There is nothing like an old, sturdy machine, too weird, yet still so perfectly built. Old-timers are simple, bulky, and look as if they were out of place.
When you see one of those legendary classic semi-trucks rolling on the asphalt, you know you are in for a treat. Just the heavy scent of the diesel alone will invoke memories of the “good ‘ole days” for older truckers.
In those moments, what you see in front of you is a well-built, well-oiled machine made to last. It seems that these classic semi-trucks are the real deal—more real than what they build nowadays anyway.
Let’s Go Back. What Is the Oldest Semi-Truck Manufacturer?
The oldest semi-truck manufacturer is Winton Motor Carriage Company. They built one of the first tractor-trailer trucks by converting a car into a tractor and attaching a small trailer to move cars from its factory. This was in 1899.
Alexander Winton started working on it in 1898 after starting a business of “horseless carriages” in 1896 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since these were the early days of motor vehicle transportation and highways were yet to be made (took more than half a century for interstates to become a thing, but more on that later.) These trucks did not see many roads under them, and early trucks stuck to urban areas for short hauls only.
Truck Development After the World Wars
WWI brought with it an incredible rise in truck development and use. The invention of the pneumatic tire increased the ability of trucks for long hauls. That and the fact that the railroad could not handle the increase of transporting cargo requirements urged the nation to look for alternatives.
In these years, the Mack truck was born. Mack built thousands of trucks for both the US and British governments. Story goes that the Mack logo came to be when British soldiers said the truck’s blunt-nosed hood looked like a bulldog, Britain’s mascot.
But it was after WWII and the Highway Act of 1944 which essentially authorized the designation of all Interstates in the US (and their construction mind you) that trucking took off. It took a decade for the construction to start, though. In 1954, a debate about who is to pay for these costly roads happened, and in ’56, the construction finally began.
Now was the time for trucking to truly take off. During the next decades, the American roads will bear witness to some of the greatest trucks ever made.
Here are the best of them.
The Kenworth W900
The first truck we want to talk about is the Kenworth W900. This classic semi-truck was produced in 1961. Since its initial conception, the W900 has remained in production until 2020.
The W900 has varying engine sizes, and it has up to a 625 horsepower engine. Its front axles vary from 12,000 to 22,000 lb rating, and the rear axles vary from 23,000 single to 58,000 tandems.
Early Kenworth W900s have several things that make them what they are. For example, they have external door handles that are mounted just beneath the side windows. Another thing that makes early W900s identifiable is the bulkhead doors.
’61 W900s have a very recognizable windshield – the split flat pane. This style has continued to be used up until ’94 when it was replaced with curved windscreens.
The W900 models have had various TV appearances as well. The W900B appeared in the License to Kill James Bond movie. The W900A has appeared in Smokey and the Bandit.
Easily recognizable, the W900 is genuinely a classic Americana semi-truck.
The Peterbilt 359
Although some might argue that the Peterbilt 379 is the better choice, the 359 is the more popular model.
The Pete 359 was one of two choices for long hood rigs at the time it was introduced. The other option was the Kenworth W900. What made the 359 different was its customizability. All orders were custom specs, and the driver could get a design made specifically for a purpose. Their purpose.
The Pete 359 has features that anyone can recognize. You have the long hood, huge grill, large exhaust canisters, and high stacks. It also has an aluminum body, which makes the truck very durable and lightweight.
In fact, since customizability was a selling feature for the Pete 359, a trucker could order their truck made from full aluminum – body, frame, etc. This made a huge difference in vehicle weight, which, as you know, is a huge deal for heavy freight hauling.
The successor to the very popular B series Mack, the R model ran for 40 years until it was retired in 2004.
It went into production in 1966 for highway use. It quickly became one of the most popular heavy-duty diesel trucks.
The first R-Model Mack trucks were revolutionary. They introduced the Mack Thermodyne diesel and gasoline engines (or Maxidyne) and the Maxitorque transmission.
The Maxidyne engine provided maximum horsepower over a broader range of engine speeds, which was the first of its kind. This revolutionary engine enabled lower consumption and reduced the need to shift gears from ten or more speeds to just five for most uses.
On the other hand, the Maxitorque transmission offered a compact design with its triple countershaft, which was first of its kind. Shorter by one-third from traditional transmissions made it lightweight, and it quickly became the popular choice among operators that were hauling heavy freight.
The Kenworth Cabover K100
The leaner of the W900-K100 duo, the Cabover model is quite the sight. The K100 models cemented Kenworth as the go-to over-the-road truck manufacturer. It is often debated that if the length restrictions remained as they were, the K100 Cabover would have beaten the W900 as Kenworth’s most popular truck ever made. Nevertheless, it remains one of the instantly recognizable classic semis.
Built to maximize cargo while staying within length restrictions made the K100 Cabover the most popular cabover truck ever made (at least in the US.)
The K100 appeared in the movie High Ballin’ and the classic series BJ and the Bear.
Most notably perhaps is the K100 that hauled the space shuttle Enterprise during ground operations in Alabama.
The Kenworth T600
Nicknamed the “Anteater,” the Kenworth T600 is the first purpose-built truck for aerodynamics. Similar in look to the W900 with some key differences: the front axle is set-back, the curved hood, and its lower bodywork is more rounded.
This truck began its life during one of the biggest oil crises in the world, the 1973 oil crisis. Of course, the goal was an aerodynamic tractor that will reduce air drag, and with this, reduce fuel usage.
Needless to say, the T600 project was a success. Not only did it decrease fuel spend by 20%, but it also required a less powerful engine to boot. It was a massive jump from the gas-guzzling monsters of its time, and by ’85, the T600 become a huge success, accounting for more than 40% of all Kenworth truck sales of the year.
Based on the Diamond T cab of the CO-180 and CO-220 but placed much higher to compensate for bigger engines and big radiators, the Emeryville truck was the top seller in the US for four years in the ’60s.
And for a reason. This truck was THE truck you saw on the street back in its day. It used a Cummins engine ranging from 165 to 335 horsepower and a Fuller transmission.
Although it might look small, it actually had a sleeper cab in it, making it an odd, but viable over-the-road choice. However, having a berth did not mean it was comfortable. Most of the trucks on this list weren’t made for comfort – they were made to do the job while adhering to their era’s weight and length policies.
Still, with its distinguishable look, the Emeryville is one of those classics you immediately recognize. Now, some people might argue that Transtar II is the better choice, but the Emeryville is where it all began for International.
The Mack Super-Liner
The successor of the R-Series trucks, the Super-Liner’s development started in the ’70s. In 1977, the Mack RW700 (Super-Liner) saw the light of day. This truck has the same cab of the R-series but has the frame of the WR Cruise-Liner COE.
The first generation of the Super-Liner has those recognizable four round headlights and the 3-spoke steering wheel.
Funnily, the Super-Liner started its life not in Mack, but in Brockway Motor Company – a subsidiary of Mack that was in direct competition against Mack in the heavy-duty truck category.
Mack closed Brockway Motor Company in ’77, the same year they introduced the Super-Liner.
The RW700 model lived for almost 30 years. It was discontinued in 1993 and was replaced by the Mack CL700, which continued to use the Super-Liner frame.