East Bound and Down: 1981 Kenworth W-900A

If a riding mower won’t work for your next daily driver, maybe this 1981 Kenworth W-900A will! This is one nice-looking rig, and by rig of course I mean actual rig, like big rig, as in the one Snowman type of rig: Jerry Reed’s truck in Smokey and the Bandit was a Kenworth W-900. The Kenworth W900A for sale here is a great looking truck and it’s on Craigslist with what seems like a reasonable asking price of $9,500. It’s located in beautiful Boise, Idaho.

This is a lot of truck for $9,500. The W-900 was considered a Class-8 truck, meaning that its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) exceeded 33000 lb. A lot of them have three axles so seeing this one with a single rear axle is a bit unusual, at least for a huge pulling rig like this big Kenworth. I know that Howard, Geomechs, and others have had a lifetime of experience with big rigs so I hope they’ll chime in with details and experiences with these trucks.

As a kid, I wanted to be a truck driver more than anything, I even had t-shirts with truck logos and sayings on them. What an incurable nerd I was (and still am). I drive around 40,000 miles a year now but that’s a laughably small amount of miles compared to what a real driver, a professional driver, experiences. The truck for sale here looks fantastic to my inexperienced eyes and from what the seller says about it, this sure seems like a solid buy. This is a daycab, without a sleeper, so it probably would have been used for local hauls where the driver could be home every night.

The interior, or the dash, from the only photo provided looks great. 1981 was the last year for round headlights and the “A” designation for the W-900 trucks. The seller says that this truck is “Extremely clean. Interior exceptional. Low miles. Drives great!” There are no engine photos but the seller says that it’s a “Big Cam 2 400 horse. 13 spd. AC blows cold” Do any of you have any experience with a Kenworth W-900?

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  1. Rabbit

    My big truck diesel experience started & ended about 35 years ago, about the time this rig was new. The ‘Big Cam’ would be a Cummins straight-6, & the 13 a Fuller Road Ranger.

  2. Wade Anderson

    Spent the last 20 years driving east to west and spent most of it behind the wheel of a Kenworth W900 with a studio sleeper

  3. Joe

    Last job i had before retiring was in a w900 day cab with a 550 cat and a ten speed hauling chips and sawdust..nice comfortable trucks and the 550 cat will tote a load down the road 10/4

  4. Dave Wright

    Single axle trucks of all makes are not uncommon. This is a nice “looking” truck but looks are only skin deep. It was most likely a doubles or Joint truck pulling 2 28 foot trailers. I see no evidence of a wet kit so probably not a bottom dump truck, maby a hay truck. For actual use, as good as the big cams were it has been eclipsed by modern engines, most will get twice the fuel economy, have more power, be California legal…..(this one is not) A 30 year plus old commercial truck like this many times goes through a lot changes, could even have been a 3 axle sleeper truck at one time cut down to move hay. Or could have been used lightly only a few months a year in its current configuration. He is asking top retail for this old girl. We are buying semis again now and non California compliant trucks are very cheep. Many 1981 trucks are approaching 2,000,000 miles. It is all about how they were maintained. Not enough information here to know much.


      we are looking for a good used (can be old) tractor. No sleeper required. Could be single axle. short hauls ie max 6 hrs.pulling 48′ car hauler trailer cross border US Canada.

  5. Steven

    Single axle tractors were used alot back in the day in California pulling doubles, I guess they still do.. I remember one company when I was a kid , they were Green Trucks name of GP they hauled most Sugar Beats and Onions and Garlic and that Owner George Pierce if one of those trucks set to long he always had a driver along with him.. Many drivers would work for him if you couldn’t take a break..

  6. Steven

    I’ve seen sleeper cabs that had just glass where sleeper cutout is in California being used for bottom dumps and gypsum trailers..

  7. tonylomb Tony Member

    We never had anything that nice. Here’s the biggest WMD we ever put on the road. I pulled at least 2 miles of wire out of this thing over 10 years, and all electrical systems continued to work

    • Dave Wright

      That is a “classic” few were made, commonly called “cracker boxes” would be better with Budd wheels. I had a “butterfly hood” Dodge almost conventional decades ago. The hood opened up and the fenders swing out. Cummings engine stuck about 1/2 under the cab, compartment was so small the engine was canted for clearance. A lot of them became mobile home transporters for some reason.

      • Howard A Member

        Cracker boxes were GMC “F” models.

      • tonylomb Tony Member

        Spot on Howard, we had a Jimmy cracker-box as well in the fleet. She was known as the dragonfly. 6-V71 Screamin’ Detroit diesel. Drag it up one side of a hill and fly down the other.

      • Dave Wright

        We also called these the same too

      • Rabbit

        They were real popular as car haulers too. Wholesale dealer I worked for out of school had 2 with 238 Detroits in em. Couldn’t get out of their own way.

  8. geomechs geomechs Member

    No photos of the engine makes me curious as to what is really under that hood. I’ve seen a lot of W900 tandems, and a 400 “Columbus Vibrator” is a common mover. Very seldom saw a single axle with anything more than a 350; most were 290’s or 300 high torque units. But anything is possible. A lot of trucks of that vintage still in operation in the Chinook Belt but they’re nearly all full tandems. I might add that the modern engines with their electronic-controlled systems are making inroads but a lot of smaller operations are holding steadfast to trucks like these because you don’t need to be a computer engineer to work on them. The average mechanically-inclined person can work on them, doing anything from routine maintenance to full blown overhauls. Lots of parts available but if you’re veering from genuine to aftermarket, check the country of origin because I’ve seen an increasing amount of crap on the market….

    • Howard A Member

      Hi geomechs, that’s true. Older, “slip through the cracks” trucks are becoming increasingly popular. I don’t think it’s so much that the newer ones are that bad ( you would know) it’s that govt. regulations on emissions and fuel economy are taking it’s toll on modern diesels. All these steps, like “DEF” fluid, and castrated electronic fuel systems are just a bandage to a much bigger problem, what to do in the future? Most of the trucks I drove were this caliber ( although, I’d have killed for a 400 hp anything in the 80’s, most trucks were under 300hp) and my last truck, a ’72 359 Peterbilt, I was going to make it into a motorhome, but I spent enough time in one, I don’t want to spend my retirement in one.

      • geomechs geomechs Member

        Hi Howard. Like you, I really don’t want to retire in something that I dealt with on a daily basis. However, I’ve met some individuals who had to take it with them. I put a lot of miles on a GMC JJ9500 with 318 Detroit. An acquaintance ran an identical truck with a 6-71. He loved it so much that he replaced it with a Brigadier, with a turbo’d 6-71?!?! Another guy actually stepped up to a General. I did a tuneup for a retired O-O who had taken a Hino chassis and grafted on a Peterbilt 359 cab and hood to make a 5th Wheel puller. He did a fantastic job aside from the fact that I think he could’ve picked a better running gear; the Hino was a turbo’d 4-banger and it ran rough, even when perfectly tuned, and still lacked power. But in the days before a lot of Dodge Cummins units were on the road, it sufficed.

  9. angliagt

    I’m surprised that nobody mentioned the F250 in the third picture.

    • kman

      I was going to. I believe I was just watching it on ebay. Didn’t double check yet.

  10. Howard A Member

    Before anybody gets any lofty dreams of being “Billy Bigrigger” pulling a 5th wheel camper, or other recreational item, this is not the vehicle to do it with. Don’t argue with me, ( Dave) I’ve spent 35 years in these tin cans. KWhopper was the best, and still is. But for what it is. It’s stiffly sprung, hard to get around, and the 13 speed is totally unnecessary, BC Cummins will get maybe 8-10 mpg,( 5-6 w/ load) won’t start below 30 degrees (unless plugged in) fuel is generally more than gas. There’s better, more civilized rigs than this.
    As for the truck itself, if it had a 400 originally, it was most definitely a “doubles”( or triples) truck. Most, if not all single axles, like geomechs sez, were mostly city rigs, and had smaller motors. The 1st semi I drove was a ’73 “dubja 900”. It was almost exactly like “Snowman’s” and this guy thought he was Jerry Reed. ( we all did, really) This guys had torsion bar( we called it torture bar) and was awful. Air ride helped some, but it was the front springs that gave a rough ride, this will be no different. This, I’m sure , was a company truck,( perhaps California, years ago, all California trucks had Budd wheels) but as you see, it still was pretty nice inside, a KW exclusive. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my entire working career in and around these things, but I’d use for a cheap( and sorry, it’s not all that cheap) road tractor. With new trucks like this costing probably upwards of 100G’s ( sleeper trucks go for $160K now) this would be a great truck to haul an equipment trailer, or a vintage tractor hauler. but as a daily driver, ( unless you are getting paid for it) I’d pass. Parts, tires, EVERYTHING, extremely expensive, and I don’t even know what shop rates are for these. Got to be over $100 bucks/hour. Thanks Scotty, he knows I love this stuff.

    • Clint

      Shop rates are $115 to $155 per hour for big trucks.

      I have 3 KW’s. A 1991 with a 460 mechanical 3406 CAT. That truck is the most reliable I’ve ever been in or even heard about. We bought it new and it’s run 3,000,000 miles and still does work weekly. I have a 1995 that has a 3406-E CAT @ 500 hp. This one has “only” 1,300,000 miles and is currently having its 2nd in-frame. I’ve also got a 2007 with a 60 Series Detroit DDEC IV with 500 hp with 607,000 miles. The engine is reliable, but that truck has been in the shop probably 30% of its life. Only reason we keep it is because it doesn’t use DEF in the 47 states we run.

      • Scotty Staff

        Dang, I pay $145 an hour for labor for my vintage Japanese cars!

  11. Dave Wright

    Howard……You were a driver…..my dad owned KW’s since 1957…..I grew up with them and used to visit the Portland Factory often. My dad would never let me drive because he said if I ever started, I would never get away from it and it was not a great life. So when I came back from Germany I started buying and operating semis while still in the military. That was 1980. So, what is that 37 years……I have owned my own since 1980 as many as 6 at a time. It sounds like you have never written a check for any repairs or purchase of a truck. It gives you a different prospective. I have known (and know) hundreds of drivers, most don’t understand what goes into ownership and management of a fleet. They are most worried about truck between the lines and where they are going to get coffeee and food. That is there job. Off course. They all know everything about everything to do with the industry but if they did they wouldn’t be drivers.

    Like 1
    • Howard A Member

      Hi Dave, you have a knack for jumping to conclusions. I did indeed have my own trucks for about 5 years, so I’m not totally out of the loop. I agree, once a trucker, always a trucker. Hard to do anything else, once you experience the freedom of a truckers life. What started as a whim,( I couldn’t believe I got paid to do that) quickly became, just a job, and I literally, couldn’t get out of it. One thing we can agree on, if a company had KWhoppers, they cared about their drivers.

  12. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    Nice posting Scotty! I learned how to drive big trucks in a General. Drove that for several years. Fun times! Still hear that air horn at times.

    • Howard A Member

      Hi leiniedude, the “General” was really a pretty nice truck. I knew a guy with a decked out one, it was really sharp. Had a great dash and interior.

      • leiniedude leiniedude Member

        Thanks for the photo Howard, the one I drove was pretty nice, but not that nice! I used to cut off the pictures of the girl on those little toolbox calendars they used to give away at gas stations and garages. I’d tape them on the back side of the hood ornament to keep my eyes on the road. They fit perfect. The Boss never caught on.

  13. mgnut

    Back in the day when this was new I’d have to disagree with Howard and mention that Peterbuilt was probably the best. Regardless, both were nice trucks.

    I got out of trucks during the deregulation days of 60ft and 55 mph. The last rig I drove was a cabover Ford with a 8v92 and a 13 speed Road Ranger. Was a nice truck overall. Prior to that some old International 4300’s and a conventional Mac that didn’t have power on anything or air for that matter. I developed some strong shoulders and arms driving that pile of parts.

  14. David Eichelbaum

    Pretty low spec truck but kind of odd too. By 1981 Kenworth was selling mostly “easy spec” trucks which were kind of like a package of certain specs as opposed to the days when salesmen really knew their stuff and trucks were spec’d individually to a particular customer’s needs.

    Anyway there’s not much to go on from these pic but it appears to have only ever had the one tank so a local haul. The fixed fifth wheel and single axle support that. I doubt it was chopped down from a three axle based on the way the rear of the frame looks, even the original lamp bar and hangers are where they’re supposed to be. The aluminum frame is a oddity.

    While it does look to be in very good shape at least cosmetically the asking price is not in line with the current market for a tractor of this spec. If someone is interested in buying it I would obtain the chassis/VIN number and call your local KW dealer and ask them to look it up to confirm how it was originally configured.

  15. Wrong Way

    I am retired now, but I used to own one a 74 with 13 speed and a crawl through sleeper! Those were the days! The ride is a lot rougher in those compared to what it is in a newer truck! I say put a wet kit on it and put it to work! It still has the potential to make money! I am old school and if it is sitting it ain’t makin no money! LOL

    • Howard A Member

      Hi WW, we called those sleepers, “the coffin”.

      • Wrong Way

        Yes we did and it felt like a coffin to! If you got a lot lizard in there with you it really got tight! I MEAN THE SLEEPER NOT THE LIZARD! LOL

        Like 1
  16. Mike C

    For all of my big 10-4 buddies head to youtube and search “Movin’ On” If this doesn’t make you what to gear jam and look for smokies….

    Like 1
    • tonylomb Tony Member

      White line fever fo sure

  17. Rustytech Member

    Wow all these comments bring back some fond, and some not so fond memories. My first truck was an old Ford WT cab over 8V71 ( 318 hp ) Detroit. That was one slow truck, traded it for a CL, 430 hp. Detroit. Much faster but not very dependable, and I didn’t keep it very long. Then came the Kenworth W900, 1981. 400 hp. Big cam, 13 speed fuller, tandem axle with double sleeper. It was the best truck I ever drove, kept it till I stopped driving in 1994. In those days there were many friendly arguments over whether Kenworth or Peterbuilt were the best truck, ( still going on today ) even though both are made by Paccar now.

    • tonylomb tonylomb Member

      Rustytech, your post made me think of our W model back in the day. I don’t remember what year it was. I think a ’69. The chrome wind/bug deflectors made this one the pride of the fleet until the Freightliners came in the 80’s. This bad boy had a 318 in it as well. 10 speed if I remember correctly. She ran away with herself screaming down a hill on I-75. She sat til she went to the bone yard

  18. Harvey Peever

    This was a rare but cool big tractor that dodge had last.

    • Dave Wright

      Yep…….we have seen those (Big Horns?) at shows. The cab was the same as mine (and early pickups) only mine had butterfly hood and fenders, this is a tilt nose……

      Like 1
  19. Bob S

    Great string of comments by a Band of Brothers. As a kid, I wanted to be a garbage man. Ride on the back of a truck on the highway!!

  20. Rustytech Member

    Hi Bob S. I often watch those garbage men riding on the back of the truck with awe! Jan/Feb temps around here can hit 10 to 15 degrees, add to that the wind chill created by going down the road 25 to 30 mph. Then add the smell coming from the back in your face! These guy’s are supermen!

  21. RandyS

    Thinking a dually bed for this. Like!

  22. Dustin

    Nice Kenworth but personally I think a 1951 521C looks better.

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