International Wagonmaster - big promises, little delivery

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Today trucks are a big part of most auto manufacturers’ balance sheets. GM, Ford and Chrysler generate a large portion of that black ink on their income statements courtesy of the truck lines. Not only are they selling well, but trucks are getting ever more luxurious, rivaling high-end cars for features and appointments so the profits on each truck sold are also sky-high. 

Truck maker International-Harvester (IH) was ahead of this trend in the 1970s when it attempted to capitalize on the then-hot RV market and offer-up a pickup based on its Travelall model, the IH competitor to the Chevrolet Suburban. 

When I first saw one of these on social media I had no idea even what it was but, apparently, some of the line workers in Ohio that were building International Travelalls had the idea of taking the roof off the back and creating a pickup truck version of that truck-based station wagon. 

Like many of today’s more successful trucks, this one was a short bed with four doors and a bias more toward hauling people rather than their things. A modern reference for this might be the Chevrolet Avalanche, for example, which is almost the same concept. There are a lot of similarities that can be drawn between the Chevrolet Avalanche and the International Wagonmaster. 

The Wagonmaster was based on the Travelall chassis, sharing the same 119” wheelbase and even GVWs of that vehicle, much like the Avalanche sharing so much of the Suburban’s DNA. 

International’s announcement on August 21, 1972 said, “The Wagonmaster combines automobile-type styling and comfort with the durability and trailering capabilities of International’s popular Travelall wagon. Its design features a 5-foot pickup-type bed behind the roomy six person passenger compartment.” International wanted to offer the suburbanites a family pickup and capitalize on a new aspect of the RV market, the fifth-wheel trailer.

The Wagonmaster’s truck origins were definitely in place with available GVWs up to 12,000lbs. 

The Travelall was already eyeing more upscale buyers so the Wagonmaster shared things like available fancy interiors and luxury features. You could get one in Standard, Deluxe or Custom trim level with things like color-keyed nylon or vinyl seats (hey, that was a big deal in those days), tinted glass, air conditioning and more. Even a two-tone paint job was on the options list. 

In today’s market this thing would sell like hotcakes but this was the early 1970s with the Wagonmaster debuting in 1973. International’s designers were very specifically targeting the market for fifth wheel haulers with the RV industry experiencing a huge boom in those days and the company’s advertisements all touted how well it could tow these things around. 

Unfortunately there was a problem with this. You see, the Wagonmaster was so closely tied to the Travelall that very few components were changed and the bed was so short and the rear wheels so close to the end of the cab, you really couldn’t haul a fifth wheel after all. This was not lost on the press of the era who gladly jumped on the bandwagon of sharing this fact with the motoring public. Furthermore, International’s pickup and Travelall sales were already in the dumps and the future was not bright for any of these vehicles. 

One of the solutions that was offered was putting the fifth wheel hitch behind the rear axle of the truck, rather than over the axle as is done with a fifth wheel. Unfortunately this made the truck handle extremely poorly and ruined the advantages of a fifth wheel. 

It only took two years of very poor sales to spell the Wagonmaster’s demise. 

While you can find pictures and even the occasional unit for sale on the Internet, where anything is possible, seeing one of these restored in the real world is a rare sight indeed. 

The world has lots of examples of situations where being the first to market was a big failure, followed by others who took the idea and ran with it. Apple wasn’t the first with a portable music player, but they saw a hit where others saw loss. And Kaiser-Fraser had a sports car before Chevrolet had a Corvette. 

Funny to look at all the mid-size pickups that are more people than stuff haulers that flood the streets nowadays including my own truck. But, in 1973, International was just a bit too far ahead of its time and ended up behind the eight ball. That and the fact that this was targeted specifically to fifth wheel buyers yet couldn’t haul a fifth wheel well might have been a contributing factor.

My thanks to Old International Trucks for the images used here. 

Written by Anthony B. Barthel