Historic Truck Brands
The iconic International Harvester brand has travelled a long way since its foundation in North America in 1902.
Its journey in Australia since 1912 has taken it to the pinnacle – the top-selling truck brand on Australian roads, with the first all Australian built truck – to the low point of financial misfortune.
That period of uncertainty was followed by the takeover in Australia by the giant Italian motor vehicle manufacturer, Fiat’s commercial IVECO marque.
IH was formed in the USA by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company and Dearing Harvester Company, along with three smaller agricultural equipment firms that merged to create the International Harvester Company (IHC).
This merged corporation grew to become one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural and construction equipment, as well as manufacturing refrigerators and air conditioners, light commercial vehicles, bus chassis and trucks.
Trucks were an extension of its then core business, offering the user of its off-road equipment the means of transporting their products to the middleman or end user.
Our story concentrates mainly on the truck division of IHA and, in particular, how its trucks were an integral part of the burgeoning road transport industry in Australia during the 20th Century – more than any other truck brand.
International trucks made their mark on the highways and byways of this country and became an integral part of Australia’s road transport scene; a scene that would have been less colourful, had it not been for International’s wheel tracks.
During the last 20 years IVECO has transformed the organisation into the modem 21st Century company it is today, with truck products that bristle with technology.
In the beginning
The Australian agricultural industry had used various International farming equipment and components, including steam engines, threshers, seed drills, disc and mouldboard ploughs. The first harvester was marketed in1905.
All these products were distributed through several of its allied companies since well before the turn of the century, as far back as 1852.
After the amalgamation in the USA in 1902 the association with Australia strengthened and, by 1904, the International Harvester Company of America set up headquarters in Melbourne, with branches in all States.
Experimental work began on the first International tractor in 1905 in the USA, in partnership with the Ohio Manufacturing Company. It was a cumbersome three–wheeled machine and it wasn’t until 1908 that the first all-International tractor was produced.
The motor powered tractor replaced the horse and was one of the greatest single advances ever recorded in agriculture.
Around this time, the International Auto Buggy and Auto Wagon (horseless carriage), both powered by an internal combustion two-cylinder horizontally opposed 20-horsepower engine, came to Australia.
They were styled on a horse-drawn wagon with tall wheels and solid rubber tyres and a wide 60-inch track, with high ground clearance to negotiate tracks that had been made by horse-drawn wagons.
Prior to WWI not many Australians knew how to drive cars before they bought them, so the International Harvester Company sent out an instructor for a week with every Auto Buggy or Wagon purchased.
Getting serious in Australia
It was I9I2, the year that RMS ‘Titanic’, the British passenger liner, sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on I5 April and just I I years since The Commonwealth of Australia was born.
In July of that year, Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin won a worldwide competition for the best design for Australia’ s capital city in Canberra.
The Commonwealth Savings Bank opened its doors to customers and Australia’s first automated telephone exchange was officially opened at Geelong in Victoria.
In this same month IHC America established International Harvester Australian (IHA) in Victoria. IHC management could see that Australia was growing. Its economy was built on rich primary industries, making Australia a land of opportunity for a company such as IH, as primary industry was an enormous consumer of agricultural and farming equipment.
In order to capitalise on this situation and capture a slice of the business, IHA was set up to control the Australian distribution and sales of International Harvester products, including trucks.
The new IHA company went about importing and selling its products throughout the country, progressing steadily and surviving the financial pressures of the Great Depression of the 1930s, which caused a downturn in sales.
However, at the same time, widespread tariff restrictions on imports were imposed, causing IHC to examine the possibility of Australian manufacture, rather than continuing as an importer.
IHC also began to realise that Australian conditions demanded the development in Australia of machines to suit unique conditions. (This is also true of today’s product, the majority of which is still manufactured in Australia) . The catalyst for the decision was, however, the restrictive Australian Commonwealth import tariffs.
In I937, I9 hectares of industrial land was purchased in Geelong, adjacent to the Corio North Wharf and IH’s first Australian manufacturing operations opened in May1939, to produce agricultural equipment and, later, tractors.
The plant also had a foundry that produced agricultural components and, later, engine blocks and associated components.
Geelong was chosen as a site, because experience had demonstrated that opening a new plant outside larger cities was welcomed by the local community and a labour force was usually readily available.
At the outbreak of WWII the factory ceased production of its own products and put its skills into the war effort by manufacturing guns, tanks, planes and other war equipment.
Following the end of hostilities, the company reverted to its core business, producing farm equipment and service parts.
In I947 IHA invested £1,630,000 to expand the Geelong factory, to produce, for the first time, locally made tractors and motor trucks.
The first tractor rolled off the line in 1949 and by the summer of 1952/53 the 10,000th unit was driven off the line by the then Minister for Trade and Customs, The Honourable Sir John (‘Black Jack’) McEwen.
By the late forties, IH had set up branches in all interstate capitals, built a dealer network 550 strong and had become a major competitor to other agricultural equipment manufacturers.
The IH dealerships in rural areas were a fundamental constituent of the community’s economy. The majority of people on-the-land and the local transport operators bought from these dealers, whose business principles and support as equipment suppliers, were akin to the town’s bank manager.
International Harvester’s black and red logo was by now omnipresent throughout Australia: on buildings, agricultural equipment and trucks, and it became synonymous with practicality and quality.
It was obvious that a new manufacturing plant had to be built, if International trucks were to be a major supplier to Australia’s post-War growing road transport requirements.
A 23-hectare site at Dandenong, 20 miles (32km) southeast of Melbourne CBD was selected and on 4 August 1950 the first sod was turned by the then IHA managing director, Mr W.W. Killough.
That same month saw the first Australian made International truck to be produced in Australia – an AL10 model, fitted with a Silver Diamond 220 cubic inch engine – rolled off a temporary assembly line at the Company’s South Melbourne premises, with the Minister for National Development, Lord Casey, officiating. (The ‘A’ designation was used for all Australian built trucks.)
Inter’ was serious about testing, as you can see in this 1950s video:
The Dandenong plant – the first IH truck plant outside North America – moved quickly into gear and in August 1952, four months after the first trucks had been produced, was officially opened by the then Premier of Victoria, J.G.B. MacDonald.
Lord Casey was also present and said: “We greatly welcome the establishment of this essential industry in Australia … this plant is, in effect, strengthening the economy of Australia”.
The Dandenong plant was expanded in 1955, increasing the cab sheet metal assembly section and then, 10 years later, a $1million investment increased the production line and associated facilities.
Check out this 1957 video of truck production:
Trucks built at the Dandenong plant were also exported to New Zealand, New Guinea, Africa, Asia and throughout the Pacific basin. Australian manufactured trucks were working on three continents, in nearly 30 countries.
It was obvious that, as the company grew and production increased, becoming more diverse with Australian engineered and manufactured products, there would be a need for a full-time engineering centre and professional proving ground – not just for trucks, but for all of IH’s products. So in 1961, 1030 hectares of land was purchased at Wormbete, near Anglesea and close to Geelong.
Rigorous test courses, including a truck chassis twist course, test loop, wheel loader test area and tractor test loop. The facility was constructed entirely using IH construction equipment.
Australian International models
During the years before and after WWII, International trucks were busy on Australian roads. Truck production had started in 1915 in the USA and some of the early models in the 1930s were the C- and D-series ranging from half- to seven-ton capacity. The D was available in both conventional and cab-over style.
One of the most memorable Inters was the K-series, available as a van, utility or cab/chassis truck. Launched in the US in mid-year 1940, its design was archetypal of the era, with domed roof and pointed bonnet, and headlights integral in the guards – rather modem for the time.
In America, 100,000 K-series were produced for the US military during WWII.
After civilian production resumed in 1947 in the US, the K-series evolved into the KB, with a wider bonnet and only minor changes to the 1947-49 models, although the barrel-shaped grille sprouted little ‘wings’ at the bottom.
IHC stayed with this styling until 1950 – not the most competitive course to pursue in a market where rivals were shedding their pre-war designs. However, it was durable and easy to work on.
The cab was utilitarian, although it did offer an adjustable bench seat and surprisingly complete instrumentation. A glove box matched the oblong instrument panel. Compared to other l940s trucks, this symmetrical layout seemed almost sporty and made for an easy transformation of a left to right steering conversion.
After WWII, Australia needed to create jobs and develop its industries and trucks had an important part to play, to conquer vast distances. There was a need for reliable, strong trucks to span the inhospitable topography, in order to achieve this task.
Because of its ancestry, Australia had fulfilled its early motor powered road transport requirements with predominately British-built motor lorries. These trucks operated well in an urban environment, but they were slower and heavier that their North American contemporaries.
The IH truck brand became a common sight on Australian roads, with its heavy-duty prime movers in the 50s and 60s. The then flagship model, the R 190, was undisputedly the ‘King of the Road’. Powered by big-capacity petrol engines – the 406ci model especially – it had a raucous exhaust note that was music to any red-blooded truckie’s ears.
This memorable powerhouse continued as the preferred interstate hauler for many years and was later powered by GM and Cummins diesel engines. The ‘190’ as it was affectionately known, was the backbone of many a transport operator’s business and was a truck driver’s delight.
The rollout of more heavy-duty prime movers continued into the 70s and 80s. Medium-duty and light-duty models also attracted many buyers. Their transport tasks were many and varied: transport operators, building industry, shopkeepers, warehouse distributors, market gardeners and farmers.
The all-Aussie ACCO and derivatives
Of the entire IH truck product range, the ubiquitous ACCO will be remembered in Australian road transport lore as the most versatile. It became a common sight on city streets and country roads, and it ran the interstate routes as a line-hauler in both single- and bogie-drive configuration, as a livestock carrier, as a toiler in the building industry in a multi-wheeled rigid form carting bricks and concrete.
The ACCO is synonymous with the waste industry and is arguably the greatest vocational truck this country has ever seen.
But the long-serving ACCO lineup had unlikely beginnings.
In the late-1950s, following five years of development and testing of prototypes, the Australian Army awarded a contract for 100 four-wheel drive military trucks to IHA.
The first 15 of these Australian designed and manufactured trucks were built at Dandenong and handed over to the Army in 1959.
Designated Mk1 these trucks were AACOs – the letter designation is: Australian A-line Cab Over. A-line was the assembly line. The later series changed to ACCO, as it was built on the C-assembly line.
The Army placed a small additional order for 10 Mk2 variants and then more orders during 1959 and 1963 for the updated 4×4 Mk3 and Mk4 models. Some 1230 vehicles were added to the original 100.
The production of the Mk5 6×6 version started in 1966, to fill an order for 390 units.
The AACO, with its Army-style ‘butter-box’ cab, was upgraded cosmetically for more appealing acceptance in civilian life by installing four headlights, raking the windscreen rearwards slightly and positioning the wipers at the bottom of the screen.
After its successful military experience, the AACO entered civilian life, in 1961, with 4×2 and 6×2 axle configurations.
In 1964 it was modernised with a new mesh grille and one-piece windscreen. The AACO was powered by a Perkins 6-354 diesel engine or V8 345 cubic inch petrol engine.
In 1966 a bogie-drive 6×4 version was launched, with a five-speed main gearbox and three-speed ‘Joey’ box.
This successful truck morphed into the ACCO in 1967, with a different slatted grille and single headlights. It was available in 4×2, 6×2, 6×4 and 8×4 configuration. The engine selection broadened, with two petrol offerings – six-cylinder and V8 – as well as Perkins and Cummins diesel power.
In 1972, at an extravagant launch on Queensland’s Gold Coast, an all-new tilt-cab model was revealed, following several years of development work and at a cost of $16million.
In 1975 the range was expanded with the addition of light-duty variants, to combat Japanese competitors and with a heavy-duty 3070 model with Cummins 903 V8 diesel grunt and Eaton-Fuller’s nine- or 15-speed Roadranger transmission.
There were several 3070 upgrades during the next five years and, in 1980, the IH-owned Atkinson nomenclature adorned the grille of a new derivative.
This truck had a wraparound dash, lavish (for the time) interior trim and was marketed as a top-of-the-range, line-haul prime mover. The power sources were Cummins or Detroit Diesel. The latter ‘Jimmy’ was a thirsty two–stroke but it had a glorious exhaust note that some drivers reckoned, “Was enough to make an angel weep,” as it burbled along interstate routes.
The last decade of the millennium brought with it more changes to the ACCO cab – the addition of the front panel from IVECO’s Eurocargo along with a plethora of restyling – but even after the makeover it was still recognisable as an ACCO.
The original presses were still in operation at the Dandenong plant, until 2019, having punched out in excess of 80,000 AACO and ACCO cabs since the late 1950s.
The International ACCO is probably the longest-serving truck model in global history.
In August 2023, Iveco donated the last locally manufactured ACCO to the National Road Transport Museum in Alice Springs. The donation means that the truck will be on regular display at the Museum.
The donated 6×4 ACCO cab chassis was produced in November 2019 and was in storage until 2023. it’s the last example of the locally designed and built model before it was superseded in 2020 by a new ACCO version based on a global platform from Europe.
Interestingly, the newer version wasn’t able to emulate the sales success of its predecessor.
This last true ACCO was transported from Melbourne to Alice Springs in time for the Australian Festival of Transport that was held from 24th to 27th August, 2023.
Iveco ANZ managing director, Michael May, said that the National Road Transport Museum was a fitting home for the final Euro 5 ACCO produced.
“In the late 1960s through to the early 2000s, the ACCO played a massive role in Australia and New Zealand, being the truck of choice for a great many applications, including general freight, linehaul, emergency service, waste collection and agitator work,” Mr May said.
“At the end of 2019, Iveco celebrated the delivery of the 90,000th ACCO, so the truck’s inclusion within the National Road Transport Museum is well earned.
In accepting the donation, Road Transport Historical Society Inc CEO, Nick Prus, cited the contribution that ACCO has made to the Australian road transport landscape over many years.
“We’re very very happy and grateful that Iveco considered us for this donation,” Mr Prus said.
“As an exhibit, the last locally manufactured Euro 5 ACCO aligns very well with the goals of the museum: to preserve the heritage of the local road transport industry.
“The ACCO will be on permanent displace in the ‘Trucks in Action’ venue, which showcases the diversity of vehicles that were built in Australia.”