The Smithsonian Freightliner
Some of them are out there on the road every day. Some are long gone. But classic trucks will always turn a driver’s head and make his heart beat a little faster. They are the benchmarks of the industry. They make you proud to be in it.
They have a combination of an engineered toughness that gets the job done and a flair that means it gets done in style, and sometimes they’re loaded with surprising innovation.
So which trucks are modern classics? The question requires an answer so subjective it is one of the most debatable in the industry. To each his own, with some drivers seeing classic in a model others wouldn’t put in their top half dozen.
Longevity, design, innovation, engineering, looks, reputation, elegance, brand loyalty, panache or maybe just the way it feels at speed under load may all factor in a driver’s assessment of a tractor’s classic potential.
Collaborating with truck manufacturers, drivers and industry historians, we chose these 16 (in no particular order) to represent the best of the best.
The Smithsonian Freightliner
America’s physical history is stored most notably in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In its transportation exhibit “America on the Move,” the museum chose two tractors to represent long-haul trucking in its collections and exhibitions.
One is a classic 1950 Freightliner [the other is a 1984 Peterbilt 359].
The Freightliner tractor was the first made by that company and sold to a private carrier (Hyster). It cost $15,871.73 and weighed 13,800 pounds. The extensive use of aluminum (including the cab, engine supports, axle housings, brakes, fuel tank hangers and battery box) made this tractor approximately 2,000 pounds lighter than if steel had been used.
The tractor was the first transcontinental cabover sleeper tractor that could haul a 35-foot trailer through states with a maximum allowable vehicle length of 45 feet. The truck boasted the first fifth wheel installation attached directly to the frame without mounting plates or special cross members. It was the first Freightliner to use a 10-speed transmission, the first standard truck to have a 19 1/2-inch main driver line (the shortest at that time), the first Freightliner with a recording tachometer and the first Freightliner with electric sanders.
This old classic made its first trip from Portland, Ore., to Danville and Peoria, Ill., and back, a round trip that took seven days.
Freightliner Classic XL
The Classic XL lives up to its name, say the tractor’s makers, because of the traditional styling and the longevity. The truck has been popular, especially with owner-operators and small fleets, since it was introduced in 1994. And despite traditional looks, it features advanced engineering, an aluminum cab and lightweight components that allow for greater payloads and improved fuel economy, the company says.
Owner-operator Marc McElroy says his Classic XL is one of the great trucks.
“I like the room in the Classic XL. I don’t think there’s another truck on the road that has the room a Classic XL has,” says McElroy, who just got a 2007 model with an 84-inch sleeper to replace his truck show-winning 2001 model. “It’s above and beyond the rest.”
McElroy takes his Classic XL on LTL runs between southern California and Salt Lake City, with as many as eight pickups to load his dry van. The truck has all the comforts of home without sacrificing too much space, he says, and it handles well.
“A classic truck should make the driver’s job easier and make it comfortable,” he says. “I have to drive this truck for five years, and I’ll enjoy it every day. That makes a huge difference.
“A classic is more than looks and chrome; it is a truck that makes a user a better trucker, and the Classic XL does that.”
The FLD is not in Freightliner’s product line any more, but the company says it was one of the greatest trucks it has made in its history. Introduced in the mid-1980s and retired in 2002 (in the NAFTA market), the FLD was the “go to” truck for on-highway fleets, says Freightliner. Easy to maintain, reliable and quiet, the FLD was a solid truck with a large and durable yet lightweight reinforced aluminum cab that minimized vibration and noise. The FLD also offered Freightliner’s first integral sleeper.
According to American Truck Historical Society Managing Director Bill Johnson (see sidebar on page 21), the 359 deserves classic credit for leading the way for the 379, which became its successor in 1987. The 359 hit the road running on April 12, 1967, and more than 14,000 were sold before they went off production in 1987.
When it was introduced, the 359 was the first wide-nosed conventional. Peterbilt produced a limited edition at the end of its run, just as it will do next year with the Legacy edition of the 379.
The 359 boasted a number of firsts or unique attributes, some of which (*) were carried over to the 379:
“Few products in the history of the industry have achieved the level of renown as the Model 379,” says Dan Sobic, Peterbilt general manager and PACCAR vice president. “It defined the appearance and performance expectations for a generation of trucks.”
This is the last year for the 379. The final 1,000 units produced will be commemorated with a Legacy Class Edition, limited to the extended-hood, 127-inch BBC configuration. More than 230,000 Model 379s have hit the road after the very first, chassis number 205168, rolled off the assembly line on October 18, 1986. In its 20-year run the 379 has accounted for the majority of Peterbilt’s production (including on- and off-highway vehicles).
Kenworth’s aerodynamic T600, introduced in 1985, “helped revolutionize the trucking industry,” says the company. The design originated in 1976 with wood and wax models, to test different shapes and configurations, often at the University of Washington’s wind tunnel in Seattle. The biggest advantage of the new truck was in fuel use. A standard straight hood conventional tractor was tested, the hood was removed and the truck was reconfigured like the Kenworth T600.The aerodynamic turned out to be 22 percent more fuel efficient.
While the Kenworth T600’s sloped hood drew most of the attention, the truck was loaded with other innovations. A set-back front axle allowed for easier front axle loading. New 64-inch taper-leaf springs provided a much improved ride, and the turning radius was 23 percent less than on other conventional trucks. The new design also reduced splash and spray by 50 percent.
With its long hood and distinctive cathedral grille, the W900 embodies “the classic look that never goes out of style,” says the company. The reputation of the W900 for outstanding reliability and performance is reflected in its higher residual value, says Kenworth.
The W900 is designed and built for driver comfort with a quiet cab, controls where you need them and high-quality interior appointments, the company says. Also, the proprietary eight-bag air suspension and cab/sleeper suspension combine to provide an exceptionally smooth ride.
The LTSW is a stand-out classic from the 1950s, which was especially popular in California, says Bruce Hollenbeck, Mack vice president, product planning.
“They’re off the road, but they have a strong following to this day,” Hollenbeck says. “It was the design elements that really made this model a classic. It had a long nose, a vertical grille, bicycle fenders and what we’d call a high chrome-to-horsepower ratio. The radiator surround stood out, and there was a bit of an abrupt transition between the top of the hood and the cab. These were timeless styling clues that people look for when they buy.
The LTSW wasn’t just a version of someone else’s truck, Hollenbeck says – it was completely original.
“There was a very high level of customizing, what we’d call bright finish, and that just wasn’t done at the time,” he says. “At the time practicality was what went into design – if it doesn’t make money, we don’t put it on the truck.”
The Superliner, says Hollenbeck, is another timeless design, and that is the core of its appeal.
“You had that wonderful flat face, the big grille and the squared-off hood. We still see them on the road, and we still them all the time at parades and shows,” he says. “It was a design people loved to drive. It was big, it was powerful and it was very versatile. You could use it on highway or as a dump truck, and that added to its appeal. You could also spec it out in a lot of ways. For example, you could get an 11-liter or a 16-liter Mack or a Cummins. That sort of flexibility was part of its attraction.”
Western Star 4900EX
The folks at Western Star say the company’s flagship model is a classic because of the popularity and tremendous loyalty it generates. Tracing its roots to the company’s logging history, the Star is widely used in both on-highway, including long-haul and regional-haul, and vocational applications, including dump, auto haul logging, heavy haul and towing/recovery, testament to this truck’s durability and flexibility, they say.
The 4900 EX, in the Western Star product line for 10 years, features a set-forward front axle, extended hood 132-inch BBC, and the traditional square-nose style so many drivers favor.
Volvo VNs arrived in 1996. After selling trucks all over the world, the new VN series was designed, developed and manufactured by Volvo in North America for the specific needs of the North American market. Its development cost Volvo $500 million.
“The Volvo VN was the first true Volvo truck for North America, based on a modern Volvo platform and utilizing the latest design innovations,” says Peter Karlsten, president & CEO of Volvo Trucks North America. “The VN embodies what Volvo represents: efficient, productive and high-quality products that are superbly designed to meet customer needs, while adhering to our core values of safety, quality and environmental care. It also brought automotive levels of quality and driver environment to North American trucks.”
Proof of the Volvo VN’s preferred status among drivers, says the company, is its record in the annual National Truck Driving Championship, where competitors are allowed to choose which make of truck they want to drive. In 2005, VNs were driven by the winners of six categories, including the eventual National Grand Champion.
The imported Class 8 Conventional N12, while only offered by the Volvo White Truck Corporation from 1984 until the joint venture with General Motors in October 1987, brought a lot of innovative features to this country, according to Volvo. For years, there had been no progress in many areas of North American truck design and performance such as front and rear axle design, steering geometry design and suspension design, which affected maneuverability, ride and traction, says the company.
Short turning radius has always been a standout feature of Volvo products, and the N12 was no exception. At the time, popularly available North American front axles had a maximum wheelcut available of only 35 degrees, and many could only use 29-32 degrees of that. The N12 featured 50 degrees of wheelcut even in its axle-forward model. It could turn on the proverbial dime. This was due to a proprietary Volvo front axle and a unique geometry that placed the steering gear farther back to avoid tire-steering gear conflict.
Sharp front axle turning capability, stagnant for three or more decades, became a common American truck design feature thanks in part to influence from the Volvo N12, says the company.
In the rear, the N12’s available Volvo T-Ride suspensions introduced a new level of traction, owing to a high degree of flexibility that allowed articulation without introducing forces into the suspension that unloaded some of the wheels, causing wheelspin. T-Ride also had a much improved ride compared to the popular vocational suspensions that employed huge, rigid, cast iron walking beams. American makers began to produce competitive suspensions, says the company.
International R Series
A replacement for the L Model of the 1940s, the R series was a strong conventional truck produced from 1953 to 1965.
“It was really geared to maximizing the length you could haul,” says International’s Dealer Marketing Director Bill Dougherty. “They called it the Roadliner mainly, and it was really very versatile; you could set it with different wheelbases, single axle, tandem axles. And you could get gasoline or diesel engines for it into the 60s. To me it was a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“This truck hung around for a long while because it served customers really well, and it got freight from A to B without trouble.”
International DCO-405 Cabover
Built from 1956 to 1965, about 33,000 of these trucks plied our roads.
“I think most people would call it the first really styled cab,” Dougherty says. “It had smooth, curved sides; it was handsome. And it was about efficiency. This was also a very solid work truck. It came with a HRB 600 Cummins, and it gave a lot of value. I think you can see it’s evolution into the Transtar.”
International Transtar CO 4070 Cabover
“This truck was a true industry leader,” Dougherty says. “I mean, hands down it was the best cabover product of its time, and at that time we had upward of half the cabover market. It had the ability to haul a lot of freight with a small footprint. This truck really did the job. It had excellent visibility and maneuverability, and it was fuel efficient.
“If there is a true International built in the past 50 years that is truly representative of the trucking industry at the time it was on the road, it would be this cabover. It was everywhere. ”
White Integral Sleeper
Volvo White says this classic tractor, introduced in 1981, was designed to maximize the benefits of both the conventional and COE tractors. Not an “after-thought” or a “tack-on,” the cab tooling incorporated common parts from the conventional 84-inch wide cab/cowl with the 36-inch bunk of the high COE model. This made the tractor much more aerodynamic than narrow cab conventionals with add-on sleepers or the flat-windshield cabovers, and eliminated air and water leaks.
To ask “What do you consider a classic truck?” is like asking someone “What is the best ice cream?” Everyone that answers has their personal opinion based on different criteria. However, I’ll list some trucks that I feel should be considered “classics.”
I agree with the selections of current production trucks that can be considered classics, but I would like to point out that many these trucks are refined versions of earlier classics (Kenworth W900A, Peterbilt 359, Freightliner WFC-120, and Volvo WA).
The following trucks had a 5-10-year production run, were used in both fleet and owner-operator service, were available with a wide range of power-train options, and are no longer in production.
I would suggest two cabovers as classic material.
I am only including one aero-conventional that I consider groundbreaking.
Bill Johnson is Managing Director of the American Truck Historical Society.
For Midwestern grain hauler Dan Fries, “after 30 years of owning nothing but Kenworth trucks, I would retire before I would buy anything less.”
Today Fries drives a new W900L, but his history with Kenworth goes way back.
“I bought my first KW in 1976. It was a pre-owned 1972 K100 with a 350 Cummins and an air shift 4×4 Spicer. My next truck was a 1984 W900B. It used to haul mail from Des Moines, Iowa, to Sioux Falls, S.D., and every time it passed me I would think that if I ever got the chance, I would own it. It was red and orange in the Monterey paint scheme.”
Fries liked the colors and design so well that when he ordered his next truck – a 1989 W900B Aerodyne – he had the Kansas City, Mo., dealership paint it the same way.
“I like the ruggedness and the value that comes with Kenworth trucks, but most of all I am impressed with the history behind these machines,” he says. “Even in early trucking advertisements, when someone wanted to make a special impression on the trucking industry, there would be a Kenworth in the picture.
“In all the design changes Kenworth has made over the years, all a professional driver has to see is a side view silhouette to be able to distinguish a Kenworth from any other truck. The lines are as classic as those of a P-51 Mustang airplane or a 1963 Corvette car. From the standard sun visor to the curve of the front fenders to the shape of the radiator cowl, the first glance is all you need to tell you are looking at a Kenworth.”
Fries still owns the 1989 W900B Aerodyne.
“It now has 1,200,000 miles on it and is as solid as my 2006 W900L,” he says. “I still drive it mostly during nice weather and hope to someday restore it to new condition.”
First and Last
Jerry and Ronda Diemoz believe in the Peterbilt 379. Nothing else will do for their company, J & R Trucking out of Rock Springs, Wyo. In October 2003 Jerry heard that Pete was planning a special edition of the tractor, the 379X. At a truck show in Las Vegas, Jerry approached the Pete booth and told them he was getting the very first one. “You can’t be,” the surprised Pete man said. “Yes I am,” said Jerry.
That same man was waiting at the front door of Pete’s Denton, Texas, plant when Jerry and Ronda flew in to watch the first 379X roll off the assembly line. “Sorry,” the Pete man said sheepishly. Jerry and Ronda were given a cake, a plaque and a ribbon-cutting ceremony before they took the new tractor home.
They loved the truck so much that when Jerry heard the last of the limited edition X was about to leave the plant, he bought that one, too.
“The 379 is just the best truck that was ever built,” says Jerry. “I don’t think you can stack anything up against it. It’s also got the most drive appeal of any truck every built. Over 40 years I’ve had some of the best Petes ever built. I went into 379s when they stopped building the 359. I wanted a really classic 359 but never got one, so when I heard about the X, I had to have the first one. I did have one unique 359 though. It was the most expensive Pete ever built when I bought it in 1980 for $112,000.”
The J & R Petes haul equipment on low boys but specialize in oilfield hauling, running as much as 40 percent of their miles off road. And they are big, tough trucks.
“I’ve always been a believer in horsepower, so we have big engines. We have a 60-inch spread in front because they handle the washboards on dirt roads better than the 54-inch spread. We have double steel frames, big 18-speed transmissions and all-locking rear ends; you need those when you run through 3 feet of mud.”
Today the company runs 15 Peterbilt 379s, from 1999 to 2007 (with 2006 engines) models. But they don’t run the double Xs.
“They are state of the art, about the best trucks you could ever buy. The first one has 184 miles on it and the last one has 400, and that’s just because we had to go into Salt Lake City for some updates on it. I bought them to keep as classics. I hope in 20 years they’ll still look like new, and I’ll be showing them off at truck shows. I drive them every month to keep them lubricated, but I’m really like a classic car enthusiast who has hit the jackpot.”
Affected trucks include model year 2008-2018 Freightliner Cascadia and Western Star 4700, 4900, 5700 and 6900 trucks. DTNA says after hard brake applications, the brake light pressure switch may not activate the brake lights with the light application of the brake pedal.