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Bucking the trend

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio - If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That seems to be the mantra for Kenworth as far as its long running T800 is concerned.


CHILLICOTHE, Ohio – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That seems to be the mantra for Kenworth as far as its long running T800 is concerned.

This is a significant year for the T8. Introduced in 1986 – one year after the sloped hood T600 shook up the trucking world – the T8 is celebrating its 25th birthday. To date, 235,000 T800s have been sold; enough to stretch 2,080 kilometres when parked bumper to bumper. More remarkably, Kenworth officials estimate about 80% of them are still on the road.

“The only thing that takes it off the road is a major accident and that’s one of the reasons we have such a high resale value on it; even the second, third and fourth owner of that vehicle is going to make money on it,” said Alan Fennimore, vocational marketing manager with Kenworth. He boasts the T800 lasts, on average, twice as long as its competitors and says it’s not difficult to find a buyer for a T8 with 750,000 to a million miles on the odometer.

The T800 is not a spectacular looking truck. It’s easy to forget just how prominent it is on Canadian roads, as it blends into the traffic landscape. But start looking for them, and they are everywhere, dressed up in all types of funky configurations.
In an era where truck design engineers collectively rack their brains to squeeze fractional improvements in fuel economy out of new and existing models, the T800 has remained refreshingly consistent since its debut. It could be said the T800 was actually ahead of its time when it was first introduced with a sloped hood that earned the T8 and its highway cousin the T600 such unflattering nicknames as “Anteater” and “Ditchsniffer.”

But in the mid-80s, truckers were beginning to take notice of rising fuel prices and it took very little time for them to warm up to the new look when it meant fuel savings of up to 22% compared to flat-nosed models such as the iconic W900.

Since their introductions, the T600 received continuous updates in pursuit of greater fuel economy until it was eventually replaced by today’s T660 in 2007. By contrast, the T800 has stayed true to its roots with an exterior that has remained largely untouched over the years.

You can’t get an EPA SmartWay version of the T800. It’s not available with chassis fairings, which pretty much rules it out for SmartWay consideration. There’s something laudable about that; can’t a truck just be a truck anymore?

But that’s not to say the T8 is a fuel pig. As already mentioned, it was ahead of the curve with its sloped hood and there are a wide range of options – low rolling resistance tires, for one – that can contribute to respectable fuel mileage.

What has happened in recent years is there has been an unmistakable divergence between the T600/T660 and the T800, driven more by fuel economy than by personal preference.

Built on the same chassis, there was a time when in on-highway applications, either model would do. With the cost of fuel today, however, the aerodynamic advantages of the T660 are too great to ignore. This has caused the T800 to revert back to its roots as a true vocational truck, and that suits its maker fine.

“A lot of customers that in the past would buy a T800 are now going for a T660, so it’s going back to its original heritage which is vocational,” Fennimore said. “Vocational customers are less concerned with fuel economy and more concerned with durability and ruggedness.”

While no one will deny the importance of fuel economy, which is inextricably tied to aerodynamics, other factors are equally important, especially to vocational customers. Chief among them are visibility and maneuverability, and the T800 with its sloped hood and set-back front axle delivers both. It could be argued that no other vocational truck offers better forward visibility. But it’s probably the truck’s legendary durability that has won it so many fans over the years.

Those who like the T800, like it a lot. You won’t find a bigger fan of the T8 than my pal Gord Cooper, owner of Calgary, Alta.-based oilfield trucking company OCEAN Hauling. He bought his first T800 in 1990 and claims to have one of the first such trucks to be fitted with a 60-inch bunk. With a picker behind it, no space on that frame went to waste.

Cooper currently runs two T800s, a 2003 tri-drive with 540,000 kms on it and a 2007 tandem. I asked Cooper what he likes about the T800?: “The set-back axle is a better ride for one thing,” he said. “It also offers a much better turning radius and with the set-back axle I could afford a bigger bunk on a winch or picker truck.”

Cooper has noticed another benefit as well; one that only an off-roader could appreciate: “With a conventional, the mud and road grime always comes right up into the side windows,” he said. “On the T800, the mud will come up behind the windows and onto the stacks, but the windows stay clean and you can still see the mirrors.”

Cooper bought a W900L in 1996, but reverted back to the T8.

“It looked great, it just wasn’t as practical as the T800 in tight situations in the bush,” he said. “So I bought the T800 and haven’t looked back.”

That type of fandom is not unique. Over the years, entire fleets have been built around the T800.

As was the case when it was first introduced, the versatility of the T8 is still among the truck’s strongest selling points today. It’s why it has endured. It can be put to work as a dump truck, mixer, snowplow or heavy-hauler. It can pull tanker, flatdeck, van or float. You’re as likely to see a T800 day cab pulling B-train tankers over the mountains, as you are a T8 with an oversized sleeper pulling a van trailer in Eastern Canada. You’ll find them on the west coast, the east coast and everywhere in between in all kinds of oddball configurations.

On the road
To fully appreciate the appeal of the T800, you really have to drive one. This summer, I spent the better part of a day driving a couple of T800s on the roads around Kenworth’s Chillicothe, Ohio truck plant in order to get to know the T8 a little better.
The two trucks I spent the most time with were a viper red T800 dump truck with extended day cab and, the real highlight, a T800 heavy-hauler with an amped up 565-hp Cummins ISX under the hood.

The dump was powered by the quiet and capable Paccar MX with 485 hp paired with an Allison 4500 RDS six-speed automatic transmission. The Paccar engine was responsive and powerful and on the flatlands of central Ohio, it was not challenged in the slightest by the light load I was carrying. The truck had disc brakes on the front and rear axles and a raised pusher axle where you’d likely find a tridem (where permitted) in Canada.

With an EPA2010-compliant Paccar MX engine, the T800 dump truck I was driving had a tiny 5.6-gallon diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank that was discretely tucked behind the fuel tank. Since this truck was spec’d for local haulage, the smallish DEF tank should be sufficient while adding minimal weight to the vehicle. Dump truckers will likely want to keep a good supply of DEF at their home base and top the tank off nightly or while doing their pre-trip inspection. The entire SCR aftertreatment system was neatly packaged under the passenger access step.

The Paccar-powered T800 was fun to drive on the highway but in a dump configuration, it’s real home would be in the quarry or on the job site, where I’m sure its visibility and maneuverability would be fully appreciated. The set-back front axle makes turning in tight spaces effortless. While I didn’t have the chance to visit a work site, I did maneuver it around the Kenworth employee parking lot and suffered little angst as I easily steered around the parked cars that lined the lot.

The real fun part of my day came behind the wheel of the T800 heavy-hauler, spec’d out for what looked to be some sort of oilfield application, but this one also had a pusher axle making it an unlikely Canadian spec’. This tractor had an expansive 259-inch wheelbase and for convenience sak
e, I was pulling a partially loaded 53-foot van trailer. It was a curious set-up; this truck would be more at home pulling some heavy equipment aboard a lowboy or maybe even an oversized load, but the key to the T800’s long reign has been its versatility and it wouldn’t be the first time it was asked to pull a plain ol’ van trailer.

“That truck will haul 140,000 lbs with permitting,” Fennimore told me during a phone chat a few days after my drive. “It’s comfortable pulling 80,000 lbs in a 53-ft. trailer or 105,000 lbs through the mountains on the West Coast.”

The possibilities are endless with this truck, which was incidentally equipped with an Eaton UltraShift Plus transmission, proving there’s a place for the newest generation automated manual transmissions (AMTs) in even the most rigorous lines of work.

The UltraShift’s Hill Start feature, in fact, is perfect for heavy-haul applications. I benefited from the feature while stopped at a stop sign on a moderate incline. When the road was clear, I moved my foot from the brake to the gas and away I went without any concern of either stalling or rolling back into a bumper-riding four-wheeler.

The T800 heavy-hauler was fitted with a 38-inch bunk, making it suitable for overnight trips. Let’s be honest, it was no Four Seasons back there, but the small 38-inch AeroCab bunk would do in a pinch and god knows there aren’t a lot of Four Seasons in Fort McMurray or Yellowknife. For a small bunk, the AeroCab offered sufficient storage space with room under the bunk for either a cooler or a drawer-style refrigerator.

My 75-minute route trek me over portions of US-23, OH-104 and, for the majority of the route, along US-35. As I drove past two sprawling prisons – one on either side of OH-104 – I couldn’t have felt freer, with the radio on and the windows down and the open road before me.

For most of the journey, I was the meat in a Kenworth sandwich; a T700 in front and a T660 bringing up the rear. Depending on your perspective, I may have been driving the third best looking of those vehicles, but as trucks go, the T8 was the unquestionable alpha male of the pack. In central Ohio, pulling a 53-ft. van at 80,000 lbs, either of those trucks would suffice. But what would you rather have in the northern Alberta oil patch or pulling a set of B-trains over the Rogers Pass?

This is the type of truck that wins awards at truck shows, yet gives EPA scientists fits with its large external air cleaners and a stainless steel sun visor to boot. Spec’d for overnight hauls, the T800 heavy-hauler had an 18-gallon DEF tank with a stainless shield to conceal the unsightly plastic tank.

While the exterior of the T800 has remained largely unchanged through its 25-year history, the same cannot be said of the inside.

All of the amenities that can be spec’d on the T660 are available on the T800. The truck I drove had a stylish sunroof, which is an option on any T800 with a sleeper cab.

The T660 and T800 share a common chassis as well as all the luxuries enjoyed by the highway crowd, as it should be.
The interior of the T800 heavy-hauler was nothing short of luxurious, with a well-appointed dash that put chrome-rimmed gauges and rocker switches within easy reach. More commonly used controls, such as cruise and the engine brake were integrated right into the optional SmartWheel, so you can make adjustments without taking your hands off the wheel. Even the latest toys such as Kenworth’s NavPlus in-dash “infotainment” system is available on the T800. Forget the notion that vocational trucks can’t be comfortable and luxurious.

I’ve gushed over the UltraShift Plus automated transmission enough in the past, but it bears repeating that this is a spec’ worth considering in even the harshest operating environments. The newest editions of the transmission are up to pretty much any job and the VXP version in my T8 heavy-hauler is approved for loads of up to 170,000 lbs – even heavier with Eaton’s consent.

Fennimore tells me about 30% of T800 mixers are now spec’d with automated or automatic transmissions, up from as few as 5% in the late 90s. It’s a trend he sees continuing.

“For the most part, I think everybody has accepted the new AMTs,” he said.

Another trend you’ll notice is the shift towards air disc brakes. The dump truck I drove had disc brakes at every position, while the heavy-hauler had discs on the steer axle and drums on the drives. You don’t need to do a panic stop to notice the improved stopping capabilities of disc brakes. Like automated transmissions, disc brakes get a bad rap because early versions were not up to snuff. That has changed, and both components deserve a fresh look.

Here to stay
With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and EPA soon to implement minimum fuel economy standards for heavy trucks, one must wonder about the future of non-SmartWay models like the T800. There has been plenty of speculation that fleet operators will eventually have no choice but to pick from an assortment of SmartWay-approved truck designs. Fennimore shrugged off any such concerns.

“The T800 still has a long life ahead of it,” he insisted. “We build enough aerodynamic models that it offsets anything we do with the T800.”

For a purist, that’s encouraging to hear.


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1 Comment » for Bucking the trend
  1. Dale says:

    I’ve had the pleasure of owning and driving the T800 while pulling tri axle or tandem tank trailers in the Alberta oil patch since getting my first T800n in 1992. For what I expect and demand of a truck it just couldn’t get any better. It’s tough enough to get into the mud and off road and still rides and handles the highway as well. Only place I ever felt out of place was when I pulled a cattle liner for a buddy, sitting with all the long nose Pete’s waiting to unload at Cargil foods in High River only proved that maybe those guys don’t really know what thier missing in handling in tight yards.

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