By Brian Earnest
A big ol’ truck that rides hard, can’t keep up on the interstate, has room for only two passengers and needs a jumbo-size garage to call home isn’t everybody’s idea of a perfect hobby vehicle.
For guys like Fred Kilmer, though, nothing is more worthy of preservation than a humble, loyal, hard-working farm truck. One with dual back wheels, old-fashioned clearance lights, mudflaps that really catch mud, and absolutely no fuzzy dice.
Kilmer remembered from his childhood what such trucks felt like, rode like and even smelled like — and it all came back to him when he and his son Rick finished restoring their 1951 International L-130 1-ton. The truck now has a wooden sign mounted on the back that reads “Kilmer’s D&P Lumber.” That might not mean much to anybody beyond his immediate family, but it means a lot to Kilmer.
“When I grew up my dad worked at a lumberyard and they bought a new L-130 and L-160 pickup truck in the little town of Dawson, Iowa,” Kilmer recalled. “I was born in ’46, and I think what they bought was a ’52. Those L-130s were the same in ’50 and ’51 and ’52 … I remember those trucks and learned to drive on those trucks …
“One day I was talking with my son and I said, ‘I wish I could find one of those.’”
Sure enough, a short time later Rick found an L-130 that was restorable, and the wheels started turning. “He found one advertised in Spencer, Iowa, and we went up there and looked at it,” Fred said. “A couple weeks later we trailered it back home [to Lake Panorama]… It had been on a farm [near Spencer]. They probably used it to haul hogs to town and do whatever. It was a one-owner truck and it eventually blew a head gasket, we think, and it sat out in the grove for probably 25 years. A local guy there bought it and never did transfer the title. He was going to restore it and never got around to it … so I’m actually the second owner …
The all-new L Series line of trucks was introduced by IHC in January 1950 and lasted until 1953, when they were replaced by the R Series. They were totally restyled and re-engineered, with styling characteristics that included a one-piece windshield, two-section rear cab window, broad flat fenders and a wide and flat front end cap. Single headlamps were flush-mounted into keyhole-shaped recesses with rectangular parking lamps below. The new grille consisted of horizontal bars with 19 vertical slots above. The three outermost vertical blades on each side were shorter. A bright metal strip ran across the lower edge of the nose. The bow had an IHC badge and a chrome molding ran up the center of the hood. A painted, wraparound bumper protected the front. The floor-shifted manual transmission was powered by the new overhead-valve inline six-cylinder Silver Diamond engine. It displaced 220.5 cubic inches and was rated at 90 net hp with a maximum torque rating of 173.5 lbs-ft.
The L Series IHC models were first sold mainly as chassis and cab trucks. A station wagon with wood body construction could be ordered. Metro vans, milk trucks, baker trucks and small school buses were available, too. The pickups came with ample 9-foot beds.
The trucks were not produced on a yearly model basis and changes were minimal over their three-year run. The L-130 could be fitted with two or four rear wheels — the Kilmers’ truck has four – and was considered a 1-ton truck. It carried a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 6,800 lbs. with a cargo capacity of 3,700 lbs.
Fred Kilmer remembered such trucks at the lumberyard during his childhood, but the truck he and Rick found had spent most of its life on a farm. Fred knew it would take many months to bring the IHC back and get the restored truck he envisioned, but the pair were in no rush. The International had been neglected for a long time, and it needed help everywhere. “It looked terrible,” he said with a chuckle. “Most of the paint was gone. You could tell it had originally been red, but you couldn’t tell much else… Since the engine didn’t run, we didn’t know much about it mechanically.”
When the Kilmers purchased it, the truck was missing its original combination bed that probably came in plenty handy on the farm. It wasn’t what Fred had in mind for his truck, anyway. “A combination bed was one with sideboards to raise for livestock or lower for grain,” he said. “The truck had duals originally, so it always had a big 9 foot bed, never a pickup bed. My son cut down a flatbed he found in the Quad Cities to 9 feet, so it's the same as the original and the same as the original flatbed on the company lumberyard truck. What I put on it was just a straight flat bed, like a lumber truck. We converted it from a farm truck to a lumber truck”
Rick wound up hauling the International to his home in Bettendorf, and eventually wound up doing an “absolute ground-up restoration,” according to his dad. “He’s quite handy and he can do the paint and the mechanical work… It had a lot of surface rust, but had very few places where it was rusted clear through. He put in a new clutch, went through the transmission… The glass is all new. The glass was all there, surprisingly, but it all had to be replaced. I was even able to find a new-old-stock windshield, with I thought was cool.
“It's got new upholstery, new brakes, new exhaust. We had the head replaned and valves ground … The bottom end [of the engine] is just fine … Shoot, those rings don’t smoke and it runs great. As far as we know the bottom of the engine is all original.”
One of the biggest challenges of the restoration was dealing with the truck’s original two-piece rims. “They had a heck of a time,” Fred laughed. “Surprisingly, the tires would still hold air, but they were all rotted of course. Those two-piece rims are just dangerous. We had to take them to a tire shop and one of the fellas there chipped a tooth and they said they couldn’t do it … My son eventually took a Sawsall and I don’t know what else, but he was finally able to get the [wheels] apart.”
The father and son sent out the generator, starter and radiator to be refurbished. They also got some help with the seat upholstery. “It’s got all the extra [options], which is a heater and a radio,” Kilmer joked. “I’ve got the radio, but it hasn’t been restored. I haven’t put it back in. In the dash where the radio would go I had a professional make an engraved plate that says, ‘Restoration by Kilmer.”
Cosmetically, the Kilmers didn’t have to alter much, although they eventually wound up changing the clearance lights mounted on top of the cab. “It originally had painted clearance lights, and my son was able to find some chrome lights,” Fred said. “We also wanted to find some horizontal chrome grille bars. On this truck they were originally painted black. On some they were chrome, but we were never able to find them.”
The outside rearview mirror was salvaged from a Jeep that had mirrors almost identical to the original 1951 IHC versions. The finishing touches were the oak stakes and sideboards, which Fred made and mounted himself around the wooden flatbed. “I just used my own imagination and, of course, I wanted it to look right,” he said. “I was going to use tongue and groove flooring, so I just took ¾-inch plywood and bolted it to the frame and went in and laid the floor like you were laying flooring in a house.”
All things considered, the restoration on the sturdy IHC went very smoothly, but the elder Kilmer admits he was a little nervous about driving the truck home from Rick’s house for the first time after its facelift was complete. “He and I built a hobby garage in a town near here and he had a Mustang convertible and wanted it back,” Kilmer said. “So I drove the convertible back to Bettendorf and drove that old truck all the way home. I was thinking, ‘Boy, I don’t know if I’ll make it home.' It's 220, 225 miles, and it just rolled right along. That was quite a maiden voyage.”
Kilmer probably had never traveled such a distance in an L-130 truck before, but the ride and personality of the truck were very familiar to him. “It was an absolute time warp,” he said. “It rides and sounds and smells just like the truck from back in the ’50s. You just can’t believe it.”
All the Kilmers’ effort and investment have resulted in a unique hobby vehicle and sure-fire conversation piece. Vintage IHC trucks have a loyal following, but not many buffs take on the challenge of restoring the 1949-52 L-Series machines back to like-new condition. “There is one guy around here that has one. I think it’s a 120, that would be my guess,” Fred said. “But you don’t see a lot of them. It’s funny how many people you run into that say, ‘Oh, my dad had one of those,' or my neighbor or brother had one.”
It isn’t exactly a vehicle he’s going to drive coast to coast in or take on any multi-day cruises with a car club, but that wasn’t the plan anyway. For now, Fred is just happy to show the truck off when he gets the chance and do some low-speed cruising when he’s in the mood for a rough, bouncy ride. “Yeah, I originally thought we’d just go out and have Sunday drives with it,” he laughs “But it’s a beast to drive! It rides hard and drives hard and it’s not really something my wife wants to ride around in. But I’ve had it out a few times. I’ve got the hobby garage and it’s got a nice place to sit. We enjoy it and I really don’t know about what I’ll do with it eventually.
“I’m not done yet, and I have a tendency to hang onto things, so I’d rather just acquire something else rather than get rid of it.”
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