Deals on Wheels: King of the classics

By: Steve Brooks

Presented by
  • Earthmovers & Exacavators

More a complete transfusion than just a shot in the arm, the release of Kenworth’s K200 in 2010 forged an entirely new chapter in a story dating back almost half a century to the birth of the first Australian-built Kenworth. But the world is a changing dynamic and so, too, are the annals of Kenworth cab-overs sure to change as the future unfurls.

The K200 set an entirely new standard for Kenworth
The K200 set an entirely new standard for Kenworth

Time flies! Or at least it has certainly flown jet-fast since Kenworth shocked the socks off the cab-over community with the arrival in late 2010 of the stunningly-styled K200.

Inside and out, the K200 set an entirely new standard for Kenworth’s seemingly ageless K-series cab-over. In fact, almost from the moment of its first appearance, this radical rebirth of a model increasingly seen as outdated and even agricultural compared to its continental competitors, was suddenly saluted as the most dramatic and innovative design change in the long history of Kenworth’s cab-over class.

Success was immediate.

The K200 is the only cab-over on the Australian market with an entirely American powertrain
The K200 is the only cab-over on the Australian market with an entirely American powertrain

More to the point, it put Kenworth back in the cab-over spotlight, largely nullifying the complaints and criticisms which were all too stark when measured against most of its European rivals and the only other US cab-over on the market, Freightliner’s now-defunct Argosy.

Indeed, it’s not difficult to declare that, based on the booming ascendancy of the line-haul B-double business, the K200 was even more dramatic and more critical than any Kenworth model – cab-over or conventional – ever launched up to that time.

Introduced to coincide with the January 2011 implementation of the ADR 80/03 emissions standard, the K200 appeared alongside a swag of completely reworked conventionals – T409, T609, T909 etc – all easily identified by a curvaceous and highly appealing grille design.

However, a quick glance in, around and under left no doubt that the K200 was easily the most innovative of them all.

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With extensive redesigns to cab access, ergonomics and space, the K200 was a breathtaking bolt from the blue in every sense

Since then, of course, the launch of the T610 conventional and its more recent T410 sibling have assumed the mantra as Kenworth’s most dramatic new designs. Still, when it comes to cab-overs, nothing in Kenworth’s Australian history comes remotely close to the K200.

It remains debateable whether the K200 was a case of evolution or revolution. Revolution, perhaps, with a small ‘r’.

Whatever, the K200 is the undisputed pinnacle of a cab-over regime which over many decades has undergone more development work than any Kenworth model ever to compete on the Australian market. To date, even a conservative estimate puts the number of K-series sold at well over 15,000 units, with at least a third of those being K200s.

It all started, of course, in March 1971 when a slimline K125CR rigid model – affectionately known as the Grey Ghost – rolled off an infant production line at Bayswater, Victoria, to become the first Australian-built Kenworth truck.

Since then, gradual changes of the ubiquitous K-series platform have seen the evolution of various versions; from the somewhat mundane K100C, the marginally less mundane K100E, the significantly upgraded K100G, the underwhelming K104 which led to the slightly less underwhelming K104B, and the stoic but altogether awkward K108.

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Without Paccar Australia’s extensive local engineering and manufacturing attributes, the K-series could not have possibly evolved to its current status on the Australian heavy-duty market

And ‘awkward’ is perhaps the word which best described the K-series before the introduction of the K200, particularly from a driver’s point of view. Like, climbing into the cab-over with a bag – or worse, a fridge – required considerable feats of strength and acrobatic agility. Then once inside, a driver’s ‘hole’ crammed by an increasingly imposing engine tunnel created its own familiar flaws, while also requiring another feat of agility to move from driver’s seat to bunk.

Ride quality wasn’t always great, either. In fact, I can say with hand on heart that the roughest riding heavy-duty truck I’ve ever driven was a K-series eight-wheeler (K100E, I think) rigid fuel truck with set-back front axles, attached to a road-train triple hauling tankers out of Port Hedland in Western Australia. ‘Rough as guts’ does not begin to describe the bone-jarring brutality of this uniquely awful beast which after all these years, all those travels and all those trucks, still maintains its own nefarious nook in the memory bank.

Yet despite all the drawbacks, Kenworth’s seemingly tireless cab-over continued to be a front-runner, especially in the burgeoning B-double business. Remember, in this century there have been only two heavy-duty cab-overs of American design – the K-series and the Freightliner Argosy – and even with its inherent issues, Kenworth was far and away the more durable of the two despite being decades behind in design terms.

Durability is arguably the one quality where the K-series has generally run second to none.

Even so, with comfortable European contenders picking up the pace in performance, fuel and technology, K-series had to change if Kenworth hoped to maintain the momentum in the heavy-duty cab-over contest.

TODAY AND TOMORROW

Development of K200 was a well-kept secret and despite a typically lengthy test program, Kenworth still managed to keep the new model away from prying eyes until the day of the model’s actual launch.

While there was some expectation that Bayswater would further modify the K-series to meet the 2011 emissions standard, the extent of the changes caught everyone by surprise. Truly surprising! It might have taken a decade or two, but complaints and criticisms about the poor driver environment had not fallen on deaf ears and with extensive redesigns to cab access, ergonomics and space, the K200 was a breathtaking bolt from the blue in every sense.

All up, it was blatantly apparent from the start that the K200 was a stunning advance on its forebears, and while the most important and obvious gains were the access, space and convenience afforded by a comprehensive rework of the engine tunnel and floor area, the overall impression was one of vast renewal in almost every area.

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The K200 at its launch back in 2010. It was blatantly apparent from the start that the K200 was a stunning advance on its forebears

Detractors, of course, said it was nothing more than the same old cab shell variously adapted to suit changes in market conditions and operational requirements. That was true to some extent, but it was also true that without Paccar Australia’s extensive local engineering and manufacturing attributes, the K-series could not have possibly evolved to its current status on the Australian heavy-duty market.

Let’s face it, with America no longer offering any form of heavy-duty cab-over and Kenworth parent Paccar Inc spending next to nothing on the K-series development over the past few decades, Kenworth Australia has been entirely on its own when it came to investment in the K-series. In fact, without Paccar Australia and our market’s ongoing requirement for cab-overs, the K-series would be almost certainly dead. And buried!

This fact alone verifies the clear-cut conclusion that Kenworth’s Australian operation has done an absolutely outstanding job of keeping the K-series alive and kicking, stronger than ever.

But now, the big question is whether the K200 is the last major rejuvenation we’ll see of Kenworth’s iconic K-series?

The answer is probably buried deep in the corporate cave but as things stand at the moment, it’s fair to assume that for now and possibly a good number of years to come, Kenworth’s cab-over won’t be going anywhere. After all, it is the only cab-over on the Australian market with an entirely American powertrain.

Furthermore, the skill of local engineers and the production versatility of the Bayswater manufacturing facility will, as they have for decades past, continue to not just keep the K-series alive, but keep it prominent and prosperous.

However, change is inevitable and there’s no escaping the fact that DAF is Paccar Inc’s global cab-over platform and for that reason alone, any form of cab-over development on the corporate front will be centred entirely on the Dutch truck.

So, sooner or later, increasingly stringent emissions and safety standards, mixed with economic rationalisation, engineering evolution, technological innovation, perhaps a touch of corporate idealism, and most definitely Australia’s relatively small sales volumes, will collectively conspire to bring the curtain down on the K-series as we know it.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen, and all the groans and gripes of Kenworth cab-over fans across the length and breadth of the country won’t change the fact that one of the most enduring models to ever grace heavy-duty road transport, anywhere, will ultimately roll out of Bayswater for the last time.

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Now the big question is whether the K200 is the last major rejuvenation we’ll see of Kenworth’s iconic K-series

The change will come, perhaps, when sometime down the track, DAF comes up with a completely new cab-over design which considers the operational needs and regulatory requirements of advanced, highly professional and uniquely demanding markets such as Australia.

Or maybe it’ll happen when a Paccar operative with the engineering skills and manufacturing expertise to take the foundations of a European design and equip it with the powertrain and durability required to satisfy the expectations of a fiercely demanding customer base, decides the time is right to make it happen. An operative such as Paccar Australia.

Ultimately, the only cab-over successor for Paccar Australia is DAF and you don’t have to be too clever to figure that the recent start of DAF assembly at the Bayswater plant and Paccar Inc’s approval of a $37 million expansion of the facility are precursors to a dynamic shift within Paccar Australia.

Whatever happens, and whenever it happens, it remains hard to imagine any cab-over successor ever having the competitive clout of the K200.

Then again, times change!  

SPECIFICATIONS

CONFIGURATION: 6×4 / 8×4 / 8×6 / 10×6

ENGINE: Cummins X15 Euro 5 – 485 / 500 / 525 / 550 / 600hp

TRANSMISSION: Manual / Automated Manual Transmission (AMT)

SUSPENSION: Front – taper leaf, multi leaf; Rear – airbag, mechanical

CAB: 1.7m day cab / 2.3m flat or aero roof sleeper / 2.8m aero roof sleeper

 

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