Test Drive: Kenworth calls it Icon for a very good reason

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.

Kenworth Icon 900

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

Today, you can’t 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, it’s 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 they’re 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.

Classic W900 paint scheme

Featuring special colors dramatically presented in throwback paint schemes, the W900 is Kenworth’s 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 they’re hammering down the highway.

But, the move isn’t 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.

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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 the downturn 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.

Inside the Icon 900

Most of the Icon 900 enhancements are cosmetic in nature, carefully selected to enhance and highlight the tractor’s classic lines. But it’s 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 driver’s 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, that’s 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 don’t.

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 truck’s 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.

Icon 900 at MATS

Despite its age, I found the Icon 900 to be a blast to take on the highway. Kenworth’s 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 driver’s 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 isn’t overwhelming by any means and quickly becomes part of the overall driving experience.

Cummins power is always reliable. And it’s 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 it’s 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 won’t 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 won’t say for sure, but it’s likely the Icon 900 will be one of the last incarnations of the venerable W900 before production ends after more than 50 years.