PORTLAND, OREGON…Kenneth W. Self, retired president and chairman of Freightliner Corporation, died March 8, 2003, at his home in Wilsonville, Oregon. He was 87 years old. A member of the Automotive Hall of Fame since 1994, Self is recognized as a major figure in the progress of North American truck technology and remembered as a key player in the development and success of Portland-based Freightliner LLC, now the largest manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks in North America and a leading manufacturer of medium-duty vehicles.
Self was named president of Freightliner Corporation in 1959 and spearheaded the company’s growth and expansion throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During his tenure, he fostered the expansion of the company’s manufacturing capacity and led the development of some of Freightliner’s best-selling products.
Self was born January 16, 1916, on a wheat farm near Lacrosse, Washington, and spent his early years in western Idaho. He graduated from high school in Post Falls, Idaho, in 1934, and worked on his family’s dairy farm before moving to Spokane, Washington as a mechanic trainee in the city’s bus garage.
In 1941, Self was hired by Consolidated Freightways Inc., the Portland-based trucking company that launched Freightliner. He began as a mechanic in CF’s Spokane truck maintenance shop and stayed with the trucking company throughout World War II, serving as manager of CF’s large maintenance shop in Oakland, California, before moving to Portland to train CF mechanics.
After the war, Freightliner Corporation was re-organized as an Oregon subsidiary of Consolidated Freightways Inc. and set up shop in rented quarters in Portland. Leland James, the Consolidated Freightways president who founded Freightliner, personally recruited the 31-year-old Self to join the fledgling truck manufacturer as production manager in 1947.
It was Self’s crew that built the industry’s first transcontinental COE (cab-over-engine) tractor with a sleeper. That vehicle is in the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection. Under Self’s leadership, Freightliner also introduced the trucking industry’s first successful, 90-degree tilting COE cab in 1958, which dramatically improved service access to the truck’s engine and drivetrain.
Self was promoted to vice president of manufacturing for Freightliner in 1955, the company’s only vice president at the time. He was named general manager in 1955 and president in 1959. As president, he expanded Freightliner production into Canada and launched new manufacturing facilities in Pomona, California, and Portland, Oregon. He also continued the company’s effort to develop ever more efficient truck designs.
In 1975, Self was named chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Over the next few years, Freightliner established its own independent dealer network and built two more production facilities: the Mount Holly, N.C., Truck Manufacturing Plant and the Gastonia, N.C., Parts Manufacturing Plant. Self retired in 1979.
In addition to his work at Freightliner, Self served many business, civic and community organizations including the Oregon Economic Commission, the Oregon Board of Forestry, the Portland chapter of Junior Achievement, the board of governors for Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland and Goodwill Industries of Oregon.
Self also helped found the Pacific Northwest Truck Museum in Brooks, Oregon, in 1990. Its collection of antique trucks and equipment includes an early Freightliner Bubblenose COE that Self restored and donated to the museum. The museum named its second exhibit hall for Self in 1999.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Eva; a son, Marvin of Portland; a sister Bernadine Leibrecht of Spokane, Washington; and five grandchildren. The Selfs’ daughter, Janet Johnson of Portland, passed away recently.
“Ken Self was a prime mover in the development and growth of Freightliner from a small group of engineers and mechanics to a leading North American heavy-duty truck manufacturer,” said Rainer Schmueckle, current President and CEO of Freightliner LLC. “Our company is what it is today largely thanks to Ken’s leadership. Ken will be missed by his many friends at Freightliner, in the trucking industry and in the Pacific Northwest.”