COAL: 1978 International Harvester Scout – First Love

In my sophomore year of college, my roommate and I returned to school, and to our new off-campus apartment, with our vehicles. I had my trusty Mazda, and he had a new (to him) International Harvester Traveler, the 110″ wheelbase version of the Scout. It was a 1980 model, painted in Tahitian red (brick) with a black fiberglas top, and it was a Midas conversion. This was a relatively popular option offered by IH which added a plaid-themed interior, swiveling captain’s chairs up front, overhead map lights throughout, carpeting, a built-in cooler, and in some models, his and hers sunroofs. He’d ripped out the plaid headliner and some of the map lights, but otherwise it was a pretty solid truck, having been sourced from somewhere near his parents’ place in Florida. Being bigger and roomier than the Mazda it was often the vehicle we chose to ferry groups of people across the city, so I had a lot of experience in the passenger’s seat and also behind the wheel.

Image: 1980 Scouts had square headlights, my least favorite grille treatment. This is a Diesel–see the badge at the base of the A pillar? Turbine wheels were special too: they were specific to the Midas edition.

It had an International 345/Torqueflite 727 combo with power steering and brakes, and for a big truck, got up and out of its own way very well.

One memorable winter evening I drove a group of friends to Washington DC to attend a seminar, and borrowed the Scout. Somewhere on the way south the linkage for the windshield wipers gave out, and snow began to fall heavily. I found some twine in his emergency crate and we tied it to each wiper arm, feeding the loop through the butterfly windows. My friend Jen was enlisted to sit on the middle console and pull the string back and forth to clear the windows while I navigated down I-295 and found us covered parking in the city. Oddly, I never considered turning around in the face of this challenge, probably because Jen had beautiful green eyes and I wanted her to keep sitting next to me.

Image: Hooniverse. This is the Midas Edition interior: Plaid everywhere. Deep-pile carpeting. Not pictured: 8-track player and CB radio.


We drove it south to Florida our Junior year for spring break, taking our time to get to his parents’ place, because they decided he needed to sell it (the body mounts were beginning to sag due to Maryland salt) and they wanted him to have something more reliable for college and beyond. We hung out in Sarasota for a week or two, headed over to Miami to visit his high school friend for a couple of memorable days, and then headed back north in a rental. His parents set him up with a base model Chevrolet 1500 pickup, and the Scout passed out of our lives.

In 1997, a few years out of college, living in a house I’d just bought, and slightly better off financially than I’d ever been, I started thinking about Scouts again. I looked at a couple of local Scouts through the Pennysaver (remember that?) but they were all Bondo-heavy or swiss cheese. I was working as a web designer at this point, and so one of the perks of my job was a blazing fast internet connection at work. I started reading up on Scouts and found a couple of sites that had good information. One of them was a forum with classified ads, and after a few months I saw one that was promising: a 1978 Scout II with a body in good condition and some extra parts. This one had a 304 V8 and a Borg Warner T19W 4-speed, which I liked the sound of.

After a couple of phone calls, I drove up to Lancaster, PA to check it out with a good friend, and found the seller to be honest and trustworthy. The truck itself was in great shape for a Pennsylvania example; the rockers were clean, the bed mounts (a notorious weak point) were solid, and the engine ran like a sewing machine. It was bone stock and optioned very simply: rubber floor mats, highback buckets, a rear bench, and that was it. After a trip around the block to check out the running gear, I gave him the cash and he signed over the title. On my way out of the driveway he warned me to fill it as soon as the gauge read 1/4 and waved goodbye.

Your author, behind the wheel

When I called my insurance agent to get it covered, she had to ask me twice what kind of vehicle it was. Then she had to put me on hold. When she came back, she asked if International Harvester made tractors, which I confirmed. She chuckled, and said that we were going to insure it as a farm vehicle even though I lived in Baltimore City, and so I got a sweetheart deal on insurance the entire time I owned it.

It came with two big tubs of spare parts and, most importantly, a Kayline soft top, crucial for summer driving. The Scout II was designed with a fully removable hard top in 1970, when crash tests were optional, lap belts were still standard, and airbags a distant dream. Most Scouts didn’t come with a rollbar from the factory, so it was usually up to the owner to order one new from the factory or install an aftermarket unit later. Mine had somehow made it 20 years without one.

My Scout in front of the local IH-specialty shop in Annapolis, long since closed.

My first stop was the local Scout shop, where I had them put in a rollbar and a Tuffy console–a locking steel box tougher than a gun case, topped with a marine-grade vinyl cushion. He also switched out the bolts on the front shackles, which were pretty well chewed up, and replaced the transmission crossmember. All of this helped drivability and my peace of mind, even though I knew that if I hit anything I’d be canned Spam.

I got used to the stick in the Scout very quickly. A T19W is basically a 3-speed; first gear is a 6.32:1 crawl ratio, so I always started in second gear unless I was parked on a hill. With power steering and brakes, and with a ridiculously tight turning circle, I could park it anywhere in the city with ease. On the highway with 3.54 gears, it moved along with plenty of zip, and as long as I wasn’t stuck in traffic it was a breeze to drive. When I did get caught up, I could usually put it in first and inch forward slowly, but if I had to do a lot of stop-start driving my left leg would begin to ache. The pedal throw on the clutch is that of a dump truck, which makes sense when you’re driving with a dump truck engine.

One day, soon after purchasing it, I was digging through boxes of crap in my house and stumbled across an old Star Wars figure I’d kept for years, and thought he would be the perfect totem for my Scout: Chewbacca. Big, brown, loud, and loyal. I zip-tied him to the steering wheel, and there he stayed. And my Scout never let me down.

At the first whiff of spring air, I pulled the hardtop off and stuck it in my backyard, leaning up against my neighbor’s fence. The soft top went on with some trial and error, but all of the holes had been drilled for me, so it was just a matter of reassembly.

On the beach at Assateague.

Over the next couple of years, I took it everywhere. One of the first long trips I took was to Assateague National Seashore, where I ponied up $65 for an off-road vehicle permit in order to drive on the sand. Each morning my girlfriend and I would wake up in our tent, pack the truck for the day, air down the tires, and drive south on the sand for a while until we had a quarter-mile of empty beach on either side. I’d pop the tailgate down, set up camp around a firepit, and we’d spend the day on the beach by ourselves until the sun got low in the sky, and then head back to the campsite for a shower and some drinks.

It went north to New York State for my grandmother’s funeral, where I drove it in her procession, and later for a drunken tour of the fields behind her barn with my cousin Sean, flying over the flattened cornstalks in 4WD, laughing our heads off.

Out in front of my rowhome, with the soft top installed. Nice socks.

I drove it all the way down to Nag’s Head in North Carolina twice, and happily did not need an ORV permit to drive north on the beach. On the second trip my girlfriend convinced me to leave our rental house early to go south to Myrtle Beach, which in hindsight was a poor decision. August in South Carolina with no air conditioning is bad, but in a Scout with no insulation between the engine and firewall is worse. The route we took was slower than we’d bargained for, so by the time we made it to Myrtle Beach we were delirious from the heat. We set up camp at the State Park, jumped into the ocean to cool off for an hour, and went into town for some air-conditioned dinner. Returning to our campsite, we settled in for one of the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had. The heat was unbearable, and where we were located was far enough off the water that we got no breeze. We wound up walking the beach for hours into the early morning, when we finally laid down and passed out.

At about 5:30AM, giant four-engine transports from the South Carolina National Guard began taking off from Myrtle Beach National Airport, the runway of which ended directly above our campsite. Berserk with anger, I balled the tent up into a wad, threw all of our gear into the truck, and pointed it north to get home as fast as possible.

I drove it at least twice a week, often more in the summertime. Between the Scout and the CRX, I was averaging the MPG of any normal vehicle on the road, so it wasn’t an expensive toy. In all my years of ownership, I only had it in the shop for carb adjustments, new brakes, and a new set of tires, until the rust started setting in.

Somewhere around our fourth year the rear cargo area started getting really bad. I was seeing more and more of the road through the steel, and the tailgate was beginning to get sticky. I sourced a one-piece steel replacement and enlisted a friend to follow me to a welder up in Pennsylvania, who had a clutch of Scouts and a lot of experience fighting tinworm. We left it with him for a few weeks and when I got it back he’d done a masterful job of removing the bad stuff, welding in a few patches, and then putting the new floor in. The truck was immediately quieter and stiffer and tracked better on the road.

The sticker in the corner of the windshield is from the IHC Digest, an early email listserve that’s since been shut down.

Living in Baltimore at this time was interesting with two vehicles; When I first moved in my street was quiet and traditional; after the third or fourth year parking was increasingly difficult as more yuppies moved in and I had to move the Scout every third day to avoid a fine. It seemed to lead a charmed life: for a truck with no working locks, it only got rifled twice, and they took nothing of value. (Thank you, Tuffy). When some jerk spray painted a line down the row of our cars, I as able to wipe it off with a rag and some elbow grease (as well as my neighbor’s Dodge Dart and my other neighbor’s Seville).

Every year I found a new and interesting place to stash my hardtop. After one year in my backyard, the headliner was saggier, so the next year I put it in my friend’s 4th floor warehouse space (having a car-sized freight elevator is a luxury). The next year it was in my sister’s chicken barn.

The blizzard of 2002. My Scout and the Humvees were the only cars on the road the day after.

My final winter in Baltimore City featured two heavy snowstorms, and my girlfriend’s bosses decided they were going to open the office and make her come in to work. Luckily she’d stayed the night at my house, so I put the Scout in 4WD and we ground our way into the center of the city. After the melt, I cleaned Chewbacca off as soon as I could, but the copious salt laid down on the roads did its damage quickly. The doors were getting harder to close, the rear body mounts were beginning to disintegrate, and the muffler developed a leak in the early spring.

I asked my girlfriend to marry me in ’03, so we found a big, dilapidated house outside the city in a good school district and put my rowhome on the market to pay for it. We used a 27′ van to move the bulk of our possessions, but my Scout was pressed into service for the remainder of the stuff. Somewhere around the third trip from her apartment to the new house my muffler let go completely, so I grabbed a hacksaw and cut it off in the street. An International V-8 is loud in stock form, but without a muffler it is deafening. On my last trip from the city I went howling through the Harbor Tunnel with all of my cleaning supplies and two cats stuffed in the back, and it must have sounded like the Four Horsemen coming out the other side. I was deaf for an hour.

In front of my useless garage. Here she sat for several years…

Our house needed a lot of work. It was owned by a family doctor who raised eight kids, and they put a lot of miles on it. No real maintenance had been done in years. He made basic repairs as needed, but most of them looked like they were done in trade for his services, and they were done badly. I parked the Scout in the driveway and focused on throwing all my time and money into making the house livable. That fall I bought one of those canvas pipe-frame tents sold at Wal-Mart and erected it in the driveway over the truck, thinking it would offer protection from the elements. What happened was that with each gusty wind the tent wanted to fly up off the ground and throw itself into the side of our house. I sandbagged the corners and tied things down but by springtime the poles were all bent and the canvas was ripped.

There Chewbacca sat for several years. I had a few people stop by and ask if it was for sale, but my intention was always to get back to fixing it. That’s right: I was one of those guys. It’s hard to let go of a vehicle that’s always meant so much to you; it’s like giving away a child. Ultimately, I came to the realization that it was getting to the point where it would be worthless after another winter, and I couldn’t afford to retub the whole thing. So I gathered up all of my Scout parts and started putting the word out.

As it so happened, my wife had a new client for her design business, a contractor and his wife who lived in a nearby neighborhood. She had them over for a client meeting at our dining room table, and as she did her discovery process, it came out that he loved old houses and trucks and always wanted something like an International, maybe a Scout.

Funny, my wife said, did you look in the driveway? My husband has a Scout and it’s for sale.

They looked it over after the meeting and he was very excited about it, and I talked him through all of the adventures I’d had and the parts I’d stashed away. But his wife told him he’d have to wait, as there were other things they needed to purchase that fall. We made plans to meet up for a beer and talk more about Scouts, but I could see he was disappointed.

The next day his wife called me and told me she wanted to buy it for his surprise Christmas present. Stunned at how awesome she was, I thought about it for a moment, and told her I’d make her a deal: She would bring a mechanic of her choosing out to the house to look over the truck and all the parts, he’d tell her what he thought it was worth, and I’d honor that price. A few days later, her guy came by and poked through the truck, and a deal was struck.

I was heartbroken the day the flatbed came to pick her up. She still looked great to me, even though there was cancer in the rockers and the doors weren’t closing cleanly anymore. I loaded up two big tubs of parts into the back and waved as it drove out of my sight.

Stripping the rig for good parts

Her Christmas gift went over as well as you might think it would, and over the next couple of months he bought a complete fiberglas tub for it while his mechanic worked on the body. When they used a crane to pull the tub off, it folded up between the doors like a taco. He and his father stripped and painted the frame, refreshed the engine, cleaned and refreshed all of the running gear, and prepped it for the tub. When it came time to set the tub on the frame, we gathered a group of local Scout guys to do the lifting. As he worked on it that summer, we got to know each other, and got to be good friends.

After paint, coming home for final assembly

When it was complete and painted, it was a work of art: he picked a beautiful forest green color for it and used a tan bedliner for the interior. This was the best of all possible outcomes: part of my hesitancy to sell it had been the fear it would be hacked apart and forgotten, but it wound up better than it had been when I owned it. And I gained a lifelong friend.

Chewbacca, reborn. She looks better than when I had her. 

This was the end of the first chapter of my life with Scouts, but another one would start several years later. First, I had to replace my daily driver…