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Story and photos by Brian Earnest
The term “cross-over” is a relatively new moniker that has been slapped on many new vehicles in recent years. You see them everywhere, in all shapes and sizes — modern, high-tech, operator-friendly “tweener” rigs that are part car, part station wagon and part sports utility vehicle.
Steve and Dixie McNeely, of Grand Valley, Ariz., figure they’ve got a vehicle that was a little ahead of its time as a multi-purpose machine. Sure, it’s plenty primitive and might not work that great for hauling the brood to a soccer game, but the McNeelys’ splendid 1910 International Harvest Co. (IHC) Auto Wagon high-wheeler was clearly a truck capable of performing more than one duty back in its day.
“They called them delivery wagons, or Auto Wagons, and they were primarily used for work during the week,” Steve said. “But the back seat is removable. What I understand is that people would put [the seat] in on Sunday and go to church.
“It was a multi-purpose vehicle!”
These days, the McNeelys’ shiny high-wheeler performs singular duty as a parade vehicle, joy rider and smile-getter at occasional cars shows. When the couple fires up the venerable IHC, they attract attention in a hurry. Having a faux water barrel in the back doesn’t hurt, either. “If I keep it, I might make it a Bud truck,” Steve joked. “Or maybe put a tapper on it.
“Everybody says I should make that barrel functional!”
Hauling a heavy barrel was certainly within the Auto Wagon’s job description when IHC unveiled its new line of cars and light-duty “trucks” more than 100 years ago. The company best know for making farm machinery first unveiled its Model A Auto Buggy in 1907. The two-cylinder car was joined in 1909 by the larger Auto Wagon, which carried a straight wagon body made to haul cargo.
The IHC “high-wheelers” featured 44-inch wheels on the back and 40-inchers on the front until 1910, when the measurements changed to 42 and 38 inches, respectively. For 1907-08, the IHCs were truly wagons with an engine and drive train, and not much more, but for 1909 they were given a more conventional-type hood in the front end.
The air-cooled, four-stroke, horizontally opposed engine displaced 196 cubic inches. The two-cylinder mill had a bore and stroke of 5 inches, each, and produced between 15 and 20 horsepower, which likely propelled the Auto Wagon at speeds of no more than about 20 mph … downhill, with the wind, on a smooth road.
The artillery-style wheels were shod with 1 ¾-inch-wide, hard-rubber tires. Drum brakes on each of the back wheels were supplemented by a hand brake connected to the differential. The lights in front and back were fueled by acetylene gas, which was produced from a container on the left running board.
The two bench seats sat on a platform above the steel frame, although the rear seat was probably often left in the shed or barn. A canopy top was available, but many trucks probably went about their daily duties without it.
The cargo box behind the front seat was 67 long, 35 inches wide and 9.5 inches deep, with a carrying capacity rated at 800 lbs.
The Auto Wagons were first built in 1907 at the IHC McCormick Works plant in Chicago, but production was soon shifted to the factory in Akron, Ohio. It’s estimated that in the neighborhood of 20,000 Auto Buggies and Auto Wagons were built before IHC pulled the plug on its high-wheelers in 1916. The 10-year run made IHC one of the most prolific builders of the big-wheeled cars from the era.
The McNeelys found their IHC in Wisconsin and couldn’t resist taking it home to Arizona. The couple has put together an eclectic fleet of cars over the years, including a rare 1917 Kissel and a 1919 Nash, but the IHC was their first foray into the wonderful world of high-wheelers.
“We got it from a man’s estate. My nephew was marrying the granddaughter of the person that died,” Steve said. “I like old cars and I like preserving history. So I found out about it and when I saw it, it was in pretty good shape. It wasn’t running, but we were able to get it timed good and get it running. It starts good now cranking. I’m an original nut, so I wanted to keep it original.
“I painted all the black and painted the wheels. It needed minor repair, but it was in pretty good shape. The wood [body and box] had all been redone. I didn’t find out a whole lot because the person was deceased and the in-laws didn’t know a lot about it … I think they only had it running once. He only had it a few years, but I’m not sure how long.”
Steve admits there has been a learning curve when it comes to operating such a time machine. The center of gravity is plenty high, the turning radius is a little big, and everything requires a little more muscle power. Adding to the fun is the fact that the driver pilots the Auto Wagon from the right side of the front bench seat. “A lot of people ask me about that, but I guess back in those days it didn’t matter,” Steve said. That also means Dixie has had to get used to riding shotgun on the left side. “It’s shake, rattle and roll,” she added with a laugh.
IHC literature of the day painted the Auto Wagon as almost a luxury cruiser, however — at least for a work truck. “While this car is designed for commercial purposes, there is no reason why it cannot be used as a pleasure vehicle when occasion demands,” the company boasted. “It has the same easy riding quality as the Auto Buggy.”
But the company knew that most buyers would be plunking down their hard-earned $800 because of the Auto Wagon’s ability to haul pay loads up to 800 lbs. while negotiating the difficult, rutty terrain that passed for roads during the high-wheeler era. “The International Auto Wagon is designed for use in cities, country roads and rural purposes where a light commercial car is desired. It will enable dairymen and truck farmers to make quick deliveries, saving time both morning and night, thus enabling them to give better service and serve more customers,” the company advertised. “From the standpoint of economy it will do as much work as two rigs, thus saving the cost of one driver as well as the expense connected with care of extra horses.”
The McNeelys got a crash course in Auto Wagons in June when they took their high-wheeler to LaPorte, Ind., for the Red Power Roundup show — an event that draws vintage International vehicles and farm machinery from far and wide. “They featured these and they had 31 of them there,” Steve said. “We were very happy to get there so we could compare. It’s nice when you can get a bunch of them together like that to kind of compare and find out what’s original and what isn’t.
“Ours is pretty much original. It’s got the carbide lights and of course the kerosene lanterns. One thing unique with mine is the spotlight on top. Mine was the only one that I saw there that had that. Maybe it was an option that was added on later.”
Steve has resisted any temptation to supply the car with a modern electric starter. So far, he says he hasn’t had much trouble getting his 100-year-old IHC to run on command. “I’ve got it down now and usually run the gas out. If I have a cold start, three cranks and it usually starts. If I have a hot start, it will usually start on the first crank. The thing is you have to use the spark advance and retard. I have a friend who has one and he put a Model T starter on his, but I like to keep it original. If you start adding stuff on it’s not original.
“I think the car is awful close to original. You can’t be 100 percent sure, but I think it’s very close.”