Museum Classic: 1956 International Harvester S-Series Truck – Brief Refresh

Back in 2021, just as the world was returning to normal, my wife and I decided to visit the touristy retreat of Suchitoto, a small town in the center of El Salvador. The town is a hot and colonial enclave about which I talked about some time ago. In short, it’s a nice place to get away from the city’s daily hurries. After a while though, the town’s heat gets a bit much, and in order to cool off, we stepped inside the Museo de la Moneda (The Currency Museum). The Museum consisted of a large old Spanish-style structure, recently renovated, that proved a pleasant place to spend time away.

The ‘museum’ part was a curious thing, however. From what we saw, the idea of museography is an alien concept in Suchitoto. We enjoyed it, but to a large degree, it was like seeing a bunch of items collected by an eccentric rich uncle. The collection was comprised mainly of coins, naturally. But also, swords, letters, books, and much more; just scattered in display cases with nary a word on their meaning or origin. Finally, toward the museum’s exit sat a group of four antique cars. What did the cars have to do with the rest of the museum? No idea. But heck, I wasn’t going to complain about old cars appearing out of nowhere. And out of the eclectic group, this 1956 International S-series truck was the most interesting.

If you’ve never seen one of these S-series trucks, there’s a reason. They barely ran for about a year and a half, from 1956 to early 1957. A very short period at odds with IH’s usual norm, and uncommonly brief in the light-duty truck segment. But the S-series was just a placeholder; an update to keep IH’s light-duty trucks more or less competitive until their new A-series arrived for 1957.

“The convenience of A car… all the advantages of a pickup.” Such claims were becoming common in the light-duty truck segment, after Chevrolet’s “Advanced Design” line arrived in 1947, redefining the genre altogether. In reality, IH’s S-series was more pickup than ‘car’ in its underpinnings, as the cabin and drivetrain were long-running carryovers.

Let’s backtrack on the origins of the S-series. IH’s main claim to fame rested on delivery trucks and farming equipment, and by the beginning of WWII, was the third-largest truck manufacturer in the US. As for their light-duty trucks, they came about during the doldrums of the Depression, as the need to divert into new segments became essential. In 1932, the first IH light-duty truck came to the market, taking as a basis a Willys Overland C-113 truck, but making use of IH’s own 6-cyl. powerplants.

Ted Ornas at International Harvester’s styling studio in 1966.


The arrival of Chevrolet’s “Advanced Design” in 1947 shook all players. Probably feeling the heat, International went looking for a new man to spruce up their goods. They found it in Ted Ornas, an alumnus of George Walker, who had set up his own design firm in 1947. As it often happens in these stories, Ornas’ enterprise was on the brink of closure just when IH came calling in.

Much of the 1949 L-series light-duty line was already set for production, but IH’s management wanted new ideas for its fascia. In short order, Ornas’ small firm created a new look for the L-series, which got the nod of approval. Having impressed IH’s management, Ornas was offered an executive position in 1951. Under his guidance, IH’s new Styling Department was set up at their Fort Wayne plant. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Ornas’ most successful design would be the 1961 Scout.

The L-series underpinnings would get two redesigns under Ornas’ supervision. The first came in 1953, released as the R-series. Besides the customary light-duty trucks, panel trucks, and chassis-cab vehicles, IH would explore new territory with the R-series. It came in the form of the Travelall, the first proto-SUV, using R-series hardware and styling as its basis.

The fierce postwar competition was likely behind various IH projects that never came to be. After all, anything to stand out in the red-hot market had to be considered. Among the many, one was the intention to standardize the look of IH’s dealer network. A proposal was put together; the ‘Basic Standard Number One’, designed by Loewy and Associates, and a limited number were built in accordance.

IH’s aging light-duty trucks got a final redress with the 1956 S-series. The revised wide and low grille did its best to look fashionable against Detroit’s latest offerings, but there was no way to hide that its cabin was a ‘very 1940s’ leftover.

Power on the S-series was supplied by two 6-cyl. engines, the Silver Diamond with 100 hp, and the Black Diamond with 141 hp. The same variety of body options were available, light-duty trucks (1/2 ton, 3/4 ton, 1 ton), panel trucks, chassis-cab, and Travelall. Besides the standard rear-wheel drive, a four-wheel drive option became available for the first time in IH’s light trucks.

Putting some ‘meat’ into the car-like claims, the S-series had a ‘Comfo-Vision’ cab, with larger side windows, and a larger one-piece rear window. The S-100 and S-170 series also came with deluxe options for the interior, such as dual armrests, sun visors, and locks on both doors. That, plus 12 standard exterior colors.

I honestly can’t tell if any of those ‘deluxe’ options are part of my find in the Museo de la Moneda. It does have a bunch of chrome bits, so maybe it’s ‘Deluxe’? Are those ‘armrests’? Hard to tell, we’re so spoiled nowadays.

As mentioned earlier, the red-hot postwar market had players coming up with all forms of new products. And publicity stunts. About the latter, IH was more than willing to play along. To announce their new line of 1956 trucks, the company’s products made a stellar appearance in the Little Golden Activity Series of children’s books. IH’s new trucks and farming equipment reached 60,000 supermarkets and department stores across the nation, ready to entertain the kids of America. As for the contents of the book, looks like Scuffy the Tugboat and Saggy Baggy Elephant drove IH’s new products while having a grand ol’ time.

“Some trucks were running in a cold room to prove that they would work in freezing weather.

Some were splashing through mud and water, to prove that they were water-proof.”

Ok, this book doesn’t sound exactly like lofty children’s literature. Maybe not even passable. Then again, that’s cynical adult-me speaking. The car-loving kid in me would have dispensed with the words, looked at the images, and most likely loved it.

IH’s creative impulses didn’t stop there, as can be seen in the company’s corporate magazine; “Today.” In the same issue announcing the Little Golden Activity book ploy, a curious campaign promoting industrial safety guidelines appears. It was “Miss Safety.”

It was a feature about 4 pages long, with each “Miss Safety” advocating for some safety tip or another. It’s a peculiar display, and probably made more sense at the time. Or not.

Regardless, most of the publication dealt with other corporate matters, such as business and sales practices. Hard to think about it now, but before emails and WhatsApp, there was a time when corporate publications were the means to spread out such guidelines. In the case of IH, their network was wide and far-reaching and in need of such tools: “… across the length and breadth of the U.S… in some 7,000 cities and hamlets, Harvester looks to a vast network of independent dealers to sell its tractor, motor trucks and farm machines at retail.”

1957 would be the company’s 50th anniversary and a revamped line of light-duty trucks would mark the occasion. The A-series would arrive (1958 Travelall above), finally placing International on par with its competitors in the segment.

Thus, the S-series has the curious claim of being one of IH’s rarest breeds. The S moniker would actually appear again in International’s roster, as a Medium and Heavy-duty truck line in 1977.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect to find much about these trucks online. But just like the eclectic and unusual museum where this sample currently sits, searching into the S-series past sent me down a weird rabbit hole, with odd promotional moves, and quirky stunts. Talking about quirky, I believe that the car next to this S-series is an old Camaro that’s been ruined forever. I better not look into that one’s past. I shudder just thinking about what I might find.


Further reading:

Cohort Outtake: 1959-1961 IH B100 Pickup

Curbside Classic: 1958-1960 International Harvester Travelall – Workhorse With Grace And Style

Curbside Classic: 1963 IH Scout 80 – The Advance (SUV) Scout

Curbside Classic: 1965 International Travelall 4×4 – The Suburban Of Its Day