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Want to start an animated discussion among car enthusiasts? Ask them what company made the first American muscle car. With a little luck, the discussion will stay below the level of physical blows as the individual Chevy, Ford and Chrysler people "discuss things." On the other hand, ask the same group who made the first SUV and things should be far quieter. Truth be told -and few people know this- the first SUV was actually made by International Harvester, a company almost unheard of today.

The International Harvester Story

Before it became International Harvester, the company was simply called "The International Company." It was founded by Cyrus McCormick in 1831 to make farming equipment, much of which revolutionized the way farming was done in America.

Much later in 1907, in addition to farming equipment, International started to produce motorized vehicles. It was their first non-harvesting product and was called the Auto Buggy. Soon, with farming equipment and passenger cars, International became one of the largest producers of motorized vehicles in the world.

The Travelall

Fast forward about half a century. In the early 1950s, International Harvester designed a vehicle that could be described as half truck and half car. Called the Travelall, this vehicle started out as a modified R-Series commercial panel truck with a large elongated body attached on the back.

Roughly comparable in size to today's Chevy Suburbans, the first Travelalls were two-door models. In 1957-61, they added a third door and later, all Travelalls came with four doors, a configuration common in SUVs today.

Travelalls became quite popular in 1950s America. Ansel Adams used one to travel the United States, often photographing his famous black-and-white landscapes from a custom-built platform on the roof of his Travelall.

The First SUV

In 1956, the Travelall could be ordered with 4x4 drive. This technically made the 1956 Travelall an SUV as defined being a "4x4 truck-based passenger wagon." It was the first one. The Chevrolet Suburban had a similar design, but the Suburban didn't acquire four-wheel drive until 1960. Marburger Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Shelby, NC, says Dodge's large Town Wagon wasn't offered with four-wheel drive until 1957. International was the first.

What happened?

A question that often arises is: "what happened." How did International Harvester lose out on the SUV boom that they essentially started? The answer might be a simple matter of dealer distribution.

With advertising campaigns that emphasized four-wheel-drive practicality, early International marketing efforts were directed at suburban families rather than at farmers or tradesmen. That part was smart. However, Travelalls were sold through International Harvester's dealers, most of which were located in rural areas rather than in the urban and suburban markets. Potential owners, those near the cities, just couldn't get them easily.

Leaving before the party started

This mismatch between demand and distribution led to sluggish sales and eventually a departure from the consumer truck market. Had it been able to hold out a while longer, International Harvester, a company with a real heritage and a history in rugged commercial trucks, would probably still be a player in the successfully populated SUV market.

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