author thought he’d escaped his father’s feverish, sentimental, problematic fascination with old cars. Then how is it that he found himself driving
a 1970 International Harvester Scout—and towing a 1964 behind—from
Albuquerque, New Mexico to Chicago?
By David R. Murray
Last fall I went out of my way—to Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—to find an International Harvester Scout.
That’s right: I actually set out to buy one of these gas-guzzlers. I
was hoping to bring into my already daily life a decrepit vehicle whose
spare parts are in high demand and infinitesimal supply. It was my
stated intention to get myself a truck that would likely rust away
before the thaw. (Old “Scouters” tell a story about a man who was once
buried in his Scout, and for some reason, dug up a few years later. The
man’s skeleton was all that remained. The truck was gone.) What could I
have been thinking? What had gotten into me?
Car Collector readers, I don’t think I have to tell you.
Like everyone, I guess, growing older has meant becoming less and less
surprised each time I see another unintended similarity between my
parents and myself—similar tastes, foibles, habits, reactions to
things. “My God, I’m becoming my mother!” “My God, I am my father.” My
dad, who has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while I go
through this grinding process of accepting the inevitable imprint of my
parents—my mother died long ago—bears my protests gracefully for the
most part. And generally, my stated resistance to “becoming” my father
is feigned. I can think of many worse people to become than my dad.
But I had really hoped I’d escaped the old car thing—my dad’s feverish,
sentimental money pit. "The hobby,” as he calls it (instead of “the
fetish”). If I learned one thing growing up with my dad, it was that
this old car thing is nothing but trouble—nerves, heartache,
anticlimax, and head-scratching humiliation—especially for guys who
don’t have the foggiest idea how to an old car running. For most
old-car nuts, an old car is a problem. For Dad—all of whose tools
except for one unwieldy pair of tin snips fit into an empty can of
Pringles potato chips—it was a problem he couldn’t solve.
At 31, I had enough impossible problems. A professional writer, a
middling golfer, a suffering Chicago Cubs fan, the last thing I needed
to add to that list of misfortunes and bad habits was “Scout owner.”
Nevertheless, last October I found myself west on Route 70 with my old college roommate Tom Gillespie. It was his diesel Chrysler pick-up
truck and his two 30-year-old Triumph motorcycles crammed in the bed.
But it was my $5,000 cash jammed uncomfortably in my hip pocket, they
were my directions to strangers’ homes in Kansas City and Fort Collins
and Flagstaff and Albuquerque, and it was my briefcase full of
snapshots taken in driveways.
My destiny as an old-car guy hadn’t overtaken me yet; but I had to admit, it was riding my bumper.
Tire tracks back: How I got into this situation
You know the Scout. It’s that utilitarian Tonka truck IH made
throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The company’s motive was reportedly
less for profit and more for the gratification of top execs whose
bread-and-butter lay in farm equipment and big rigs, but who liked the
idea of being in the light truck business (and of being in light trucks
Discontinued in 1980, the trucks were made with V-8 engines built to
last but bodies built to rust. Needless to say, Scouts didn’t thrive in
Among the casualties of the salt, I imagine, is the maroon 1978 Scout
II that Tom and I co-owned in the summer of 1990, our last year at Kent
State University in Ohio. We bought it for $100, and put almost that
much in its cavernous and leaky gas tank the first time we filled it
up. We drove that Scout all summer long without the benefit of a top
(the removable hard-top was miles away in Cleveland), a working gas
gauge, or doors that would open (they were integral to the structure of
the truck)—let alone license plates or insurance. Late that fall, our
landlord towed the snow-filled truck away—perhaps from the front yard,
where we often parked it. Clearly not quite equipped to take
responsibility for this vehicle, Tom and I did not protest; we were
secretly grateful for the service.
But we had so much fun driving that big box around all summer, both of
us vowed that someday, when we could afford to have a car that was
either breaking down or guzzling gas at the rate of one gallon for
every eight miles, we would each have one. We were just talking, of
course. Neither of us thought we’d ever get that rich.
But now, 10 years later, Tom runs a successful business in Cleveland
and I make a good living as a freelance writer in Chicago. I’d started
thinking about getting a second car “to run errands during the day”
while my wife, a school teacher, hogged our Nissan Xterra, driving it
to school every day. At first, I thought I’d get a used VW Golf or
Chevy S-10, but my thinking on this matter moved surely and steadily
from practical, to the impractical, to the truly imbecilic. Next thing
you know, Tom and I were bound for Kansas City to see the first of
several westerly Scouts I’d found on the Internet; if I didn’t buy it,
Tom probably would (for the eminently useful chore of plowing snow on
his various properties, he insisted).
Were we crazy, taking 10 days away from our paying jobs to drive
thousands of miles with the intention of buying not one, but likely two
old trucks, one of which we’d trail back, the other one we’d drive?
Quite to the contrary, Tom and I had convinced ourselves by the time we
crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis: You’d be crazy not to do this.
It’s not about cars, it’s about people
It’s the unifying theme of all of my dad’s Car Collector pieces over
the last 20 years: People pay good money for old cars not, primarily,
for their intrinsic worth (which, in the case of a Scout, amounts to
little more than about three tons of scrap steel) but for their
sentimental human value—memories and feelings people associate with
cars. It is on these memories that sellers of old cars put price tags.
In the case of this Scout, the man in Kansas City was asking $3,000
even. Though I had first dibs on this truck—Tom and I had agreed that
if we found nothing we wanted in our planned loop through Colorado,
Arizona, and New Mexico, we’d pick this baby up for me on the way back
east—it was Tom who was under the truck, down in the engine, under the
floor mats, inspecting the metal, listening to all the facts. I was
talking with the owner’s wife, trying to convince her that I deserved
the baby blue 1978 Terra that she and her husband loved so much.
She and her husband were having some bad times. She’d been diagnosed
with multiple sclerosis a couple of years ago, and had to stop working.
Around the same time, two of their elderly parents had fallen ill and
needed care. The couple was financially strapped and could really use
the money that the sale of the Scout would provide. “Besides, I need
really a bigger truck,” her husband was saying unconvincingly. I was
trying to show that I was a good enough guy and enough of a Scout lover
to give this lover a good home.
Meanwhile, Tom was driving a hard bargain. “How low will you go?” I
heard him asking the owner, who replied he didn’t want to budge from
the $3,000. Obviously, the guy didn’t want to sell the truck at all;
he’d been overwhelming Tom with an endless list of things wrong with
the truck—bad rust and chronic carburetor problems, for two—and
offering lots of statements like, “It’s a good truck—if you like to
We left discouraged; yes, this truck would serve as a good back-up
plan, but we hoped we’d find something a little more mechanically
reliable—and with a little less emotional baggage—down the road.
The next truck we saw fulfilled both requests. A 1975 Scout II in Fort
Collins, Colo. proved virtually rust-free (except for one corroded
cab-mount underneath), mechanically sound (other than the fact that the
V-8 engine was running rough during our entire test-drive), and
reasonably safe (if you don’t count the brakes, which, when pressed,
caused the car to shimmy a little). But as far as Scouts go, these
problems were minor, and cheaply remedied; and the turquoise interior
and striped exterior made the truck totally charming. Hence, the steep
$5,000 asking price.
The owner was out of town. He had trustingly left the keys in the
ashtray with the instructions, “Enjoy, don’t wreck.” We were to call
him where he was vacationing out east, if we wanted to negotiate. I had
Tom call and pretend he was me; I cringed as he listed all the faults
of the car right off the bat. If it were me, I’d have spent at least
the first five minutes of the conversation waxing eloquent about the
“character” of the truck, trying to draw out his own stories about the
truck, and begging him to sell it to me by telling him how desperately
I wanted it. But then, that’s why I asked Tom to make the call in the
Tom got him down to $3,500, and the fellow agreed to hold the car for a
week or so; we’d get back to him after we’d checked out a few more
cars. We could come back through and pick it up. Now we had a better
Cars are about people, but car negotiations shouldn’t be.
How my dad got me into this situation
I guess it’s really laughable, the idea that a son of Tom Murray could keep from catching the old car bug.
After all, I was brought up on cars, brought up in cars. On long drives
with Dad—many of them to car museums and car shows, others to airplane
museums and air shows, train exhibits, etc.—we talked a lot about cars.
Actually, he talked and I listened. I remember, at a very young age,
perhaps eight or nine, hearing an endless regurgitation of Richard
Langworth’s book, The Last Onslaught on Detroit, the story of
As I remember those hours, I must say they were some of the most boring
I have ever spent. And, as I look back, some of the most formative.
It was something to be talked to, however inappropriately, as an adult,
on adult subjects. How many kids, at that age, find themselves
contending with words like “onslaught” and trying to understand why
somebody would want to attack a city in Michigan. I’ve always
appreciated the vocabulary lesson, and credited my dad’s long talks
about cars, boats, trains, and planes for giving me an early education
in any number of things, most importantly, how to be an American man.
(Step One: Admit that you are powerless over your desire to travel, and
that your life has become unmanageable.)
What I don’t appreciate are some other hand-me-downs—or, rather, a lack
of practical tools to go along with my intellectual and emotional
understanding of cars and things. But then, we’ve already discussed my
inheritance: one Pringles can big enough to hold my tools and
mechanical know-how both.
Now, let’s talk about how my father sheltered me from the truest joy to be found outside of a lover’s bed: Motorcycling.
In a Car Collector article some years back, Dad told a funny story from
his teens. He was snooping around the local car dealership in
Middletown, where his father was a top executive at Armco Steel, his
family a prominent member of the company town. The dealer asked him
what he was doing looking at motorcycles. Apparently afraid of admitting he had no good reason to be there, my dad said he was in the
market for a motorcycle.
The dealer laughed: “Ain’t no Murray gonna buy no sickle.”
Perhaps this mild humiliation discouraged my dad from ever getting on a
motorcycle again. He would grow up to become a pilot and a boater, but
he never got a motorcycle out of a parking lot, and I never had,
either. So when I told my dad that Tom and I were taking out west with
us two of Tom’s Triumph motorcycles (a 1971 Bonneville and a 1966
Tiger), Dad was quiet for about 10 pregnant seconds before he said, “I
thought Tom had more regard for you than that.”
Though it seemed terribly unlikely that these old, hard-starting,
plug-fouling bikes would both run right when we needed them to, they
made a great conversation piece along the way, especially when we got
off the highways and passed through small towns on small roads where
they don’t see Triumph motorcycles very often. A liquor store owner in
western Kansas told us he had to attend to a customer, but if we’d wait
a few minutes, “I’d be more than happy to bullshit with you all
afternoon about these bikes.”
The north rim is perfect in October; because it’s so late in the year,
and so much less accessible than the south rim, there’s nobody there.
We got down to the rim just as the sun was beginning to burn off the
frost. In the parking lot of the closed North Rim Lodge, we parked the
truck, backed the bikes down the two-by-eight board we’d brought for
the purpose, got the motors fired up, and after a quick tutorial—on and
off the whole trip we’d been talking about the gears (right foot) and
the clutch (left handlebar) and the brake (left foot, right
handlebar)—we were blabblablabbing miraculously off, our bare faces
stinging, then aching, then numb from the cold, down the winding road
that runs through the forest along the Grand Canyon.
The Aspens through which the road is carved were all bright yellow,
blurring when I kicked it up into third (right foot). We hit turns at
35 miles per hour, got it up to 60 on the straights. Once, Tom, who was
riding about a half-mile ahead of me, had to stop for a deer standing
right in the middle of the road. That was all the traffic we saw until
we wound up a steep hill around a few switchbacks and came out on top
and beheld the Grand Canyon, stretching out like you simply cannot
believe any physical thing besides an ocean can. I remember breathing
hard and deep as I killed the engine, climbed off the bike, put the
kickstand down, and forgot then remembered to shut off the gas to the
carbs. Standing there on the edge, still high from the ride, we didn’t
say anything for a couple of minutes. I broke the silence by telling
Tom, after some reflection to make sure I wasn’t overstating the case,
“God, I’m so happy.”
Don’t worry, Dad, I ain’t buying no sickle; after that ride, I don’t think I ever need to ride one again.
Back on the trail: Scouts in Albuquerque
Enough side trips: After spending an equally glorious Thursday morning
flying over the south rim in a Cessna 172 we rented in Flagstaff—Tom is
a pilot—I was through with side trips. I was getting anxious to get a
Scout and get home in time for work on Monday.
We made it into Albuquerque Thursday night; we had an appointment an
hour north of town to see the Scout I’d been holding out for all this
time—a supposedly rust-free 1964 Scout 80 three-speed. The asking price
was $3,300; the owner had raised it to that rate from $3,000.
Tom and I had argued the night before when he’d overheard me on my cell
phone arranging the meeting. “You’re not going to back out on this
deal, are you?” I practically cried into the phone, falling for the
guy’s phony bluff that he was suddenly thinking about not selling it.
“Congratulations,” Tom sneered when I got off the phone. “Now you’re begging for the privilege of buying the car.”
I whined back hysterically, “I never said I was any good at negotiating!”
I don’t know how well my dad handled these sorts of negotiations when
he was wheeling and dealing in old cars, but I’ll bet he wasn’t much
better than me (though he couldn’t have been much worse). My childhood
memory does associate with these interactions—I was part of several—a
great deal of emotional tension.
That tension was up in me as Tom and I growled slowly down a
pitch-black country road—you don’t know dark until you’ve driven in New
Mexico at night—and overshot the house several times. Finally we made
our way down a long dirt driveway at the end of which the owner lived
in a trailer home. The Scout was parked in some weeds outside. As we
stood talking to the owner beside the car, I found that again, I wasn’t
listening to any of the particulars. I was all over the place, gazing
up at the stars popping out of that black sky, trying to get a read on
the guy’s character. I was anxious to drive the truck, and afraid to
drive it—for good reason. Aside from the seats and the tires, the truck
was all bare metal. It made a shattering ruckus in that New Mexico
night, and the noise tore and shook my perfect dream of this car,
nurtured and gently fondled over many weeks since I’d seen it on the
After the test drive, Tom and I sat alone in the truck drinking bottles of beer the owner offered us, and talking it over.
One of my criteria was already blown: Going into this trip, I was
hoping to find a truck good enough for my wife to drive if I needed the
Xterra to visit a client. Would my wife be able to drive this? Able,
probably. Willing, maybe. Pleased? I doubted it.
On the other hand, the Scout was indeed rust-free, and the
four-cylinder motor yielded an unexpected blessing: 18 miles to the
Of course, this low-geared, three-speed truck—it whined at 60—would
definitely have to be trailered home, a several-hundred-dollar expense.
The considerations were endless; it was getting late. I decided most of
my reluctance could be chalked up to one simple truth: The abstract
idea of buying an old car is infinitely more pleasant than the shockingly
concrete act of handing over perfectly useful greenbacks for an
eminently impractical piece of steel so large and ungainly that even
throwing it away will be difficult. You get $3,300, I get a huge
Inside the trailer, my hands shook as I began to count out the $100s. I
took a long drink of the beer and I sat down and braced my hands on the
table and counted out the rest. Then, one final unanticipated
sensation: Intense relief, at being rid of all that cash I’d been
carrying around in my hip pocket for a week.
I was in the old car thing now.
Two guys, two motorcycles, and three trucks
Having determined we weren’t going back through Fort Collins or Kansas
City but rather through the Texas panhandle, across Oklahoma and up
through Missouri and Illinois, we towed my Scout around Albuquerque
Friday morning in one last-ditch attempt to find a truck for Tom.
“This would be the point in the trip where we’re totally out of
control,” Tom cracked, as we pulled into the driveway of yet another
stranger trying to sell yet another Scout, this a somewhat rusted
orange 1970 Scout 80 V-8 with a power winch.
Actually, we weren’t totally out of control. For instance, we had
decided not to visit another Albuquerque Scout whose owner had offered,
over the Internet, to sell his denim-blue Scout II for $4,500, “or will
trade for the following items: Sako, Ruger, or Winchester rifles in
.223, .270, 30-30 or 30-06—depending on condition, etc. up to the
appraised price of the firearm. Single shot .22lr rifles—same
criteria, except no old Remingtons, Thompson Contender barrels in
.22WMRF, .30 carbine, 30-30—same same.” This fellow later remarked
that his ideas on gun control are, “once I own them all. they’re easier
to control,” and specified that we visit after 7:00 p.m., because he
had jury duty.
Tom and I took the orange Scout for a half-mile test drive, determined
that it had one strong engine, a fair amount of rust distributed evenly
over the body and the undercarriage, and almost no brakes at all. On
the basis of that sound analysis, he bought it for $1,400 and we roared off
down Route 40 East—two guys, two motorcycles, and three trucks. Despite
a terrible gas spill at a gas station just outside Albuquerque (one of
the Scout’s two gas tanks sprang a major leak, and we had to seal it,
restart the car with a fire extinguisher trained on the tail pipe, and
then rely solely on the 10-gallon left tank), we made Oklahoma City
Friday night, and after another long day of driving, pulled this wagon
train into heavy Chicago traffic Saturday night around 11:00.
On this epic journey home we drove in shifts, alternating between the
comfortable Chrysler diesel and the bellowing, rattling, vibrating
orange Scout. Connected only by two-way radios which we used sparingly
to save the batteries, we had a great deal of time to reflect. I
thought about what, besides the inevitable gravity of my father’s
influence, drew me into my particular corner of this old-car hobby. I
like a Scout because it’s a truck—hard and square and bare and
tangible. Unlike modern cars—and computers and Palm Pilots and cell
phones and Internet Service Providers—this car is made up of a finite
number of parts whose properties and limitations I can understand.
That’s comforting to me. I also like a Scout for the same reason—I do
not know what that reason is—that my dog is a floppy-eared, dull-eyed
English Springer Spaniel and not a sleek Doberman or a smart Lab. I
like a Scout because it is old and it makes me feel as though I have a
root system, however shallow, however fragile.
And I like a Scout because of the way I felt the last time I had a
Scout, back in college—young and strong and sexy and a little
reckless—and the way it’s making me feel again.
Postscript: Reality sets in
At this writing, I’ve had the Scout in Chicago three weeks, and it’s
been in the shop for all but two days. The local mechanics, a little
cowed by what they call my “safari truck,” can’t seem to get the clutch
so that it holds pressure.
The good news is, I’ve found a guy in Duluth, Minn., who specializes in
1960s Scout parts, and can generally get me every part I need—so far, a
clutch rod, a slave cylinder, and a master cylinder. And if not,
there’s a Scout guy on the south side of Chicago who says he knows
where all the Scouts are in all the junkyards in northern Illinois and
Indiana, though he warns me in an e-mail that the only yard that has
Scouts as old as mine is his least favorite: “The owner’s name is Bob
B—- and he is known scornfully as the fat man. He has a huge yard
with tons of good old stuff, but he is a total ass to deal with. As
soon as you ask him how much for a part he asks how much are you
willing to pay. Whether or not you negotiate a price beforehand, when
you bring the part up, you start over after you have gone to the
trouble to pull it.”
So far, I haven’t had to deal with the fat man yet—just my man in
Duluth and my wide-eyed local mechanics. But with them, I’m on a
first-name basis; in fact, we already have an intense, intimate
relationship characterized by frustration and sorrow: I am always
frustrated with them; they are usually feeling sorry for me. I’m an
Reluctantly I called my dad a couple of days ago, for advice. He’s the
one who got me into this mess, and he’s presumably the only one who
might be able to help me through it.
So I asked him: “Dad, do you remember when you got your ’40 Buick and it took the restorer two years to do the job?”
He laughed. “Yes, I remember that quite clearly.”
“How did you live without it for all that time?”
He hesitated only a moment and then said, “I didn’t. I bought the Frazer.”
Laurence Modithre says
What a fascinating story. I can definitely relate because my old man also loves cars. He loves going to car shows, and he collects toy car models. Strangely enough, his favorite car is his old Mini. I never understood why he is so in love with that diminutive car – to each his own, I guess.