Leo Kelly had long regretted selling his W Model Kenworth, so when he was reunited with it 22 years later, he gave it the five-star treatment.
He had originally purchased his 1984 Kenworth W Model brand new, after trading in his late model Atkinson. He worked the truck hard carting cattle and certainly put it through its paces, racking up over one million kilometres on the clock by the time he sold it in 1992.
Having caught the trucking bug early on, Leo bought his first truck when he was in his early twenties, in 1996. It was a 1954 Chevrolet. He travelled to numerous livestock markets in Victoria’s western districts purchasing calves and transporting them to the Bendigo, Donald and Horsham livestock markets.
“I always liked trucks. I just bought this small 15ft tray truck as a start to cart cattle and gradually progressed to bigger trucks I started off carting cattle and calves and gradually got into interstate,” said Leo.
It was about two years before Leo upgraded to a 1016 Dodge with a 22ft stock crate which he used to transport cattle from Bega, NSW to the Dandenong and Newmarket markets in Victoria.
After that came a 684T Fiat with a semi-trailer in the early 1970s, then an Atkinson in 1975, where he worked for Ringwood’s Transport, carting wool to Adelaide and talcum powder back, a role he continued for 18 years – first in the Atkinson, then in the W900.
Now aged 78, Leo’s worked around trucks and cattle throughout his entire working life; and was inducted into the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame in 2022.
Though the W900 was his pride and joy, Leo made the decision to part with the truck in 1992 to pursue his cattle farming interests, work he continues to this day. That truck – which also won Truckin’ Life’s Rig of the Year in 1990 – served as a deposit for land in the Victorian town of Edenhope. From an initial 800 acres he secured back then, he now has approximately 5000 acres.
“We run a feedlot, and cart grain and cattle. My son Daniel Kelly works with me now – he does the truck work and I do the cattle work. We usually cart cattle to Pakenham, and carry grain locally,” Leo explained.
As an owner operator, Leo owned several trucks, but none left their mark on him quite like the W900. When Leo decided to go on the hunt for one of Kenworth’s iconic W Models, he didn’t expect to find the exact one he had owned so many years ago – but as luck would have it, his son Daniel managed to locate it in Adelaide.
“Because the W Model was the only brand new one I ever owned, I was looking for one to buy and do up. W models are so hard to find and buy these days because everyone wants them,” Leo explained.
When they got there to see the truck, it was in a terrible state. “The bulbar was bent, the mudguards were broken, the bunk was off and it was out in the yard, with dogs sleeping in it,” said Leo.
“It had been knocked about a fair bit and was a bit of a wreck. But as soon as I looked at it, we bought it there and then.
“Once I got it back, I went to town on it and put it back together. The restoration took three years. We had to do the motor up. It had been painted it white, so we got it painted in its original colours. I spent a lot of money on it, but it didn’t matter because I had my own truck back.”
The restoration process started with a trip to a local mechanic to make sure everything was right underneath. “After they did some work on it, we brought it back and fixed it up ourselves,” added Leo.
“I brought it to Barry Dickson Paint & Panels at Cobram and he painted it up and fixed the exterior. I knew he did a good job, so that’s why I took it up there and he did all the work.”
Leo gave the truck the name ‘Midnight Special’.
With the upholstery also in tatters, PACCAR truck sales legend Manny Melkonian, who sold more Kenworths than anyone else in Australia, was able to help.
Leo brought the truck around to show Melkonian. “I needed to do the interiors, so he rang the mob that does the new Kenworths and they were able to do all new upholstery for me on the seats and right through the bunk,” added Leo.
Though the truck has been brought back to its former glory, it’s now a show truck, retired from life on the daily grind. Leo and Daniel have two working trucks: a 1993 Kenworth T900 and a 2000 Kenworth T904.
Leo and his trusty W900 have become regulars on the truck show circuit, with the truck often getting plenty of attention. “People like the W models and remember them. Now there’s newer and flashier models, but back then when you’d drive that truck, you’d feel like king of the road.”