry Reeds Snowman blowing and going in the classic Smokey and The Bandit films from the 1970s.

Today, you cant help but feel time is running out for the tough old W900. My personal sense is Kenworth executives would rather take a swift kick in their collective mid-sections than kill off the truck. But in this age of super-sleek aerodynamics and fuel-economy fever, its tough to see how such an old school design survives outside of flatbed and oversize load hauls.

On the other hand, there are an awful lot of old school Owner-Operators out there who simply adore the truck. And theyre more than happy to take a fuel economy penalty for the honor of driving one of these machines down the highway. Which leads us to the Icon 900 a special edition W900 unveiled earlier this year at the Mid-America Truck Show.

Featuring special colors dramatically presented in throwback paint schemes, the W900 is Kenworths tip of the hat to one of the greatest designs to ever prowl an American road and a sure-fire hit with owner-operators who still want to turn heads when theyre hammering down the highway.

But the move isnt purely sentimental: According to Kenworth Marketing Director Kurt Swihart, the company has noticed a definite uptick in owner-operators returning to the trucking market today in response to the increased demand to move freight and the favorable business climate.

Swihart says this trend is manifesting itself in both new owner-operators looking to buy their first truck and older owner-operators who have been babying older equipment since thedownturn and feel the time is right to upgrade to a newer, nicer tractor. These are exactly the buyers Kenworth is targeting with the Icon 900.

Most of the Icon 900 enhancements are cosmetic in nature, carefully selected to enhance and highlight the tractors classic lines. But its important to note that Kenworth made a point not to take anything away from the truck, either. That incredible long nose still points proudly out in front of you. And the view from the drivers seat can only be described as commanding. And if you still want a blood-red, big-bore, 600 horsepower diesel pounding away in front of you, thats not going to be a problem, either.

The cab itself is noticeably narrower than modern Class 8 designs. But I know drivers on both sides of the fence here: Some like the wider cabs of today, and others dont.

The Icon 900 high-roof sleeper berth still feels remarkably spacious, however, and must have been stunning when it was introduced back in the day. The skylights are always a classy touch, in my book.

Inside the truck, simple, yet elegant brushed aluminum gauge bezels combine with special Icon badging to give the trucks classic interior a definite post-modern feel. This philosophy carries over outside the truck, where 60s-inspired paint themes, new LED lighting and an absolute cavalcade of chrome components means the only way people are going to take their eyes off this truck on the road is if a UFO is landing nearby.

Despite its age, I found the Icon 900 to be a blast to take on the highway. Kenworths continuous upgrades over the years have yielded a truck that is modern in every sense and not at all difficult to wrangle down the road. Views out over that long nose are augmented by the high-positioned drivers seat. And the truck is amazingly nimble with deep wheel cuts delivering impressive maneuverability at low speeds.

Continuous upgrades can only go so far, of course. And this is a 55-year old truck design. So road noise and interior sound levels are naturally much higher than in modern cab designs today. But the noise isnt overwhelming by any means and quickly becomes part of the overall driving experience.

Cummins power is always reliable. And its always fun to hit the accelerator with 600 horses at your command and feel a big truck like the Icon 900 literally hop to it when its time to go. The Icon 900 honors both the long-lived W900 design, the men and women who drove it and the special time in trucking that it was such an integral part of. So there was no way Kenworth was going to dilute that theme with a modern automated-manual transmission. My test rig came with an old school Eaton 18-speed gearbox, which was silky smooth in both high and low revs. But fear not: if you want an AMT in your Icon 900, Kenworth will be more than happy to spec one for you.

Swihart said orders for the Icon 900 blew up after MATS, catching Kenworth by surprise. For now, the company wont say how long this special edition tractor will stay in production, but it stressed that it will be a limited edition run regardless of how many orders are taken.

Kenworth wont say for sure, but its likely the Icon 900 will be one of the last incarnations of the venerable W900 before production ends after more than 50 years.