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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

June 13, 1997

Count the number of late-model vehicles that pass any corner in the U.S. and I'd bet that one in ten is a sports/utility vehicle. The SUV is now a mainstay of the new vehicle market and all the auto makers worldwide are either already making one are have one in the works.

And auto historians will agree that the very first of the contemporary SUV genre was the Scout by International Harvester (IH), an "auto" maker that didn't make a car between 1910 and 1961 and whose real claim to fame was that it made farm machinery. The International Scout holds a prominent place in world automotive history and its origins are unique.

At a group meeting of IH engineers and executives in the spring of 1958, the idea was proposed to make a "private" vehicle that was a step between the Jeep (at that time the only American-made four-wheel-drive passenger vehicle) and the conventional sedan or coupe. The Jeep had earned its "go anywhere" reputation during its tours of duty on battle fronts during World War II and in Korea and while it was rugged and undauntable, those of us who drove them know that they were anything but comfortable and quite homely. These were the facets of the Jeep image that IH found unacceptable for its new machine.

IH chief stylist Ted Ornas was the person called upon for an initial design and he is reported to have penned the original Scout concept one night at his kitchen table. The original plan was to "shoot" the proposed Scout in fiberglass/plastic (a plan later abandoned) so Ornas was able to avoid the convoluted, but spartan look of the Jeep. The wheelbase of the Scout was to be 100 inches, the body slab-sided and equipped with such "niceties" as two doors (something the Jeep lacked), a relatively passenger-friendly interior (another shortcoming of the Jeep), and a fairly comfort ride. It took three years for the Scout to evolve from that first sketch to a rolling vehicle (IH was an old and conservative company) and the final product had some interesting innovations. The powerplant was a four-cylinder unit laying on an angle of 45 degrees to the left and was, in fact, the left bank of the IH 304 cubic-inch V8. With 93 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque, it was easily a match for the Jeep. The market targeted by IH Scout was to be those buyers interested in a light-duty rear-drive pickup with a short bed but the initial public response overwhelmingly showed a preference for the fully-enclosed Travel-Top version with four-wheel drive. And while IH envisioned the Scout as a "utility" vehicle, consumers were already adding a touch of "sport" to the little Scout.

Over its 19 years of existence, the Scout progressed from a one-engine design to available with several different four cylinder engines (sometimes turbocharged), a small diesel, a couple of V8s and an American Motors-built straight six. The doors could be stripped off and the windshield laid flat if it was called upon to do really tough off-road service. It acquired power steering, air conditioning, automatic transmissions, and the other trappings of automotive civilization. They were run in various professional off-road races and appeared in country club parking lots alongside posh carriage-trade conveyances. For a company that had cut its teeth on agricultural equipment, it was quite a change.

It was inevitable that other American auto makers would see a future in the SUV market, too. Jeep developed the Wagoneer in '63, the Ford Bronco showed up in '66, the Chevrolet Blazer in '69 followed in '70 by the GMC Jimmy. Chrysler showed its Ramcharger/Trailduster Dodge and Plymouth clones in '74. The Toyota Land Cruiser was developing its own cult following beginning in the mid-'60s and an early Nissan Pathfinder was marketed here in '65 as the Datsun Patrol. They are all still in the game now and even Lincoln has rebadged the Ford Expedition into an SUV of its own.

The Scout (and, indeed, International Harvester itself) fell on hard times in the late '70s. Labor problems, the oil crisis, and increasing competition in the SUV market lead IH to return to its heavy truck roots and 1980 saw the last of half a million Scouts roll of the IH assembly line.

My friend Steve Young is a dyed-in-the-wool auto enthusiast and Porsche owner but told me that his restored '78 Scout is his favorite means of transportation. "I never fail to get comments and compliments from late model SUV owners when they check out my Scout in parking lots."

And well they should pay homage to Steve Young's "pet." They're own SUV mount, be it Asian, American or European, can trace its ancestry back to his Scout.