While this July 2023 marks our country’s 247th birthday, 2023 is also a special year for the Kenworth Truck Company. For 100 years, Kenworth has been building “The World’s Best” trucks. But in 1976, Kenworth celebrated our nation’s 200th birthday by producing a pair of limited edition W900A and K100C trucks known as the VIT 200 Bicentennials. While the trucks carried a limited edition red, white, and blue patriotic paint scheme and were equipped with an interior to match, Kenworth also used this momentous occasion to launch its now-iconic sleeper, known as the Aerodyne, to the trucking industry.
Without going into an extensive history of the Kenworth Bicentennials, I thought I’d provide a few quick fun facts about them. Only 41 W900A and 122 K100C trucks were built. All W900A trucks were built at Kenworth’s Renton, WA plant, and all of the K100C trucks were built at Kenworth’s former Kansas City, MO production plant.
In the months leading up to July of 1976, Kenworth closed the Renton and Kansas City production lines to customer and dealer orders, dedicating both plants to produce the Bicentennial trucks, so they would all be ready to have on dealership lots by July of 1976 for the public to view, along with being used in Bicentennial Independence Day parades and celebrations across the U.S. Of the 41 W900A trucks built, 31 of them were powered by Cummins, 4 by the Caterpillar 3406, and 6 of them were powered by the Detroit Diesel 8V92.
A couple months ago, my good friend and Trucker Talk columnist here at 10-4, Kim Jaikes, stopped through town while on a run from Florida to Chicago for a quick visit. I had been telling her about the 1:64 scale DCP by 1st Gear Kenworth W900A and K100C Bicentennial models I had recently got in stock. Kim mentioned to me how she wanted to get one – specifically a W900A Bicentennial – for her collection. With that in mind, I surprised Kim with one of these models as a gift. As we were talking, Kim told me she graduated from high school that year, remembering when these trucks were brand new. Fast forward a few weeks later, while Kim and her husband John were attending a truck show in Tennessee, and Evan Steger of Evan’s Polishing brought over Jay Van Kampen to introduce him to Kim. Evan thought Jay’s truck, a rare 1976 Kenworth W900A Bicentennial, would make for a great story, and boy was he right!
This story is not just about the truck, but Jay’s extraordinary faith, as well. At this point, Kim called me with excitement in her voice, knowing how I geek out over rare and limited edition production trucks, telling me about Jay and his Bicentennial, along with how mad she was at herself for taking the diecast W900A Bicentennial model I gave her home, since a real Bicentennial was in attendance. She thought it would have been cool to get a photo of her model truck together with one of the real trucks. “Mark, you need to write this story, I’ll shoot the photos for you,” Kim said to me, and then, passing her phone, introduced me to Jay Van Kampen.
While it’s one thing to own one of the rare 41 W900A Bicentennials built, it’s even more special for Jay. “My dad owned this truck when I was a child,” as Jay proceeded to tell me. “I loved this truck when I was a kid.” Like a lot of young kids, their parents are influences on them. “I used to follow my dad around and was on his heels everywhere he went. I used to help him work on his trucks, handing him wrenches and other tools, when needed.”
Jay went on to tell me about a vivid memory he has from when he was about six years old. Standing with his dad by the driver side front tire of one of his trucks, his dad asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, to which Jay said, “I want to be a truck driver.” The senior Van Kampen told his young son at the time, “Well, you can have any truck you want that we have at that time,” and Jay was quick to tell his dad, “I want the Bicentennial!” Sadly, Norman “Norm” Van Kampen died three years later in 1981 and all his trucks were then sold at auction. One thing Jay remembers from that day at the auction was a bidder he overheard saying that he didn’t care for the paint scheme on the Bicentennial W900A, and when he got it home, he was planning to paint it all blue!
After the family farm was sold and the trucks were auctioned off, Jay’s mom moved their family to the Pekin, IL area where he spent the rest of his younger years growing up. After high school, Jay joined the Navy and became an Aviation Structural Mechanic, working on the F-18 Fighter Jets for Squadron VFA-94 based out of the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, CA. After four years on active duty, Jay served two years in the Naval Reserve, and then returned to active duty in 1996, reporting to Squadron VAW-126 based in Norfolk, VA, working on the E2C Hawkeye, an all-weather carrier based tactical airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. In 2000, Jay became an instructor at the Naval Air Technical Training Center based in Norfolk, VA, until leaving the Navy in 2003 at the rank of Petty Officer First Class.
Currently residing in the Hampton Roads/Norfolk, VA area, Jay started his own construction company after leaving the Navy. Trucks were the furthest thing from his mind at this point in his life, until a customer that Jay had been doing some remodeling work for in 2006 gave Jay a 1991 Freightliner FLA cabover as payment for the job. “My dad used to give his trucks names, so I followed suit,” said Jay. Naming that Freightliner “Old Maude” after his grandmother, it was the start of his trucking company, Wooden Shoes Trucking, Inc. “Wooden Shoes was my dad’s CB handle, due to his Dutch heritage,” Jay explained.
Fast forward to 2015 when the Federal Government issued the ELD Mandate requiring all companies and drivers operating model year trucks 2000 or newer to be equipped with an e-log. “At the time, I was running a brand-new Kenworth W900L with an 86-inch Studio Sleeper and it had all the bells and whistles,” Jay said. “Since I wasn’t driving a truck all the time and wasn’t interested in paying for a service I wasn’t utilizing, I decided to make a change in order to keep running paper logs.”
After praying to God for guidance, Jay began his search for a pre-2000 truck. “In May of 2015, my wife Rachel and I were attending church and our pastor gave a sermon called “Tell your story.” Needless to say, this sermon had a huge impact on Jay. The pastor said, “You can’t just walk up to someone and ask them if they know Jesus, but you can tell them your story, and what Jesus has done for you.” Jay felt he didn’t have a story to tell and began praying about it.
Not long after that sermon and Jay’s prayers, while searching online for a truck, he found a blue 1976 Kenworth W900A, equipped with an Aerodyne sleeper, for sale on a Michigan Craigslist ad. “The ad said that the truck was a Bicentennial and right away I knew that God was presenting me with a gift and a way to tell my story,” said Jay. “Little did I know that in 1981, when the guy who purchased it said he would paint it blue, I now understood why – God did this in order for me to find my father’s truck later on in life.”
After contacting the seller, Jay purchased the rare 1976 W900A VIT 200 Bicentennial for $6,000. And now, once again, Jay was reunited with a part of his father, as well as the truck he had loved as a child. Telling me about the truck’s condition, Jay said, “It was in really bad shape.” Besides the blue paint, the Detroit 8V92 had been swapped with a Cummins NTC 400, the truck’s original 13-speed was gone, too, having been changed out to a 9-speed, and the Kenworth torsion bar suspension had been replaced with a Peterbilt low air-leaf. Inside, the original door panels were gone, along with the original seats, the Bicentennial badge on the glove box, gauges, and other interior panels, just to name a few. “I drove the truck home from Michigan to Virginia and it barely had any brakes,” said Jay.
Once Jay got the old Kenworth home to his shop in Virginia, he began disassembling the truck, and a 3.5 year restoration and rebuild ensued. “The sleeper was broken/cracked in a few places, and it needed to be replaced, so I decided to upgrade it a bit,” as Jay began explaining. The upgrade? Jay found an early modular Kenworth Studio Sleeper (pre-aerocab) and used the base of that sleeper to build a 74-inch Generation One Aerodyne sleeper. “I used the original sleeper and then got another one and fabricated new sleeper wall panels and put the two roof lines together.”
On the sleeper’s interior, it utilizes the original cabinets and other interior panels, it still has the original upper bunk, but it now has a modern Kenworth couch in it. While the sleeper looks factory (and basically is), Jay did install a Freightliner drawer style refrigerator underneath the couch. Throughout the cab and sleeper, the interior was redone in red, white, and blue like it was from the factory. To give the seats a special touch, Jay had the headrests embroidered with the Kenworth logo in gold.
To accommodate the large sleeper, Jay stretched the frame of the truck four feet, going from its original length of 231 inches to the W900A now sporting a 274-inch wheelbase. A modern 12.7 Liter Detroit Diesel, rated at 550-hp, was mated to an Eaton-Fuller RTLO18713 13-speed transmission, pushing all that horsepower to 3.58 rear gears, turning 24.5 Alcoa aluminum rims wrapped in Michelin rubber, riding on a Kenworth 8-bag air-ride suspension.
Finishing off the restoration, Jay’s Bicentennial received its proper paint scheme, finished in white with red and blue stripes, and sporting a gold frame and suspension. The Kenworth sports its original battery boxes, dual exhaust, 150-gallon polished fuel tanks, 15-inch breathers, its classic Kenworth chrome grill, and a 22-inch Texas bumper. While the truck is red, white, and blue, the phrase “Be a Rachel” is inscribed in yellow on the side of the hood. This phrase is a special tribute to Jay’s late wife, Rachel Van Kampen. “My wife liked bright colors like yellow, and after she passed, when the condolences of her memory were being shared about what a caring, kind, thoughtful and truly selfless person she was, always putting others before herself, a theme came out of it, challenging others to be more like her.” Rachel’s cousin then coined the phrase “Be a Rachel” which became a fitting tribute to her on the truck.
When I asked Jay what it means to him knowing he’s finally driving the truck that he has such fond memories of with his dad, he said, “It’s surreal at times to me. Sometimes I stand in the sleeper, looking out the windows, reminiscing from when I was a kid, or knowing that I’m holding the same steering wheel and looking over the same hood my dad did. It makes me nostalgic.” Jay continued by saying, “The first trip I ever took with the truck after its restoration was back home to Illinois to visit my mom and show my family the truck, and when my mom saw it, she began crying.”
Since the truck’s maiden voyage in July 2019 after its restoration, Jay has put approximately 120,000 miles on it. In keeping with the patriotic theme of his truck, Jay has a 2023 Wabash dry van and a 1991 Utility step deck, both painted to match his Bicentennial KW. With 10 trucks in his fleet, Jay keeps pretty busy. But Jay likes to get out on the road at least once a month to escape the office and stretch his legs, enjoy the scenery of our beautiful country, attend a truck show, and now – most importantly – Jay has a story to tell! Have a Happy 4th of July and God Bless America!