Want to start a spirited discussion among car enthusiasts? Ask which American car manufacturer made the first muscle car. With a little luck, the discussion will stay civil as the Chevy, Ford and Chrysler people battle it out. On the other hand, ask the same group who made the first SUV and things should be far quieter; the first SUV, or “4×4 truck-based passenger wagon” was the 1956 International Travellall, a company almost unheard of today.
The International story
The International company was founded by Cyrus McCormick in 1831. Producing a large assortment of farm implements, including buggies and carts designed for passenger use, International became a major supplier of equipment to America’s farmers during the 1800s. By the late 1800s, the demand for passenger vehicles was well recognized and in the early 1900s, International began working on motorized versions. By 1907, the company began production of their first motorized passenger car called the Auto Buggy. Before long, International was producing the Auto Wagon from the same basic structure, complete with a bed that could haul an 800-pound load. Over the next several decades, International became a major producer of pickup trucks.
In the early 1950s, International Harvester infused the DNA of its rugged, commercial trucks into a passenger vehicle. Called the Travelall, this vehicle started out as a modified R-Series commercial panel truck with side windows and a new tailgate design. Roughly comparable in size to today’s Chevy Suburbans, the first Travelalls were two-door models. In 1957-61, they had an interesting third door on the passenger side. Later, all Travelalls came with four doors. Travelalls quickly became popular: Ansel Adams used one to travel the United States, often photographing his famous black-and-white landscapes from a custom-built platform on the roof. International’s successful Travelall model was followed by the smaller Scout in 1961. The Scout came only with two doors in various hardtop and soft-top configurations.
The first SUV
Technically, the first SUV was 1956 Travelall with optional 4×4 drive. True, the Chevrolet Suburban had a similar body layout, but the Suburban didn’t acquire four-wheel drive until 1960 and Reed Chrysler of St. Joseph, MO says Dodge’s large Town Wagon wasn’t offered with four-wheel drive until 1957. International was the first with what we consider today as an SUV: a “4×4 truck-based passenger wagon.” A common question that arises is “what happened?” How did International Harvester lose out on SUV boom that struck just a few years later? The answer might be a simple matter of distribution.
Advertising and distribution
With advertising campaigns that emphasized four-wheel-drive practicality, early International marketing campaigns were directed at suburban families rather than at farmers or tradesmen. However, Travelalls were sold alongside commercial trucks through International Harvester’s dealers, most of which were in rural areas rather than in the urban and suburban markets.
Leaving before the party started
This mismatch between advertising and distribution led to sluggish sales and a departure from the consumer truck market in 1980. Had it been able to hold out a while longer, International, a company with a real heritage and a history in rugged commercial trucks, would probably still be a player in an SUV market successfully populated by Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler, along with such unlikely truck makers as Porsche and BMW.