International Harvester: A Company Way Ahead of Its Time


The International Harvester brand doesn’t mean much to people born after the early 1970s. But to many of us older than that, the company was a truly amazing enterprise with forward thinking as its foundation. International Harvester was a company ahead of its time, as exemplified by the International Scout – pretty much the first SUV ever made.

You might think the name ‘International Harvester’ doesn’t lend itself well to a car company. Well, the company was more than just an automotive manufacturer. They made agriculture equipment along with light duty passenger vehicles and trucks. They also made appliances, lawn and garden products, road construction equipment, weapons, and military equipment.

Officially established in 1902, International Harvester’s roots date back to the 1830s and an inventor by the name of Cyrus Hall McCormick. McCormick Harvesting Machine Company merged with Deering Harvester Company to create International Harvester. The newly formed company would spend the next 80 years as a manufacturing leader, until the poor economics of the 1970s forced its sale and eventual closure.

The First Composite SUV

For lovers of classic cars, International Harvester’s claim to fame was the Scout. Considered a light-duty truck at the time, the Scout was designed as the perfect vehicle for farmers who wanted to combine utility and passenger capability in a single vehicle. The Scout was tough and durable. It was also well loved.

Unfortunately, one of the Scout’s biggest weaknesses was rust. Legend suggests the company did not take great care to protect their steel from the elements prior to manufacture. Thus, it is said that some Scouts rolled off the assembly line already rusted. Whether or not that’s true, original Scout owners can attest to how easily the vehicles rusted.

To combat that problem, International Harvester started looking at a composite body in the 1970s. Discussions and testing led them to build and test a plastic body that likely would have gone into full production had the company not run into financial troubles.

It has been suggested that only two complete plastic-body Scouts were ever built. However, dozens of prototypes were manufactured for testing. When International Harvester sold their automotive division in the 1980s, they allegedly destroyed all of the plastic bodies rather than give them to someone else.

The Precursor to Carbon Fiber

International Harvester successfully built a plastic-bodied car that some say was the precursor to modern carbon fiber vehicles. Their plastic bodies were lightweight but durable. They held up fairly well to crash tests, at least compared to other cars of the day. And of course, the bodies did not rust. That was a big plus for the company.

Today, the all-carbon fiber car body is the holy grail of automotive manufacturing. There is yet to be a carbon fiber body affordable enough for a typical passenger vehicle. The only companies making bodies with carbon fiber are those selling expensive hypercars to wealthy millionaires.

It is unclear how International Harvester planned to make their composite Scout affordable to the general public. But according to Rock West Composites, today’s automakers are facing a similar question. They know carbon fiber is an exceptional material that could easily replace aluminum and steel in terms of strength and integrity. They just cannot make it cheaply enough.

Who knows what would have happened had International Harvester survived as an automotive manufacturer. Perhaps their plastic body would have been the precursor to carbon fiber bodies. They could have been the first company to get a fully carbon fiber SUV off the assembly line. We will never know, and that’s too bad.