The Rise and Fall of International Harvester
International Harvester Company (IHC) was a U.S.-based manufacturer of agricultural machinery, construction equipment, buses, automobiles, household and commercial products. It also built light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
In 1978, IHC was near the top of the Fortune 500 list of largest companies. However, the company had been having product, labor and financial issues for some time. By late 1979, IHC’s fortunes began to decline, precipitated by a devastating labor strike, as well as a downturn in the global economy and increasing competition.
Following long-running negotiations, International Harvester sold selected assets of its agricultural products division to Tenneco, Inc. on November 26, 1984. IHC also sold the International Harvester name and the IH symbol to Tenneco Inc. as part of the sale. In 1985, Tenneco merged the assets sold by IHC with its J.I. Case subsidiary, creating the Case IH brand. Under the terms of the agreement with Tenneco, International Harvester changed its corporate name to Navistar International Corporation.
Navistar International Corporation continues to manufacture medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school buses, and engines under the International brand name.
International Harvester/Navistar’s roots go back to the early 1830s. Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper in 1830-31; it could do the work previously done by a number of men using scythes. He was awarded a patent for his reaper in 1834 and the company grew throughout the remainder of the century. In 1902, financier J.P. Morgan created International Harvester Corporation by merging the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, Deering Harvester Company and three smaller agricultural equipment firms.
Many significant events added to the International Harvester corporate history between 1902 and 1986; that portion dealing with International Harvester’s heavy trucks will be profiled in this Flashback Friday feature. A feature on Navistar will be written “down the road.”
International Harvester’s early trucks
IHC’s history in trucks go back to the 1907 Auto Wagon. This led to the production not only of heavy-duty highway trucks, but also such notable vehicles as the Scout and Travel-All. In addition, IHC also manufactured specialty vehicles for the construction industry (as well as the engines to power them).
In addition to its agricultural implements, International Harvester is often remembered as a manufacturer of innovative vehicles, competing directly against General Motors, Ford, Chrysler-Plymouth and the other auto manufacturers of the time.
The first pick-up and other light-duty trucks and cars
International Harvester built the precursor of the pick-up truck, and manufactured its versions from 1907 to 1975. The Model A Auto Wagon was the first of these, and production began early in 1907 in Chicago, but was moved to Akron, Ohio later that year. The Auto Wagon had an air-cooled engine that produced about 15 hp. It also was a right-hand-drive model that was particularly popular in rural areas because of its high ground clearance, which helped navigate the poor roads that were typical at that time. In addition, its rear seat converted to a carrier bed. The vehicle was rebranded as the IHC Motor Truck in 1910; it was the IHC until 1914, when the company first used the ‘International’ name. IHC’s last light-duty pickup truck was manufactured on May 5, 1975.
Another IHC light-duty vehicle was the Travelall, which was similar to the GMC/Chevrolet Suburban. The Travelal featured a crew cab and was manufactured in two-wheel and four-wheel drive versions. In 1957 IHC offered a three-door Travelall and a four-door version in 1961. The four-door crew cab was the industry’s first six-passenger, four-door truck.
Beginning in 1961, IHC also built the Scout, a two-door sport-utility vehicle (before the term SUV was used). The Scout was similar to the era’s Jeep. IHC discontinued the manufacture and sale of most of its passenger and light-duty truck models in 1975. At that time the Scout “Traveler” and a model called the Terra became available; each had a longer wheelbase than the Scout II. However, IHC ended the production and sale of all passenger vehicles in order to focus on the sale of commercial (heavy-duty) trucks and school buses.
International Harvester’s medium- and heavy-duty trucks
International Harvester was one of the first companies to manufacture medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Two other early manufacturers, Mack Trucks and White Motor Company, were previously profiled in Flashback Friday articles. Based on its truck chassis, IHC also became the leading U.S. manufacturer of the chassis portion of body-on-chassis conventional school buses.
Due in part to its widespread dealer network, International Harvester was selected to provide trucks for U.S. military bases during World War I. In addition, IHC manufactured machine gun carts and wagons for the U.S. Army.
Following World War I, U.S. roads began to improve, as did the design, utility and demand for cars and trucks. The company’s Springfield, Illinois facility was converted to truck production in 1921. IHC began production of trucks in 1923 at a new factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That same year, the company began building trucks at a factory in Ontario, Canada.
As mentioned above, IHC manufactured school buses. Prior to 1922, school bus coach manufacturers had built school and commercial buses using International truck chassis. The company built its first school bus in 1922 on an IHC S-Series truck chassis. Up to 25 children could be seated in these first buses. International Harvester continued to build buses for decades thereafter.
“The greatest single improvement ever made on a motor truck engine” – removable, wet cylinder sleeves were introduced to the industry by IHC in 1924. Since then, replaceable sleeves have been virtually standard on the engines of trucks manufactured by all companies. Prior to the IHC innovation, worn or scored cylinders had to be removed from the engine and the engine block would be re-bored. Using replaceable sleeves, an engine could be rebuilt without removing the engine from the chassis, making the process much easier and much less expensive.
Another major innovation was introduced by IHC in 1928. The 1928 IHC Six-Speed Special was the first truck equipped with a two-speed rear axle. Using a two-speed rear axle “essentially upgraded a three-speed transmission to six speeds,” according to the Navistar website. Equipped with six speeds (instead of three speeds), trucks were capable of pulling a heavy load more easily. In particular, the low first gear was used to pull heavy loads up steep hills.
In 1931, IHC was chosen as the exclusive supplier of trucks for the construction of the Hoover Dam. As part of this gigantic construction project, International Harvester trucks ran 24/7 to haul rock from the site where four diversion tunnels (56-feet in diameter and 4,000-feet long) were being cut from solid rock. IHC’s specialty construction vehicles included crawlers, scrapers, off-highway trucks and wheel-loaders.
IHC was not the first truck manufacturer to also manufacture a diesel engine. But it produced its first diesel engine in 1933 (a “four-cylinder, four-cycle, overhead valve, pre-combustion, full-diesel engine”). These engines were not used in IHC over-the-road trucks; they were used in the company’s crawler tractors. In 1936 IHC came out with its first six-cylinder diesel engine and it began selling a diesel-powered truck in 1937.
IHC also introduced its C-Series of trucks in 1933. The series was a full line of trucks from a light-duty truck that was similar to a station wagon to heavy-duty highway tractors. Each truck in the line had styling based on the Art Deco look that was prevalent in the industry at that time.
The company developed and introduced another technological innovation in 1934. IHC’s first “tandem axle, six-wheel trucks” provided power to both rear axles. This was particularly important for trucks that were used at construction sites, which often had uneven surfaces. A single-axle truck might not be able to handle that type of terrain and could become powerless. By contrast, a tandem axle always had at least one set of wheels in contact with the ground, which kept the truck moving.
International Harvester introduced a new line of trucks in 1937. Its D-Series featured trucks that spanned from 1/2-ton to 10-ton capacity. Despite the timing – 1937 was the depth of the Great Depression – the truck line sold well.
The Metro, a line of medium-duty step or delivery vans, were manufactured from 1938 to 1975. The Metro line was built and updated with each version of IHC’s light truck lines. There were variations of the Metro sold, including the Metro Coach, which was a bus-like version with windows and passenger seats. IHC also sold Metro models that included the front-end section and chassis; these could be customized for full commercial use. Additional models of the Metro were available; all featured the medium-duty engine and chassis.
World War II and the post-war era
Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Beginning early in 1942, IHC converted its production facilities to the effort to help the United States and its allies win World War II.
The company manufactured a variety of trucks, half-tracks, torpedoes, large guns, munitions and more for the U.S. military. While some trucks were military versions of IHC commercial vehicles, others were designed solely for use by the military.
In the years after World War II, International Harvester worked to design, build and sell new models of trucks. The company re-introduced cab forward and cab-over-engine highway trucks. The IHC Model L was a full line of trucks – from a pickup model to a highway tractor. The cab of the heavy-duty tractor had “Comfo-Vision” – the first heavy-duty truck to feature a one-piece, wrap-around windshield. The truck also offered more head and leg room for the driver, as well as a heating and ventilating system.
The cab-over-engine model DCOF-405 (known as the “Emeryville”) was a very popular IHC model. It was built by International Harvester specifically to enable truckers to haul more freight while meeting the overall length laws of the period. During the 1960s, the Emeryville was “the best-selling truck on American highways for four consecutive years.”
The company introduced another line of conventional and cab-over-engine heavy-duty trucks in 1956. The V-Line featured V-8 engines.
New trucks for the 1960s
Beginning in 1962, IHC began the manufacture and sale of the International Harvester LoadStar, which became the leading medium-duty truck. The LoadStar generally was used for “local” purposes such as fire engines and school buses. In addition, the LoadStar saw duty in the agricultural and construction industries. Most LoadStar trucks were built with a medium-duty 4×2 chassis; however, some 6×4 heavy-duty models were also manufactured. The LoadStar was replaced in 1979 by the company’s S-Series.
The heavy-duty FleetStar was also introduced in 1962. It was a short-hood conventional truck that replaced the heaviest-duty R-Series conventional trucks. The FleetStar came in two versions – configured with either single or tandem rear axles. Like the LoadStar, the FleetStar was replaced by the S-Series of trucks.
From 1965 to 1968 International produced and sold the cab-over-engine CO-4000. It was the first cab-over-engine heavy-duty highway tractor completely designed by the company. It replaced a generation of tilt-cab tractors that were based on a Diamond T truck design.
However, the CO-4000 was only in production for four years; it was replaced by the TranStar-series of cab-over-engine models in 1968. The major redesign was undertaken to accommodate larger-displacement diesel engines that came on-line. The TranStar model was produced from 1968 until 1981. In 1974 the TranStar II was introduced; it had an even larger displacement engine than the TranStar. The TranStar conventional tractor was introduced in 1971. Designed for regional and over-the-road shipping, the TranStar was available in two hood lengths, depending on engine specifications.
In 1968 International also introduced its M-Series line of trucks. These were extreme heavy-duty trucks built to serve the construction industry.
New innovations for the 1970s, but the decline begins…
IHC’s CargoStar began production in 1970. However, it began as a tilt-cab cab-over LoadStar in 1963. At that time it was a low-cab cab-over-engine model. In 1970 the cab was widened and the truck was given its new name. It was a medium-duty truck that came in either gasoline- or diesel-powered versions. The CargoStar was in production until 1986.
In November 1972, IHC introduced the PayStar, an all-new severe-service conventional truck to replace its R 210/230 models that had originally been brought to market in 1960, as well as the M-Series. The new truck, named the PayStar 5000, utilized the TranStar conventional truck’s cab (with certain modifications). The PayStar was aimed at the construction industry; it usually came equipped with a mixer or dump body. In addition to its standard configuration, the PayStar was offered with a set-back front axle configuration, as well as several rear axle configurations.
Introduced in 1977, the S-Series was a range of medium-duty conventional trucks. The S-Series replaced the LoadStar and the FleetStar lines. There were several models in the series, including a straight truck, a semi-tractor and a cowled bus chassis. In addition to medium-duty trucks, the S-Series also featured severe-service configurations (which were positioned below the PayStar model). IHC offered S-Series trucks in single and tandem rear axle configurations (the tandem rear axle version was named the F-Series); the model line also had a driven front axle version (which provided either four- or six-wheel drive).
There were two generations of the S-Series produced; the line outlived IHC by more than 15 years. Some observers of IHC credit the S-Series with keeping the company afloat during its worst financial difficulties.
International Harvester replaced the Transtar II with a new tilt-cab highway tractor in 1981. The CO9670 XL featured smaller-displacement diesel engines, as well as a wider cab, larger doors (which were shared with the Transtar 4000) and a larger windshield for better visibility.
In those first four years of the 1980s, the long-running labor strife and macro-economic conditions brought the downfall of International Harvester Corporation.
The heritage of International Harvester’s trucks lives on, however. For 35 years, Navistar International has manufactured trucks that build on – and transcend the International Harvester legacy.
FreightWaves thanks Navistar International for providing information and photographs that made this article possible.