Mike Daniels and his 1969 Kenworth have been truckin’ up and down I-5 for over two decades. And before that, he was tearin’ up the woods, hauling logs in his home state of Washington, in some of the coolest KWs to ever run in those harsh conditions. But, not being a guy who ever goes to truck shows, Mike is a bit of a ghost – except for the folks that see him and his familiar cream and red combos doing that I-5 shuffle between Seattle and Northern California on a regular basis. Thanks go out to our friend Bryan Welsh of Junction City, Oregon, who not only introduced us to Mike and his not-so-perfect but still iconic rig, but for helping us to setup this long overdue photo shoot and feature.
Born in 1951, Mike Daniels of Montesano, Washington, grew up on the Olympic Peninsula. Back in those days, the timber industry was huge and booming. After returning from WW-II, Mike’s grandfather ran log trucks and, eventually, his father did, too. In the mid-1960s, Mike’s dad switched from logs to freight, and began running between Washington and California. In 1971 he got a gig with Alaska Distributors, a large alcohol distribution company, and ran for them until he retired and passed the haul to Mike in 1994.
Growing up around trucks, Mike has always loved to drive. In high school, as soon as he could get his license, he and his friends were racing around and building cool hot rods. While still in high school, at just 16 years old, Mike got a job at the local John Deere dealership where he assembled machines (they were delivered to the dealership via rail cars and they came in pieces) and did whatever was needed. Not too long after that, the owner of the dealership signed a waiver saying that Mike could drive a truck and he was able to get his commercial license at just 16 years old – without even taking a test! The dealership had a big Ford F750 and a lowboy trailer, so Mike began using this combination to deliver machines to their customers.
Still not sure what he wanted to do, after high school, Mike headed to the local junior college, while still working at the John Deere dealership. It didn’t take long for Mike to figure out that this was not for him, so he left school in 1971 and got a job driving a really nice, almost new, KW log truck with a self-loader – at the time, he was just 19 years old. Back in those days, information moved at a slower pace. Mike drove this log truck for about four or five months and then, one day, he got a frantic call from the owner of the company, telling him to pull over and stop the truck. Apparently, the company’s insurance provider finally saw Mike’s driving record, which was filled with speeding, reckless driving, and other serious infractions from his hot rod days in high school – none of the violations were made in a truck. So, not surprisingly, he lost that job.
Wondering what to do next, Mike asked his dad for some advice. His dad said, “Get a job at another outfit that has a different insurance company – do that until they catch up to you again. Or, maybe they won’t.” Following his father’s advice, Mike bounced from company to company over the next few years, and that old DMV record followed him around for quite a while. In fact, when he finally bought his first truck in 1979 – a 1957 Kenworth log truck with a butterfly hood, a 262 Cummins, and a 5+4 transmission – he had to purchase his insurance on a month-to-month basis because they would not sell him a long-term policy.
This Kenworth log truck, Mike’s first truck, was originally red with black fenders, but Mike eventually painted it maroon with black fenders. He also re-powered it with a hopped-up 335 Cummins, switched up the transmission to a 13-speed Roadranger, and added all aluminum wheels. This rig was pretty slick – in fact, it was even featured on a Kenworth calendar in 1985.
Mike owned and drove this KW until 1986. At that time, due in part to the political and environmental fight over the Spotted Owl, which began to kill the timber industry, Mike stopped trucking and took a job at the local Kenworth dealer as an outside salesman for parts and service. Again, not surprisingly, Mike hated this job, and he only lasted for about a year.
After leaving the Kenworth dealership, he bought another truck – this one was a 1971 Kenworth freight truck, which Mike converted into a log truck. Painted white with red scallops, this was a pretty cool rig for its time, too. Around this time, logging on private property exploded, as the land owners started worrying that the environmentalists might start coming after them, as well. Up until that point, the fight to “save” the Spotted Owl only applied to federally-owned land. Also, at that time, the China export market opened up, and timber was in demand. So, for the next few years, logging was booming again, and Mike took full advantage of that fact.
In 1991, the timber industry went bad again. Unfortunately, being tied to the building industry and the overall economy, logging is a very precarious business – still is. Selling his KW log truck, Mike headed back to school – to a technical college – to study engineering. It didn’t take Mike long to figure out that sitting at a desk was not his cup of tea, so he got a job as a Maintenance Manager at Waste Management in Kennewick, WA. After getting their fleet of trucks organized and ship-shape, they tried to cut Mike’s budget so he left. From there, he headed to another company, but he was not happy.
Then, in 1994, Mike’s dad made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He had been hauling for Alaska Distributors since 1971, and was looking to retire. So, Mike bought his truck – a 1973 Kenworth W900 with an 8V92 Detroit – and started doing the I-5 shuffle under his new company name, Mike Daniels Motorfreight, Inc. On one of his first trips to California, Mike spotted a long-hood W900A in a yard in Vallejo, where it had been sitting for years, and ended up trading the guy his 1963 Ford Galaxy hot rod for the hot rod rig. After bootlegging it home to Washington (it barely ran), Mike did some research and found out that the truck was originally ordered by a famous outfit in Los Angeles called Far West. These guys were known for their cool black trucks with big power, so Mike was pretty excited.
Over the next two years, Mike worked on the A-Model when he could – he extended the front fenders and side panels, he painted it, he rebuilt the original torsion bar suspension, he re-did the interior (removed all of the wood grain and then polished and/or painted everything), added air conditioning, installed five-inch stacks, replaced and painted the tanks, added a 36-inch sleeper, and lit the truck up with some extra lights. A few years later, he replaced the engine with an electronically-controlled, fuel-injected Cummins N14, which has worked very well for him. Mike put the truck on the road in 1996, and ran it hard until 2008. Now, it is his personal truck, so whenever he needs to get out and drive, which is maybe twice a month, he takes this one.
From 1994 to 2008, Mike grew his small one-truck operation to a six-truck fleet, still running for Alaska Distributors. Buying several new KWs exclusively until 2006, all of them were the same colors (cream and red), but in several different configurations. Trying to order another new KW in 2006, the factory would not build it the way Mike wanted it, so he ordered a Peterbilt instead. Since then, he has bought nothing but Peterbilts – they are lighter and they still have the “classic” look Mike wants. In 2008, after some buyouts and mergers, Alaska Distributors closed their doors. Mike hauled their very last pallet out of the warehouse – it was a sad day.
After Alaska Distributors closed up, Mike scrambled to find new business and worked hard to survive. Today, he owns five rigs – (3) newer Peterbilt 389s, (1) 2006 Peterbilt 379 (which is parked right now), and the (1) 1969 W900A seen here and on our cover and centerfold this month. All of Mike’s four Utility trailers are 48’ x 102” reefers with quilted back doors, except for the old 42-foot 1979 Great Dane polished stainless dry van hooked behind the A-Model (not because he hauls refrigerated freight, but because his customers like to know that he can control the climate inside his trailers if needed). His trucks currently haul beverages and brewery supplies between Seattle and California.
Married to his wife Ingrid since 1974, she was originally born and raised in England, moving to the United States with her mother when she was 16. She worked for years as a city clerk in a neighboring town, but in 2001 Mike finally convinced her to retire and help him run the trucking business. Before that, Mike did it all himself – he drove, dispatched, fixed trucks, found loads, did the payroll and billing, and filled out all (well, most) of the necessary reports. Once Ingrid came on board, it was a lot easier for Mike, as she got things organized and running smoothly. He hated doing all that crap, and was glad to get away from all the paperwork. With one son who never got into trucking (smart guy), Mike and Ingrid also have two grandkids – a boy and a girl – who they spend a lot of time with.
Over the years, Mike has had several hot rods. He currently has a black 1931 Model-A Ford which has been made into a 50s-style roadster, as well as a 1955 Thunderbird, which is an ongoing project. The roadster has had a few different engines, with the current one being a V8 out of a 1956 Thunderbird. He drives this hot rod all of the time – he and Ingrid once took it all the way to Wisconsin. Like his trucks, Mike doesn’t really take his hot rods to shows, either, but he does drag race them on occasion and do Autocross (a timed road course), which he really enjoys. The big ATHS antique show, recently held in Salem, Oregon, was the very first “real” show Mike had ever brought his truck to – and that was only because we asked him to! Showing just isn’t his thing – simply put, he would much rather drive his vehicles than show them. But, he might hit a few this year, just to be different.
At almost 65 years old, you might think that this soft-spoken, smooth-driving, lifelong trucker would be considering retirement – nope! He is not interested in that at all. He is happy with the current size and scope of his operation, and feels so blessed to have grown up and lived in the “golden age” of trucking (the 70s and 80s). Everyone has a certain sense of style, and Mike just hopes that some people will appreciate and remember his. Mike considers his trucks to be big hot rods, and has always said, “It’s gotta be cool, or there’s no use in driving it.”
Mike Daniels’ 1969 Kenworth W900A is not a perfect truck, and he knows it. But that is okay. With at least three million miles on it, this 47-year-old rig still works, it still has a lot of character, and it is still cool to the core. And, like Mike, it is a West Coast icon, for sure.