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The Kenworth Motor Truck Company was created on the remains of the Gerlinger Motor Company in 1923. The company, with headquarters in Seattle. became Ken-Worth, named after the two principal stockholders Harry Kent and Edgar Worthington.
In 1924, Kenworth sold 80 trucks and production a year later neared two trucks per week.
Production jumped to three trucks per week in 1927. As the company's production began to increase, so did its marketing prowess. Kenworth began manufacturing trucks in Vancouver, Canada, eliminating expensive duty charges, which made Kenworths more affordable in Canada.
1929 marked the start of a new era as E. K. Worthington was succeeded by Harry Kent as president. As the company continued to experience steady growth, lack of space became a major problem. That problem was soon remedied with the opening of a new Seattle factory; a factory which positioned them for future growth.
The Great Depression put the brakes on Kenworth's outstanding growth of the late 1920s. Production was down and complicating matters even more was the large number of defaults on loans.
Even with the depression and an uncertain future, Kenworth stayed aggressive in its marketing and found new opportunities. They began production of fire trucks in 1932.
Good fortune came to Kenworth in 1933 when it became the first American truck manufacturer to install diesel engines as standard equipment. It was a major development that allowed Kenworth to develop a powerful and durable line of diesel trucks.
The new trucks proved to be a big hit with customers, who also reaped the benefit of fuel savings—diesel was a mere third the price of gasoline.
However, diesel engines were not the only advancement Kenworth made in 1933. The company also sold its first sleeper cab to Central Grocery, in Yakima, Washington.
The year 1935 marked a challenge for Kenworth with the passage of the Motor Carrier Act. New regulations meant stiffer weight and size restrictions, prompting Kenworth engineers to develop aluminum components. Kenworth trucks began to sport aluminum hubs and cabs. Kenworth trucks also featured six-wheel drive, hydraulic brakes, four-spring suspension, and rear axle torsion bar suspension.
In 1936, the "bubble-nose," Kenworth's entry into the cab-over-engine (COE) truck market, was unveiled. These trucks proved extremely efficient and were able to carry a maximum amount of cargo in a minimal overall length.
In 1937, Phil Johnson became president of Kenworth, replacing Harry Kent who had died suddenly of a heart attack. Production continued to rise, and 1940 saw 226 Kenworth trucks leave the factory.
The United States, caught off guard by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, quickly prepared for war. One month after the attack, Kenworth joined the war effort and began production of 430, four-ton, heavy-duty
M-1 "Wreckers." An additional 1500 were ordered by the end of the year. These six-wheel-drive vehicles were equipped with powerful cranes, fore and aft winches, cutting and welding equipment, and special floodlights.
To handle the dramatic increase in production, Kenworth streamlined the factory and created a moving production line.
The year 1943 saw even more activity for Kenworth in support of the war. The company began producing components for the Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber and the B-29 "Super Fortress" at its Seattle plant. Since Seattle was declared a "critical labor area," the Government required Kenworth to move its M-1 Wrecker production inland, in order to retain its contracts. Kenworth obliged and set up an additional "factory" in Central Washington, at the Yakima fairgrounds.
When company president Phil Johnson died in 1944, the widows of Johnson, Kent and Frederick Fisher (former company director) were left with controlling interest in the company. They decided to offer their shares to Kenworth employees. Financing for the transaction never materialized, however, and Paul Pigott, president of Pacific Car and Foundry, began negotiating with the widows.
A deal was struck, and Kenworth became a wholly owned subsidiary of
Pacific Car and Foundry.
With war production winding down, Kenworth still managed to produce 427 commercial vehicles and 484 military units in 1945. During this time, Hawaiian plantations became large Kenworth customers, ordering specially designed trucks to transport sugar cane. Overall, 1946 proved to be a banner year with the completion of 705 trucks—a peacetime record. In an effort to consolidate its business, Kenworth brought all manufacturing back to Seattle and opened a new facility, which is still in operation today.
By 1950, Kenworth's distribution had grown to 27 locations outside the contiguous United States, and foreign sales accounted for 40 percent of total sales.
Still dedicated to custom trucks, Kenworth had more than 30 different models operating in almost every state west of the Mississippi.
The year 1951 marked the time when Kenworth "struck oil." The company designed the Model 853 for the Arabian American Oil Co. (ARAMCO). The truck was so successful that eventually 1,700 were ordered. Everywhere you looked, Kenworths were at oil sites, playing a major role in the development of the Middle Eastern oil reserves.
While the 853 was moving over sand in the desert, Kenworth developed the Model 801, which was designed to move earth in America. The 11.0 cubic yard capacity vehicles proved to be rugged and powerful.
By 1952, trucks were hauling 16 percent of all land-moved freight, an indication of steady growth and increased competition with the railroads.
Further expansion into Canada occurred in 1955 when production began in Burnaby, British Columbia. Canadian Kenworth Limited was formed, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Car and Foundry.
During the same year, Kenworth launched a radical new line of trucks which featured the cab beside the engine. The new design was an instant hit. Its lighter weight allowed an additional half ton of cargo. In addition, the new truck provided driver visibility far greater than any other truck on the road.
Kenworth's existence as an independent corporation ended in 1956 when
Pacific Car and Foundry dissolved the independent charter. Kenworth officially became Kenworth Motor Truck Company, a division of Pacific Car and Foundry.
Hot on the heels of the reorganization came the announcement of the new Model 900 series. This new truck featured a new frame design with dropped front section, which shortened and lightened the chassis.
A fleet of 923s were used in a quest for oil in the northern Yukon Valley. More than 3,000 tons of equipment and supplies were required to get to the site traveling over 385 miles of ice and tundra.
The following year, 1957, Kenworth delivered a full-tilt COE cab, which enabled the engine and transmission to be easily serviced. Expansion in 1959 came once again to Kenworth, this time south of the border. With new Mexican regulations overseeing imports, production facilities were built to handle the large post-war Mexican market.
In 1961, two new models were introduced by Kenworth: the W900 conventional (W for Worthington) which provided larger cabs and a redesigned instrument panel; and the K100 (K for Kent) cabover which was designed for maximizing cargo within the overall length restrictions imposed by eastern state regulations.
In 1964, a new plant was developed and opened in Kansas City, Missouri. By the end of the year, the company produced 2,037 trucks, a new Kenworth record.
Kenworth opened a plant in Melbourne, Australia, in 1968. Within two years they were producing right-hand drive conventionals and COEs for the Australian market.
The 50th Anniversary of Kenworth in 1972 marked the first year in which the company hit the five-digit sales mark. To commemorate the year, Kenworths featured gold-background hood ornaments (Kenworth Bug), replacing the normal polished aluminum ornament.
Chillicothe, Ohio was the location of Kenworth's next expansion, bringing its production capability to 16,000 trucks in 1974.
A new production plant was unveiled in Renton, Washington, with opening ceremonies conducted on June 4 1993. The first truck off the assembly line was a T600B, destined for Stevens Transport, located in Dallas, Texas. The Renton plant joins two others in the United States—Seattle, Washington, and Chillicothe, Ohio.
In 1995, two of the three oldest Kenworth dealerships in North America reached the 50-year milestone; Williams Equipment of Spokane, Wash. and Kenworth Sales Company of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Both dealerships were established at the close of World War II and founded as family businesses. Today, both continue to operate as family-run operations and have expanded beyond their local markets to include branches in Idaho, Nevada and Montana.

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