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What Happened To International Harvester?

June 1, 2023
What Happened To International Harvester?

Sometimes the real story is so much better than lore and fiction, and there is no better example of that than International Harvester.

This is the story of how an all-American manufacturer of farm equipment went from selling tractors that redefined rural America, to selling an iconic SUV that redefined our visions of adventure. Yet, thanks to terrible decision-making and outright greed, this formerly great, all-American manufacturer suffered an early, unceremonious death at the hands of a changing economy and anti-union decision-makers.

What Happened To International Harvester?

A pair of vintage Internationals – Credit: Diesel World

In yet another twist of fate, International Harvester’s most iconic vehicle, the Scout, has now been resurrected as an all-electric vehicle by a German conglomerate that happens to be one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world.

This is the real story of International Harvester.

What Products Did International Harvester Sell?

There is a long history of International Harvester products, dating back to 1902 when McCormick Harvesting Machine Company and Deering Harvester Company merged to form the International Harvester Company. This new company continued to produce a range of agricultural machinery, including tractors, plows, and threshers and soon became a leader in the industry.

What Happened To International Harvester?

International Harvester Tractor – Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Success wouldn’t really hit IH until 1931 when they came up with an idea that would change how farmers got their work done. After surveying farmers all over the nation, International realized there was a growing market for small and medium-sized farms that needed a workhorse, but the large, cumbersome tractors that were common at the time didn’t really fit the bill.

In 1923, they dropped the Farmall on the world, and it was an immediate success. Thanks to a narrow front end and a huge variety of attachments, the Farmall could work in tight spaces and still perform all the duties on farms with ease. In the 1930s, the company introduced the Farmall F-20, which featured a larger engine and improved transmission. This model would go on to sell millions of units and fuel the country’s war effort during World War II.

What Happened To International Harvester?

Light and Heavy Duty – Credit: Hemmings

Early on, International Harvester was also in the business of building light-duty pickup trucks, starting with Model A Auto Wagon way back in 1907. Over the subsequent years, they would build everything from the R and S series trucks in the 1950s and 1960s, to the 100, 200, and 300 series trucks in the 1960s and 1970s. Medium and heavy-duty trucks, along with the beautifully styled Metro delivery van were also part of their massive portfolio.

Motorhomes, heavy haulers, fire trucks, and other commercial vehicles also made up a vast portion of the International Harvester portfolio.

Family Hauler

As IH continued to expand and compete with the Big Three, they needed more products that appealed to ever-larger American families.

General Motors essentially owned the large SUV market for nearly 30 years thanks to its iconic Suburban. This truck-based people carrier was designed to haul around up to eight people, and all their stuff, along with towing and hauling capabilities to boot.

What Happened To International Harvester?

1963 IH Travelall restored by Velocity – See restoration

IH’s suburban competitor, the Travelall, launched in 1953. The Travelall was initially produced with a similar body style to the pickup trucks of the time, but later models featured a more streamlined design. The earliest models were available with four-wheel drive, which was a rarity at the time and became a popular choice for those who needed a large vehicle that could handle a variety of driving conditions. This big SUV was also used by contractors and government agencies, thanks to its huge cargo area.

Off-road Adventure Machine

Much like GM owned the large SUV market, Jeep owned the small, adventure-style SUV market in America, thanks to the CJ.

In another brilliant move, International saw a hole in the market and decided to develop its own SUV that could compete with Jeep, while offering some additional enhancements such as farm-ready attachments, and the option to get the Scout as a pickup truck instead of a pure SUV. In only 24 months, the IH development team cranked out what would become one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced by an American manufacturer.

What Happened To International Harvester?

1967 Scout 80/800 Restored by Velocity – View Restoration

Initially, the Scout 80 was offered as a pickup truck that was available with a travel-top hardtop, sport-top soft top, and cab-top roof option. These unique configurations, along with standard 4×4, meant that the Scout 80 was at home on the farm, as it was out in the backcountry. In 1965, International dropped the Scout 800, which was a highly upgraded version of the Scout 80 and included things like better engines, and more creature comforts.

When most people think of the Scout, they’re picturing the Scout II, which was released in 1971. Once the vintage Ford Bronco got in on the game in 1966, International found itself on the losing end of the SUV sales battle. To compete, they released the highly competitive Scout II with a much larger, 100-inch wheelbase, revised styling, and a host of new features such as a Dana 44 axle, power disc brakes, and powerful engine options. International would sell the Scout II up until 1980, with only minor changes to the popular design over its final years.

What Killed International Harvester?

Greed and terrible management killed International Harvester.

By 1979, International Harvester was the 4th largest company in the United States, thanks to its massive product catalog that spanned from Scouts to tractors. Part of this growth was thanks to Archie McCardell, a notoriously anti-union boss, who took over as CEO in 1978.

One of the first things McCardell did was strip 11,000 middle managers from the workforce, most of whom were experienced labor negotiators. He then appointed a new President of Human Resources and set about negotiating a new UAW (United Auto Workers) contract in 1979. Unfortunately for International Harvester, McCardell and the newly appointed Human Resources lead has absolutely no experience negotiating contacts. Negotiations took a sharp turn after only one day. Union issues were not limited to IH and were also happening at John Deere and Caterpillar, where workers began to strike, forcing concessions.

Later that year, the company reported record profits, yet would not concede on issues such as mandatory overtime and restrictive new work rules. The UAW’s contract at International Harvester expired on October 1, 1979, but continued on a day-to-day basis as workers at other companies continued to strike. Weary, and tired, the UAW entered into yet another round of failed negotiations, and after not receiving concessions, decided to move forward with a strike.

On November 1, 1979, 35,000 UAW workers (36 percent of International Harvester’s workforce) at 21 plants in 8 states struck International Harvester at noon rather than accept the new work rules and mandatory overtime provisions. For a staggering six months, production at all 21 plants completely stopped as workers refused to concede to International Harvesters’ request. In April of 1980, an agreement was finally reached but the financial damage was catastrophic.

International Harvester lost $257.2 million in the second quarter of 1979, for a total of $479.4 million in the first half of the year, while sales slid 47.3 percent overall. The company confirmed earlier rumors and put its Scout utility vehicle division up for sale to help cover the losses, and by the end of April 1980 was forced to take out loans which increased its short-term debt from $442 million to a staggering $1 billion. For fiscal years 1980, 1981, and 1982, International Harvester incurred a combined three-year loss of $2.4 billion—the largest such three-year loss for any American company in history at the time.

This spelled the end of IH in 1985, all assets were sold to Tenneco, which would eventually become Navistar International in 1986. In a matter of six years, International went from the 4th largest company in America to being sold for scrap.

A Renewed Scout

Despite the terrible way that IH went down, there is still plenty of interest in this iconic SUV.

Even though International took a huge dive in the early 80s, the Scout remains a popular vehicle among collectors and enthusiasts. Many fans appreciate the Scout’s combination of style, ruggedness, and off-road capabilities, and there is a thriving community of Scout owners and enthusiasts from all over the world.

What Happened To International Harvester?

2026 EV Scout – Credit: Car and Driver

Navistar bit the dust in 2016 and was purchased by none other than Volkswagen Truck and Bus. Since Navistar owned the Scout name, Volkswagen now owned the rights to the iconic SUV. In 2022, Volkswagen announced that the Scout was coming back to America as an all-electric SUV under the Scout name. Not only is the SUV bound for America, but will also be built in America by UAW workers. How’s that for a changeup?

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the Scout, with companies like Velocity producing updated versions of the classic SUV for modern drivers who appreciate its combination of style and off-road capabilities. Even though the original Scout was bare bones, the creations from Velocity blend the legendary style with modern performance and stunning luxury like no one else on the planet.

If you can’t wait for/ not interested in the all-electric Scout SUV and want a classic with no compromises, give the team at Velocity a call.

To learn more about our Signature Series Vehicles or to reserve one today, please use the form below.

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