On The Map—1923
The early 1900s brought dramatic change to the Northwest as Model Ts began challenging the horse and carriage in the transportation race. It was during this time that Seattle businessman Edgar Worthington was managing his mother's building, occupied by a car and truck dealership. Edgar took a special interest in his tenant, the Gerlinger Motor Car Company, watching as they worked to sell and repair cars and trucks. He never imagined that someday the company would be his.
For many years, Edgar looked on as the dealership went through growing pains. business was slow in this era of change, as Gerlinger mechanic Ed Hahn recalled:
"In those days there were so few trucks and cars, and there was no union, so as a mechanic, you had to stand around the garage—or in this case, the repair shop—and wait for work to come in. Sometimes you made five dollars a week and sometimes you didn't hardly make your board; then you'd have to leave and go do other work—sawmill work or something else. So we started building that first truck to keep help around."
That first truck, unveiled in 1915, was called the Gersix, a six-cylinder vehicle which was framed in structural steel, making it ideal for the rugged Northwest. According to Hahn:
"It took us nearly a year to complete. There were just two of us as mechanics, and as soon as something came in, we'd drop it and go overhaul a man's truck or reline some brakes. As soon as we finished all that, we'd go back to working on the first truck again—sometimes nothing would come in and we'd work all day on it."
Edgar's tenant was doing quite well, or so it seemed, and the Gersix became a popular fixture in the Northwest. However, the company, which had offices in Seattle and Portland, was struggling and in 1917, was offered for sale. Edgar jumped at the opportunity. Together with his partner Captain Frederick Kent, he acquired the company and renamed it the Gersix Motor Company.
In 1919, Frederick Kent retired from the business and his son, Harry Kent became Edgar's new partner. As the company grew, so did its need for capital. Although sales were strong for the Gersix—53 trucks were sold in 1922—they decided to reincorporate, capitalizing on a $60,000 infusion of cash. In 1923, the transaction was completed, and it marked the beginning of a new era. The company became Ken-Worth, named after the two principal stockholders Harry Kent and Edgar Worthington. The Kenworth Motor Truck Company was born, and headquarters were established in Seattle.
Custom Trucks, A Kenworth Tradition—1924-1926
In 1924, Kenworth sold 80 trucks and production a year later neared two trucks per week. Even in those early years, Kenworth was dedicated to the custom truck. Under the guidance of Vernon Smith, a master salesman responsible for building sales in the region, the custom truck became the hallmark for Kenworth. Kenworth's John Cannon recalled:
"It wasn't falling into an idea or creating something, it was simply because Vernon Smith would go out and sell some trucks with this or that specification, and then he'd come back to the plant and say, 'Here, I have the sale, now we have to build them.' So, it came not as a designed thing, but more or less as the state-of-the-market at the time. Everybody else was building standard stuff, and we were building anything that Vernon could get an order for."
Rapid Growth Greets New President—1927-1929
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 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.
Depression Years Hit Kenworth—1930-1932
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, catering to the special requirements each fire chief seemed to have. Kenworth's Murray Aitken recalled:
"Every fire chief felt that he was the world's leading designer of fire trucks, and he wanted some of his ideas incorporated into the fire trucks. As a result, there was a market that Kenworth could satisfy that some of the other manufacturers weren't able to comply with."
The Country's First Diesel Truck—1933-1936
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.