The first SUV, surprise, it wasn’t the Jeep?

The First SUV

Since the dawn of cars, the pickup truck has existed, the model T for instance was available in a truck model. Along comes WWII and American ingenuity invents the time honored tradition of the Jeep, the general purpose military vehicle that has won over the hearts of people all over the world. But… What happened when the pickup truck and Jeep decided to have a baby? The birth of the SUV!

SUV History Debunked

Now, let’s put a couple car history myths to rest. No, the Chevrolet/GM Suburban was not the first SUV. Yes, it is the longest running model line in all automobile history, but it was a panel truck, or, a truck converted to have a full length cab. Perhaps we can call it the first van, maybe a panel van. What about the Willys Jeep, was it the first SUV? Nope, it was a military general purpose vehicle with 4wd. Today, we consider Jeeps to be SUVs, but the Willys was much smaller than modern SUVs and was not designed for ‘sport’ but winning wars.

What is an SUV?

Ok, back to the original question, what was the first SUV in the modern sense of having truck-like capabilities, but plenty of interior room. What vehicle had both on and off road sensibilities? To answer this question, we need to look back to the golden era of the automobile, the 1950s.

The SUV Conception

The designer’s name was Ted Ornas of the International Harvester corporation. Ted was tasked with a difficult challenge. Design a vehicle with the sporty capabilities of the Jeep and give it the utility of the pickup truck. At the time, WWII was a decade behind and Korean war veterans were now returning home looking for a car that could be equally suited on city streets, as it was on a hunting trip or fetching supplies from the local hardware store.

Ted Ornas also wanted to ditch the tradition of slab side construction and bring in the modern curved sheet metal appeal so popular at the time. His initial conceptions, like the Jeep, were basic and utilitarian and lacked curves.

The SUV is Born

After numerous iterations, in 1959, Ted Ornas and the International Corporation created the first SUV, and they called it the IH Scout 80. The Scout 80 was nothing like any vehicle before it. It was bigger than a Jeep, could carry a small payload, was rated at ¼ ton but wasn’t the large footprint of a ½ ton pickup truck. It also had style elements, a rounded and pinched grille, radiused sides, seating for 4, and up to 10 if you asked IH. It also came with a full length metal roof if you wanted it. The roof could also be removed if you wanted an open air experience. The IH Scout 80 wasn’t a pickup truck, but it wasn’t a Jeep, it was an SUV, the very first SUV!

What else made the IH Scout 80 special? It had a ladder frame three times more stiff than the Jeep, a capable but plush leaf spring suspension, and was built farm tough with high nickel cast iron engine block that any farmer would find desirable. In fact, today, numerous IH Scout 80 SUVs drive around with original engines having never needed an overhaul due to the design choices made by International Harvester.

What did the Consumer Think?

The average consumer loved this new vehicle, it was at home in every situation the typical American would find oneself in. International Harvester sold more Scout 80s than their internal predictions indicated they would. Yet, other carmakers, such as Ford, looked at this vehicle as an oddity or fad that would not last. The consumer needed either a truck or a Jeep, why would they want something in the middle?

The Trend Continues

The IH Scout 80 was conceived in 1959, and production began in 1961. Production of the first SUV continued all the way until 1971. After International Harvester entered their 6th year of production. The Detroit automakers had finally taken notice. What they thought was a weird and irrelevant vehicle made by a farm and truck supplier, was a sales hit, and the Detroit automakers did not want to miss out on this new trend. Ford was the first to take action.

Ford Motor Company Copies the IH Scout 80

Everyone who owns a IH Scout 80 knows one phrase all too well, “Nice Bronco”! Well… it’s not a Bronco, but an IH Scout 80? Why do they say this? In Ford’s race to design an SUV to compete with the Scout 80, in 1966, they copied nearly every element of the Scout 80 to quickly bring their vehicle to market. Side by side, the nose, body lines, side contours, and interior layout nearly all mimic the IH Scout. Ford does receive credit for finishing touches and details but the two vehicles parked next to each other look strikingly identical.

How did it work out for Ford, very well. The Bronco is the classic SUV every American has a soft spot for. Fortunately for Ford, they had much better marketing and retail distribution creating unparalleled popularity for their Bronco line. The IH Scout 80 could only be purchased at a International Harvester dealership and these were farm equipment focused dealers often outside of cities selling to a rural crowd.

Ford Motor Companies city dealer networks helped them gain superior exposure and greater sales than International Harvester could ever obtain. We will hand the title of 2nd SUV to the Bronco, but the IH Scout was still first!

Detroit Automakers Follow Suit

When GM and Dodge noticed that both International Harvester and Ford had an SUV product, they both rushed a similar vehicle to market, but unlike IH and Ford, GM and Dodge wanted to minimize the design time and supply chain footprint. In doing so, both GM and Dodge took their ½ ton pickup truck line, shortened the bed, and put a fiberglass roof over the top. This is where the GM/Chevrolet Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger come from. Both good looking SUVs in their own right, but miniaturized versions of pickup trucks.

The Scout 80 Works Hard to Compete

With the introduction of the Bronco, International Harvester knew it would have to improve the Scout 80 to stay competitive. They released three late 60’s and early 70’s iterations to the Scout, namely, the Scout 800, Scout 800A, and Scout 800B. Each iteration introduces new enhancements, bigger engines, stouter axles, and better handling and safety features. In addition, International Harvester began releasing new trim packages aimed at generating continued sales of the original SUV. It was a good push, and in the end, 1971, International Harvester had sold over 100,000 Scout SUVs.

The Scout Morphs into Full-Size

International Harvester knew they needed to update their design to stay competitive. Starting in 1971, IH released the Scout II or Scout 2. Like GM and Dodge, IH chose to adapt their ½ ton truck chassis and sheet metal with a fiberglass top to create the latest iteration. The Scout II is known for being the most stout and bulletproof SUV of the 1970s. In their forward thinking, IH even released a Scout 2 with a diesel engine in 1980.

The End of an Era

Unfortunately, in 1980, International Harvester said goodbye to light truck production to focus on its heavy truck offerings. This resulted in the Scout SUV line being canceled never to be built again. Because the first SUV had a 19 year run and then faded into automotive obscurity, it is still an obscure vehicle mostly known by enthusiasts and SUV history buffs. This obscurity creates additional challenges for collectors and restorers because the part aftermarket is very small with almost no manufactures of reproduction parts being left.Still, many folks who lived during the 1960s and 1970s remember the IH Scout as the toughest and most reliable SUV available.

The Secret is Out

For years, the Scout 80 was a secret to the automotive community. Its original marketing in rural communities means that it was primarily owned by resourceful people willing to keep a machine running and used as a tool. This meant the Scout 80 was covered in layers of paint and parked outside under a tree when it reached the end of its useful life. This culture of ownership led the Scout to become the common persons project car. People were willing to share parts and information without the friction and budgets of collectors getting in the way. As time went on and more popular classic SUVs were collected and restored, people were looking for a new project and stumbled upon the Scout 80. Before 2015, it was common to pick up an old scout in decent condition for less than $1000. Times have changed and the Scout 80 now draws $5000+ for a project car! The Scout 80 has entered the realm of collectability, with excellent condition Scout 80s selling for more than $30,000.

The Legend Lives On

Next time you are at a car show or you see a Scout 80 on the road, remember, this vehicle is no ordinary classic car, but the car that reinvented what utility meant for America and started a whole new class of cars, the SUV.