COAL: 1976 International Harvester Scout II – Peer Pressure

In 2008, my friend Brian and I were looking at Scouts whenever we saw them pop up in the classified ads. I had sold my old Scout to him, he’d fixed up my rusty beater up into a jewel, and he wanted to help me find a new one.  On New Years Day 2009 he sent me a Craigslist ad about a Scout for sale at an auction lot, and asked if I’d like to check it out. I wasn’t expecting anything special. The last one we’d looked at looked good in the pixelated, compressed pictures online, but what we found after driving all the way across the city was a frightening, leaky wreck.

The average condition of the Scouts we were looking at. This is one of the better examples.

This truck had “ragged out trail beater” written all over it, so I figured we’d be there for fifteen minutes and then go get some lunch. In the picture it was a hideous purple, accented with a bright yellow hood and an orangish-red windshield, sitting atop four oversized 32″ tires on blacked-out rims. As a rule, any lifted truck I’ve ever looked at has been thrashed to within an inch of its life, so my expectations were low.

We found it sitting in a crowded impound lot, and on first glance, it wasn’t any better in person, probably because it was surrounded by equally forlorn-looking vehicles. But as we started crawling over it, I was more and more amazed at the condition it was in. All of the sheet metal was straight and about 97% rust-free. It had a new dual exhaust system, new shocks, a new spring/body lift, a clean rollbar, a soft top, clean rims, and brand-new tires. The engine was listed as not running, but all the parts were present minus a battery. It was far from perfect: there were patches welded into the floors, the paint job was a 50-footer, the seats were hideous replacements, the interior hardware was pretty much gone, and it was PURPLE. Inside and out. The doors, floors, tailgate and dash were all sprayed a dark shade of goofy grape.

Our friend B. joined us, another Scout owner, and we discussed it briefly before going through the truck again. In retrospect, I didn’t actually say “I really shouldn’t buy this today”, because B., a veteran of many other auctions, went over and registered me before I could stop him.

My co-conspirators, telling me it was OK that I’d just bought an inoperable Scout.

And when it came time to auction the truck, I seem to have failed to take into account the motivation of the auctioneer to get rid of his rolling stock as quickly as possible, because I tried to remain absolutely motionless after he opened the bidding, thinking, holy s*** what am I doing?!? and he kept pointing at me, and suddenly it went higher, and I tried not to blink, but it was cold, and then it went higher, and I tried not to breathe, and he pointed at me and raised, and then it was SOLD and I owned a Scout.

After the realization sunk in, I felt a little sick to my stomach. It was, in hindsight, a screaming good deal. Scouts in good condition are, as we all know, rare on the East Coast, and I’m directly in the Salt Belt where 70’s steel oxidizes faster than snow melts. 20 years ago Scouts were somewhat common around here but in the ensuing 10 years it was as if they all suddenly disappeared.

I got on the phone with my wife, who laughed and said immediately, “I kind of had a feeling you were buying a Scout today.” She could not have been more supportive. My friends assured me that they would help me get the truck running, and if I changed my mind, they’d help me sell it or part it out for at least what I’d be paying for it.

So, the next problem: How to get this brick home. Off we went to lie to the U-Haul rep: we told him it was a Honda Civic. The trailer we picked up was more than good enough for a Scout, and it was set up with hydraulic brakes. However, we had no winch. We hoped for the best and high-tailed it back to the lot. A bunch of chuckling employees appeared, and we pushed it out of its spot and lined it up about thirty feet behind the tow rig. On the word “Go”, I aimed for the center of the trailer while they pushed. I thought I hit the ramps dead-on, but apparently I was too far right, because the left wheel slammed up against the wheelguard, sending the entire thing forward, the tongue of the trailer off the ball hitch, and directly into the tailgate of the pickup. Oooops…

Remember to lock the ball hitch down tight, friends.

At this point, that rollback was looking better and better, but Brian convinced me we should give it another try. We got the trailer hooked back up, tightened the hitch down as hard as it would go, and pushed the Scout back for a second run. This time, Brian took the wheel (I couldn’t bring myself to dent his truck a second time, and the yard guys all looked like they’d been asked to punt newborn kittens) and on GO everyone heaved and got it rolling, and the Scout somehow made it up and on the trailer the whole way. Relieved, we began to cinch it down onto the trailer when we discovered a new problem: The straps bolted to the trailer were made for Geo Metro-sized tires, not 32″ BFG Mud-Terrains.

On the brink of despair, I had to marvel at the simple, practical, offhand solution offered by one of the yard guys: “Looks like you’re gonna have to air them tires down.”

Um, right. I was just about to suggest that.

Once the tires were deflated, I sat on the hood while Brian cinched them into the straps, and we pulled out of the gates at 2:55. The trip home, while a little nerve-wracking for Brian, who was piloting the barge, was uneventful. We took the back way, transiting the 10-mile journey slowly, and passed three police cars who took not a second glance at us.

Once in the driveway, we had to contend with two very deflated tires and a 3,600 lb. brick with limited stopping potential (power brakes, too). After ducking inside to grab my air compressor, we aired both tires up in about two minutes. A call was made, and soon another friend appeared with an electric boat winch, which was attached to the frame of the Scout and the trailer hitch. After a few shoves to get the right tire off the rail, it only took one small push to get the Scout rolling, and suddenly it was parked in the driveway.

I did an inventory of what I had just bought. Both of the kick panels directly in front of the A pillar were crispy. Welds along the seam of the rear wheel wells were bubbling. But overall the metal on this truck was in better shape than my ’78 when I bought that. The PO had done some remediation before giving it up; there were new patch panels installed under the driver’s footwell and several in the rear bed around the edge of the wheel arches. The underside had been sprayed, at some point, with undercoating. Then the entire truck had been taped off crudely and sprayed with a dark purple paint that was faded and dull. Some time later the hood was replaced with a spare painted School Bus Chrome Yellow and a windshield frame painted Harvester Red.

Shelby GLHS seats it came with, and the shoulder belts I put in.

The original seats were gone, replaced with a strange set of bucket seats I didn’t immediately recognize until later, when I stumbled across an article about the Shelby GLHS and suddenly recognized the embroidered logo on my headrests. These had been yanked from some hapless Shelby and welded to the original steel bases.

Two weeks later, a bunch of International friends stopped over and we set to getting it started. We followed the basic cold start checklist, and B. pulled the battery from his pickup to see if we could get it to turn over. With some gas in the carb and about three tries, it fired up and ran, the idle smoothing out in under a minute. Elated, we took it for a run around the block without plates: the steering, brakes, and cooling system all worked. Back in the driveway, the guys tossed around ideas for a name (the custom in our group is that you don’t get to name your own truck) and they thankfully settled on one I liked: Peer Pressure.

The engine was in good shape: an International 345 V8, with a 4-barrel Thermoquad in good running order. International did not make high-performance engines; they were designed to power dump trucks and school buses, which means they are low on horsepower but high on torque, and over-engineered for durability. I changed the plugs, wires and oil as soon as the weather warmed up, and had the carburetor rebuilt by the same mechanic who did my first Scout, and she was running better than before. After doing some further research I could not tell what the actual mileage was on this truck: the tub dated to 1975 by paint color (the factory gold candyflake under the purple was only offered up to that year), and the frame and engine dated to 1979. The VIN plate traced back to a Scout painted Solar Yellow and built for a dealer in Aurora, Colorado. So there was no telling how it wound up here. It also came with a Borg-Warner T19w, exactly the same 4-speed stick I had in my first Scout.

It was raised a total of four inches via spring and body lift, which meant it was running with no fan shroud. I got some flat steel and fabricated a new mount for the radiator and got one installed quickly.

Because of the stiff aftermarket springs and knobby tires, this Scout drove completely differently than my first, mostly stock version. Steering was lot sloppier. The tires were loud and liked to wander more than road-oriented tires. Even though it had discs up front and drums in back, stopping was something I had to plan for.

I immediately set to work making it more livable by adding a set of shoulder belts to the rollbar, increasing my chances of survival in any kind of accident by about 2%. I yanked the discount tape deck and installed my Kenwood CD player with a pair of 6×9 marine speakers in the two jagged holes next to the rear bench. I pulled a dumb set of Pep Boys “performance” covers off the pedals and replaced the plastic side mirror with a solid metal Jeep-style unit.

With oversized tires, the speedometer is more about guesswork than science.

I started looking around for spare parts through Craigslist and over the next couple of years sourced a bunch of extra sheet metal: two fenders and two doors from a guy in Virginia, a hood, cowl, and two bins of parts from a guy in Silver Spring, a spare 1972 grille and a cherry black dashpad from a friend in the area who was parting out his project truck before moving (wish I’d gotten his winch bumper) and two clean doors, a tailgate, and a plastic gas tank from a guy in my neighborhood who had a sad ’78 sitting in his driveway covered in vine and moss. Through horsetrading and reselling I came out a little ahead on cost, making it as cheap a hobby as possible. Pretty much the only thing I haven’t found is a clean tub, but my cousin in San Diego, who bought a Scout of his own five years ago, is on the lookout for me.

Metal cut and mocked up, waiting for tack welding

After a year or two, Brian and I made plans to build a custom bumper with a swing-away tire carrier based on some other bumpers we’d seen online. After drawing up some plans, we sourced the steel and started cutting and tacking the parts together in his garage. He took the two units to a welder near his house and got both of them finished and ready for grinding and paint.

Bumper in place with full-size spare and relocated license plate holder.

Over the course of two months we put them together and then returned to the welder to add gussets to the frames of our trucks to support the extra weight. I ran mine for about six months before taking the spare and swingarm off, because I wasn’t happy with the amount of wobble the spare tire put on the frame, and the pitch and yaw it added to the steering at speed. Because the springs are so stiff, any movement from the weight of the spare amplifies through the frame and makes everything squirrelly above 50mph. I’ve got to go back and rethink the mounting points to stiffen it up further before I’m sure it will be safe.

New PT Cruiser seats (sorry this is dark).

About 3 years ago I found a pair of clean PT Cruiser seats in the local pick-and-pull and mounted them to a spare set of seat bases I had in the garage. Some friends on the IH forums claimed they were a simple bolt-in replacement, and they were right; it took me a short afternoon to swap them out after sanding and painting the new bases. They wound up being taller but loads more comfortable than the GLHS seats or the original IH seats I’d had in my first Scout.

A new hardtop, in Glacier Blue

Another Craigslist ad led me to Annapolis, where a nice fellow was moving and liquidating his stockpile. He had a light blue hardtop that was priced right, as well as a bunch of other parts that a friend bought for his project. At this point, I’ve got enough sheetmetal that I could put a different-colored panel on every part of the truck to call it a Harlequin.

In 2014 I started sanding all of the interior paint off in preparation for spray-in bedliner that I’d bought as a package deal with two other Scout friends. It had been sitting in my basement in a reasonably climate-controlled environment for a couple of years but I was aware that it wasn’t going to last forever, so I made it my summer project. Over a long weekend I took all the paint off, washed it, etched it, painted it with POR-15 and prepared to shoot it with liner. When I opened the jars I found that two of the three ingredients had hardened, so I had to postpone the job for a week while they rushed me new materials.

After the bedliner went in.

With a borrowed compressor, I shot the liner the following Friday, let it sit overnight, and replaced the seats in time to drive it to Carlisle the next day. It made a huge difference in the amount of rattling and squeaking the tub made, as well as deadening some of the road noise outside.

That’s a GM Hydroboost system in place of the original vacuum-operated booster. I need to clean up the battery cables. 

This winter a bunch of friends stopped over and helped me with another project that’s been gestating for years: swapping out the stock brake booster with a hydroboost system sourced from an Astro van. I’m told this is a pretty common mod in the hot rod world, and promises better stopping power without the use of vacuum in a smaller package under the hood. In the space of an afternoon we had it installed, the lines plumbed, the front pads replaced, and the lines bled. Unfortunately all that new power blew out one of the cylinders in the rear drums, so we’re going to reconvene and get that fixed next.

My ongoing rule is to tackle small projects I can do myself so that it’s not off the road for an extended period of time, and always keep it running. My fear is that I’ll disassemble it to the point where it’s inoperable for a month, and then a year, and then it becomes a rusting hulk in the driveway that never runs again. I want to keep this Scout on the road and moving, even if that means it’s four colors I dislike for the rest of my life.

My daughter, with her tools, helping me work on the truck in 2010

We get a thumbs-up every time it’s on the road, and looks and questions wherever we park it. I’ve had people drive up next to me in a parking lot and offer me cash for it. I’ve had people pull up in the lane next to us and take pictures. Almost everyone who recognizes it tells me they had one (or knew someone who did) and then tells me how they used to beat the snot out of it. Which is nice, I guess.

And again in 2016

As a car hobby goes, it’s as inexpensive as things get; because it’s a truck we use it for utility, but with the top off in the summertime it also doubles as a true sport. My daughter has grown up with it and prefers to take it anywhere in the summertime over the other two–more boring–cars. I’d say I have to agree. I’ve already told her it will be hers when she’s ready to drive. For this reason I don’t take it offroad like my other Scout friends do, because I know that will hasten its demise, and I’m not interested in seeing that happen again.

On the way back from picking blackberries, with the safari top up

My eventual goal for this truck is to hang on to it and slowly take it back to a more stock appearance, with a professional paint job in a true International Harvester color. But that’s after we get college out of the way. For now, it will stay four colors and keep a smile on my face while I watch people snap their necks as we drive past them.

There’s a sad postscript to this story that I hesitate to share. Last fall, Brian had a catastrophic fire in his house that burned his garage to the ground. Inside was Chewbacca, my old Scout, and it did not survive the fire. Not all is lost, though. He had it insured properly, and after he finishes constructing the new house this spring, he and I are going to start hunting for Scouts again.