Travails With a Travelall

(Copyright 1995 M. Park Hunter. This article was originally published on page 26 of Classic Auto Restorer magazine, January 1998. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

1960 Rambler and 1964 IH Travelall

Much to my surprise, we sold Harvey. I had advertised for twice what I thought it was worth, and a man named Earl called. I carefully explained Harvey’s deerepitude, even demanded half the cash up front. The buyer could not be dissuaded. The catch was, we had to deliver it.

“Harvey” was a 1964 International Harvester Travelall, a station wagon with rocket ship styling built on a 3/4 ton truck chassis. Like most IH’s of that vintage, Harvey was rust-ravaged and electrically challenged. But after 175,000 miles the 304 V8 still mustered enough horsepower to pull Mount McKinley up by the roots.

My brother Scott and I bought Harvey for a roadtrip from Indiana up to Alaska. We figured it would be cheap and tough. The previous owner had a sign in the window: “$10,000 – but I will deep discount at least 95%. This truck has good karma and has been a reliable starter.” About ten miles after we bought it, Harvey strugled to the side of the road, the double victim of a blown radiator hose which flooded the distributor.

In the months following, Harvey broke approximately every 15 miles and caught fire once. We gave up on Alaska. Scott got married, I got engaged, and both women got nervous. I think they feared their yard might be Harvey’s final grave. When Earl called about my ad, I was amazed and shocked. The truck sold for almost the amount of money we’d put into it.

Scott and I were delirious until we realized we had to deliver Harvey to Kentucky to complete the deal. 300 miles… twice the distance Harvey had ever covered without breaking down since we bought it. In the winter. Nonetheless, we decided to drive the old truck down. It was too large and heavy to load on a trailer. Scott bundled up against the February cold and trundled across the state to meet me at college.

Harvey’s box heater wasn’t much help fighting the chill. We called it a box heater because it was disassembled and sitting in a box on the back seat, along with most of a spare engine and other miscellaneous parts. A frozen hurricane whistled through large holes in the firewall, blowing away the eye-watering exhaust fumes from the rusted-out exhaust.

I heard Scott rumble into the parking lot at my school and looked out in time to see him climb from the truck and stagger on numb, frozen feet. He generously volunteered to let me drive it the rest of the way to Kentucky while he followed in my old Rambler station wagon with the excellent Weather-Eye heater. For my stint in the ice cave I put on a heavy coat, mittens, stocking hat, and an old pair of goofy-looking moon boots.

We decided to start and cover maximum ground before dusk. As the sun settled below the horizon, Scott flashed his lights for me to pull over. He told me I had no running lights and only one brake light. Grimly, we decided to push to the next town before absolute dark. When I started Harvey back up and hit the toggle switch for the headlights, my freezing fingers broke the switch and sprinkled tiny springs and contacts onto the dirty shag carpet covering the floor.

Scott grabbed a flashlight and we found enough of the switch to reassemble it. The resurrected headlights cut a dim swath through the gathering gloom. I had a brainstorm and turned on the emergency blinkers to flash my one taillight for visibility. Reassured that I was not going to be rear-ended, I drove on and on, rumbling through country hamlets with my teeth chattering.

Finally, I missed a turn and stopped on the far side of a small town. Scott then informed me that I’d had no taillights at all since our last stop. We drove back into town for dinner while figuring out what to do next. I turned at an intersection and Scott got caught by the stoplight. As I pulled over to wait for him, the local constable tucked in behind me with his lights flashing.

I shut off Harvey. I didn’t really want to be cited for a noise violation in addition to operating without lights. The officer did a slow double-take as he climbed out of his car and walked up to my window. It was clear he was evaluating one of the ugliest green trucks he’d ever seen, battered by life and loaded to the gills with scrap parts.

He did another double take when he saw me sheathed in arctic clothing. He asked if I knew my taillights were out. I admitted we’d just discovered that. When he realized I had a chase car, he decided to give me a warning and encouraged us to move out of his territory. Scott never even got out of the Rambler; he just hunkered low behind the steering wheel. He was duty-bound to participate in this whole funky odyssey, but he wasn’t enjoying it.

We left town in a hurry. The temperature fell into the teens, and I drove with one hand while sticking the other in my armpit to warm it up. Periodically, I set the hand throttle and stomped both feet vigorously to renew circulation. We finally stopped in Cincinnati for a hot dinner and lumpy bed at a fleabag motel.

Sunday dawned sunny and warmer. Harvey’s brake lights and turn signals had healed themselves overnight, don’t ask me how. The morning’s drive took us into Kentucky on a winding stretch of old two-lane highway. After an hour, we turned onto a side road and meandered our way into the hills toward tiny Eclipse, population six people, 30 chickens and a pack of dogs. We pulled up an hour early in front of the general store where Earl told us to meet him and clambered out of the vehicles.

As I stood there, still dressed in boots and mittens and wearing a $1 pair of purple-and-orange gas station sunglasses, I realized that two faces were peering at us through the store’s grimy plate glass window. We decided to introduce ourselves before they mistook us for aliens and called the National Guard.

The proprietor of the store was a big, greasy fellow who hadn’t washed his hair for about a week. He said, “You must be the fellers what’s selling that old International to Earl.” I nodded. The store’s other occupant, a grizzled farmer in a John Deere cap, just stared at us and spat tobacco into a coffee can.

The store owner looked out the window again. “My daddy used to have a Rambler just like that. I started deliverin’ groceries with it when I was 13. Run pretty good?”

I nodded and stomped my feet to warm up. The old farmer kept staring at me. The store owner said, “There’s coffee back there. Help y’self.”

It was good coffee, too, and just what I needed to warm up. The ramshackle store’s unpolished plank floors and old shelves held dusty fishing lures, rat poison and bags of Doritos in disarray. Scott and I found a pool table at the back and decided to play a game to pass the time. It was particularly challenging because there was a yawning hole in the floor to one side of the table.

The click of the balls drew a scraggly kid who looked like he specialized in skipping school. He stood in the corner, hands in his pockets, silently watching us play. A few more old farmers arrived, lighting cigarettes and leaning around the corner to check out the strangers from up north. Nobody said a word.

We were beginning to feel like we were trapped in a Twilight Zone episode when one of the gathering crowd stepped forward. His insulated green vest was an obvious status symbol, and we could tell by the way the other farmers looked at him that this was a man of influence in the community. ‘

“You the boys with the Travelall?” he asked. “I’m Don, Earl’s brother.”

He seemed normal enough; we were relieved to have someone to talk to. “Yeah,” I said, “from what Earl tells me you guys are quite an International family. I’m glad the truck is finding a home where people appreciate it.”

Don’s frigid smile would have done a polar bear proud. “Earl’s always been crazy about them Internationals. I don’t know what he sees in ’em. He’s got five of ’em sittin’ around the farm, and there isn’t one part off of one that’ll fit any of the others.”

I swallowed hard but kept on smiling. Maybe Don wasn’t the ally I had imagined.

“You boys buy and sell cars to make money?” Don asked. I realized he thought we were a couple of Yankee slickers come down to take advantage of his fool-headed brother. The crowd of farmers was shuffling around, looking unfriendly. Scott began eyeing the hole in the floor.

I was trying to figure out how to explain that we’d really intended to drive the truck to Alaska without making it sound like a used car salesman’s fable, when Earl showed up. To my great relief he was dressed cleanly and conservatively in slacks and a suede jacket.

“Who owns that fine-looking Travelall out front?” he joked. “You must be Mr. Hunter. That’s a mighty fine truck you’ve got out there.”

As Earl shook my hand, I noted with relief that the crowd of farmers drifted back into the shadows and hanging clouds of cigarette smoke. Earl smiled at his brother, and Don nodded and moved away. Earl, Scott and I headed toward the front of the store to consummate the deal. I caught Don giving me a warning look as we walked past.

“Do you want to take it for a spin?” I asked Earl.

“Naw,” he said. “Do you have the paperwork?”

I pulled out the folder with the title and showed him the receipts for work we’d done. Earl unrolled a bundle of crisp hundreds to settle the deal. Some of the seed corn cap crowd eyed these large greenbacks with curiosity.

After signing the title, I gave Earl the keys and suggested we go for a drive so I could familiarize him with the truck’s quirks.

“That’s okay,” he said, handing the keys back. “If you’ll just follow my pickup, I’ll take you to the barn where I’m going to keep it.”

As Scott and I trailed him out the door, the storekeeper leaned over the counter with a glint in his eye and asked, “How much’d you sell that Rambler for?”

I mumbled something about it not being for sale. Scott followed me, almost at a run. We started Harvey and the Rambler and followed Earl about two miles to an old barn in the woods. After he opened the doors, we pulled Harvey in and shut the truck down for the last time. There was a sudden silence as the exhaust’s basso gurgle died.

“I can’t get over how good that truck looks,” Earl said. “And it sounds good, too.”

Earl was still standing there admiring the Travelall as we started the Rambler and drove up the hill out of sight. We just kept accelerating; by now Don probably had the vigilantes whipped into a frothing passion. We passed the miles in stunned silence, awed by the growing realization that we’d successfully sold and delivered Harvey.

That truck must have had some kind of karma.

A few years later, “Earl” sent me some pictures of Harvey. He’d done some work, and the old warhorse was still running well. Karma…