The ‘Khaki Kenworth’

Article and main image by John Belfield. Additional images from

In military speak, this story is about a Truck, Wrecking, Heavy M1 and M1A1. This was the forerunner of Kenworth and was found in Portland, Oregon during the First World War by a Mr Gerling. He produced trucks powered by six cylinder Continental engines and sold under the trade name GERSIX.

In 1922, the business moved to Washington and was taken over by the two leading shareholders, Mr Kent and Mr Worthington, hence the beginning of the name Kenworth. At the time Kenworth was only a small company, but later they built buses, fire trucks and other special vehicles. It was a typical small concern that used proprietary components such as engines, gearboxes, differentials and axles.

In 1941, the small firm of Kenworth had a great boost to production when they received a military order for 300 Model 570 Wrecker. In 1942 the Model 571 followed which was basically the same vehicle. Initially these wreckers had a power winch front and rear and a Harwood crane which was hand operated - pity the poor recovery mechanics lifting up to 10 tons by hand!

John Belfield’s Kenworth M1A1 Heavy Wrecker shown on completion of restoration in 2011

At the same time Ward La France, another relatively small company was making a similar wrecker which varied mainly in the cabin, controls and front guards. The rest of the truck was similar with a six cylinder Continental OHV petrol engine of 501 cubic inches (8.2lt) developing 145 BHP. A five speed overdrive Fuller gearbox which drove, through a two speed transfer case, the two rear axles and the front axle, all made by Timken. Brakes were full air mechanical Bendix Westinghouse with a hand operated handbrake on the back of the transfer case.

In 1943 the US Ordinance Department decided to standardise the two different models made by Kenworth and Ward La France with a powered crane by Harwood and standard flat front guards and a military type soft top cabin. So both factories turned out the same configuration with only very minor differences. These machines served the military well and were used worldwide during and after World War 2. Many were used during the D Day Landings and throughout the European campaign against the Germans until the Victory In Europe of 1945.

Identification of different models is difficult, but chassis numbers on right front chassis near the spring hanger will tell whether it is a Kenworth or Ward La France. All M1 and M1A1 wreckers in preservation in the UK and Europe are called Ward La France but that is not correct. In reference to this I would recommend Bart Vanderveen’s Wheels & Trucks No 3 is aptly titled the “Identity Parade - M1 and M1A1 Wreckers”. The information in that book has enabled me to identify my M1A1 Wrecker as a Kenworth.

There were around 5,000 units built by Ward La France and about 1,850 Kenworths. In Australia there were a mixed bag of about 15 Wreckers with only about 4 remaining in private ownership.

I served as a Recovery Mechanic in the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) with the 4/19 Prince of Wales Light Horse Regiment from 1962 to 1988 as a Citizen Military Forces part time soldier (these days called the Army Reserve). It was a lot of fun and we used Kenworth’s, Ward La France, Diamond T M543 and M816, Mack’s and MK5 International's.

In 1964 they issued me with a Kenworth M1A1 Heavy Wrecker so that I could lift tow 13 ton Staghound armoured vehicles and anything else that broke down.

The crane was too long for lift tows so we put a sling through the lattice crane with a snatch block and used the bog winch for lifting the Staghounds.

The Kenworth was a delight to drive for a new wrecky mechanic and faster than our 690 Diamond T’s. Our first job was to escort the Regiment to Mt Skene up in the ranges near Jamison in north central Victoria. The Stags were getting very old and unstable and I had to help tow about six back to Heyfield and load them onto the train from the passenger platform. It was pretty scary coming down the long mountain logging road with 20 year old brakes.

Fast forward to 2010 and one of my spies told me about an old wrecker up near Forbes on Central NSW. It's only 300 + miles so what do you do when you receive this sort of exciting news? Well you grab some money off the money tree, hop in the car and away you go. It belonged to a crusty old fellow who had used it for a few years in a black marble quarry. At first he said he didn’t want to sell it, no way. Next he says he wouldn’t sell it under X dollars. Sounded OK to me. I wanted to hear it run and with the help of a mechanic friend of his it started up and ran well. So I offered him his X dollars and we did a deal. Nor wanting to drive it home at 2 miles per gallon, I arranged for it to be transported.

It was a great thrill when it arrived as I drove it off the low loader and straight into the workshop to start the restoration. There was a fair of ordinary stuff to do, plus sought out a fuel starvation problem. After three goes at that, we finally gave up and fitted an electric fuel pump.

We sourced good bar tread 12.00 x 20 tyres, fitted a new hood and seats, new tray side boards, renewed all electric wiring for legal rego purposes, fitted a new winch cable and finally a fresh coat of paint.

I decided to put my original wrecker’s Army registration number unit TAC signs on it. These were all beautifully done by my old friend, ex-Vietnam recovery mechanic, Dave McCallum. We finished the restoration in 2011.

To add some icing on a big green cake, I finally contacted Mike Cecil, author and historian, with the chassis and engine numbers and after careful research, he told me I had restored the same old wrecker that I drove and loved in the CMF 50 years ago.

How good does it get? It’s a question I often ask myself - and I love it!

Shown below are images other M1A1 Wrecker’s in Army service.

A Kenworth M1A1 is seen outside the Gorrie Workshops in WA during WW2. It was a lend-lease vehicle assigned to the 121 Australian General Transport Company.

Another vehicle assigned to the 121 Australian General Transport Company was Army No 156838. It was delivered to the Alice Springs workshop in September 1944, but was later based at the Gorrie workshop in WA in 1945. In one operation it successfully lifted a steam locomotive back onto rail tracks on the Gorrie to Darwin line!

These wreckers served as recovery and service vehicles for workshop and road convoy duties. Their primary role was as convoy support vehicles for the heavy Mack Lanova diesel truck/trailer combinations in use during the latter stages of the war.

All were LHD vehicles with a petrol engine, 6x6 drive (all axles), front and rear winches and carried a large range of recovery gear including oxy welding/cutting equipment. Total weight for convoy duty was over 12 tons. Fuel economy was recorded as 0.3 miles per gallon for local use!!

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