Cars Of A Lifetime: 1957 International S120 – Old Faithful

( My none too happy first son on my favorite truck )

If you read my previous post, and by now you surely know my tendencies for car-swapping, then you would know that a certain cupboard shaped brown van was overdue for a new owner. And as if by magic, the next love of my life appeared. Just imagine driving along (very slowly) in a vehicle you loathe, and coming across a vehicle you love sitting forlornly on the street. That is called opportunity! Or as it was called by its maker: a 1956 International R120 4×4 short bed pickup. Either way, it was destined to be mine.

There was a garage sale going on, and I stopped to see if anyone knew the owner of my next vehicle. The first person I asked said he was indeed the owner. We were off to a good start, and chatted about the truck. He told me that he used to drive it all the way to Seattle and back to Salem every week! Perhaps he was into abuse, but he seemed to be telling the truth. But recently, he had taken to fixing up an older L110, and the R120 had a cracked block at the water jacket that constantly seeped.

I mentioned that I might be selling my van and he asked what kind it was. When I told him his eyes lit up! Apparently, he had always wanted one (he was into abuse). I informed him that today was his lucky day. So after some test drives, we swapped titles. The International had a title that did not match the frame number but matched the body number. He said it had always been that way. Which explained some things: according to some sources International only ever made a very few prototypes of the R120 4×4 in 1955-56, waiting until 1957 and the new body style to fully launch their 4×4 truck in the form of the S120-130. Close enough for me though.

She was a sight to behold. A three quarter ton short bed with a Dana 60 rear axle with Trac-Loc, a Dana 44 HD front, a four speed transmission, a divorced Dana 18 transfer case (if I recall correctly), and an IHC Silver Diamond 220 straight six engine. It had lots of surface rust but no rust-through. So I set about painting it red with some house paint and a roller. I also gave it a tune up, which cost about ten bucks in parts.

The engine had a long crack just under the distributor from front to back. Someone had put JB weld on it, but it still seeped water all the time. So I put in some sealant stuff and it seeped a little less. But it was perfectly drivable as long as one took a can of water along.

The man I had traded said it got good gas mileage for what it was, and indeed it did. I got fifteen mpg. whether in town or off road. The trick to it was that the transmission had a very tall fourth gear. It worked great except in a forty-five mph zone, that speed was to high for third gear but to low for fourth gear. So given that it had a non-synchronized first gear, and the tall fourth gear, it meant that one really had only two usable gears in town. But the fat low torque curve of that old straight-six meant one could even start out in third gear and it would not buck a bit.

Speaking of gearing, the low speed transfer case ratio coupled with the granny first gear was the lowest stock gearing I have ever experienced. When in low-low, stepping on the gas simply made the engine race but yielded no perceptible speed increase. In fact, to make sure that it was actually moving I had to look out the window at a stationary object and wait to see if it remained stationary.

The Diamond series engines in those old International trucks were much like tractor engines, with a long stroke and smallish bore. And coupled with the short wheelbase, locking rear end and low gearing, it made like a mountain goat off road.

That truck was my daily driver for quite some time, and it was very reliable. So why did I ever get rid of it you might ask? Oh the agony of telling this!

As you know the cooling system was constantly in a state of recycling (leaking back to the road). So it would have been unsound in many ways to keep pouring antifreeze down it. Instead I ran a mixture of water and sealant most of the time. Now, Oregon doesn’t usually get very cold in the winter, or too hot in the summer, so most of the time this is not a big problem, most of the time….

( The fateful winter of ’98 in Dallas )

I had not been driving it very much, and we had moved to Dallas Oregon. That year it snowed pretty good for western Oregon. I didn’t really think much of it until it got uncommonly cold. One freezing night it suddenly occurred to me (an “oh shit” moment) that I was only running water in the cooling system. I ran outside with a flashlight and looked under the hood. Disaster! before me  lay a cylinder head that had broken into several large chunks. All the freeze plugs in the block were popped. Over the next few days I sank into a deep depression.

But of course I could not let a blown motor stop that good old truck. We moved again in the summer to a farm outside of Silverton, Oregon, and dragged the International with us. Now that I had a decent shop area, I obtained another motor from an old IHC R130 tow truck. But it needed a rebuild. So I looked around for another running engine. I found a 1964 IHC Metro van with a BD240 for sale, and the man said the engine was good. It was sitting behind a barn full of rabbits. To make a long story short, man buys non running step van, man gets van running but van gets stuck, man get truck to pull it, it gets stuck in a creek of rabbit urine, man gets friend to un-stick truck with his truck, man gets van running enough to get out of field with boards and chains, man pulls it home with Dodge military ambulance (future story) just to find it has a rod knock once running it a bit. A lot of trouble just to find that out.

So as you can see all my heroic efforts were in vain. Apparently the fates had willed that I should never drive her again. So I found a buyer for it who was very exited about restoring it, and sold him all the parts to go with it. I also gave the Metro van to a man starting a plumbing business down the road. So there you have it, the story of my fantasy truck lived out, and then dashed against the cruel shoals of winter.