It’s been twelve months since I finally got the vehicle I’ve wanted forever: a 1975 International Scout. It’s taught me a lot. Well, mostly it’s taught me that the cool old truck you’ve had your eye on can cost as much to run as a supercar.
This janky slice of Americana is actually the second Scout I’ve owned, though it is the first I’ve driven.
In 2015 my obsession with these tractor-derived trucks led me to a retiree’s backyard trash heap and the 1964 International Scout that was residing at the bottom of it. For $400, the owner let me relieve him of what was effectively a sculpture of rust flakes bonded together by luck and bug nests. I couldn’t have been happier.
It sat in my yard for year. While I made a few attempts to tinker, crippling laziness and an aversion to spending money kept me from making any real progress on it.
The day before I moved to Los Angeles, I sold that Scout for what I’d paid, slightly cleaner than I found it, to another wide-eyed and willing masochist. Sorry; enthusiast. As I watched the truck’s new custodian tow it away behind his Chevy Avalanche, I promised to myself I would own another one, and next time, I wouldn’t be such a candy ass about fixing it.
Last July, I finally got the chance to step up and complete this prophecy by trading a perfectly drivable Toyota for a forty-year-old utility vehicle with some random guy on Craigslist.
The paint job was a little off-putting but otherwise the truck was perfect: V8, four-speed manual, four-wheel drive, emissions exempt (a big deal in California) and running.
It was also leaking several fluids, its tires rubbed on turns and it had some crazy home-made battering bar holding a massive winch.
I drove that rattle-canned coffin across 60 miles of California desert to get home, a little apprehensive about the transaction. Even compared to the 300,000-mile Toyota I was parting ways with, the Scout felt sketchy at neighborhood speeds. It didn’t seem capable of much more.
But here we are about 52 weeks, 1,300 miles and $2,500 later; the Scout is actually starting to look like it might have been a decent investment. Here’s what I’ve done to the truck, how much it’s cost me and what I’ve learned owning it.
If $2,500 to go 1,300 miles sounds like a raw deal to you, I mean, yeah. That’s pretty much supercar running-cost territory. But one does not simply drag an old truck out of the desert and expect it to have been well maintained.
I went into the project convinced I was going to be a ace wrench in no time, though. Surely, even a clumsy and sheltered city boy like myself could learn how to repair and maintain a machine as basic as a tractor. But I quickly realized that I was fighting more than a primitive mechanical enemy.
Around the second week of ownership, I inadvertently destroyed the truck’s ignition system by accidentally leaving the previous owner’s home-brewed anti-theft ignition interrupter in the wrong position.
You see, there was a switch that had to be in a certain position to make the truck start, another to run, another position to turn it off, another position for it to sit and stay off, or electrical power would keep flowing from the coil to the distributor and fry something. A regular key was also part of the equation.
Somewhere along the way, I got a little confused and killed the truck. Like, the fourth time I tried to start it.
It took three months of pawing through forums, YouTube videos, every shop manual I could find and the advice of fellow gearheads to figure that out. Meanwhile, the truck was quietly bleeding every flavor of automotive fluid onto the concrete in my apartment complex’s parking garage.
Yeah, the thing was already dead the first time I got around to Instagramming it.
I finally, frustratedly, gave up and made one more call to the International Harvester shop I’d been asking for advice. Yes, we do have one of those in LA. And some of the deftest tow truck drivers, too... it took the AAA wrecker pilot and I almost two hours of pushing, tugging and very careful geometry to extract my unconscious truck from its tight tomb below my apartment building, but it made it out of the garage unscratched and across town to the shop eventually.
A few days later, the good people at Karol-General gave me a call and a choice: “I’m sending three estimates. What it would cost to get you home safely, enough to get you cruising around again, and everything we’d like to do [pause] if you’ve got the budget.”
Did he not see my paint job? I damn sure didn’t “got the budget” but I appreciated his optimism.
To fix the mysterious ignition issue and make the truck start again, the shop had to untangle a nest of the previous owner’s weird electrical experiments, replaced the ignition coil, replace the Pertronix ignition system that replaces an old distributor’s points, and rebuilt the starter.
While the truck was in the hands of professionals I asked for the vehicle to be baselined with fresh oil, coolant, transmission fluid, transfer case fluid and differential fluids. A freeze plug that caused a coolant leak was also replaced, and the techs set the truck’s timing, adjusted the carburetor, fixed some vacuum leaks and replaced the front brake pads to get me to where I could “drive to the beach in relative safety.”
You know, basically dusted the thing off and did everything you should do when you crack open a fresh project.
That revitalization cost me $1,082.42. My insurance reimbursed AAA’s tow across LA, but I tipped the wrecker driver cash, so call it $1,100.
For a moment, I was conflicted. Having specifically bought a Scout because I’d wanted to work on it myself, I felt a little like I’d let my indolence win again by outsourcing the whole first step of the project.
But the happiness of driving again, and the peace of mind that comes with a professional mechanic saying “I mean, yeah, for just cruising around the west side, it’s probably in okay enough shape for now,” had me on stoke. Besides, with the most basic and essential repairs out of the way, I could start wasting time and money making the truck look sweet.
After getting the Scout drivable and attempting to clean its bed-liner’d interior (in vain) I dove into the next logical phase in any classic car project: making a stained wood floor.
I spent hours crawling around the truck’s cabin with a tape measure, sketching out ideas, comparing my findings to the offerings at hardware stores, and eventually, cutting and staining pieces of wood to cover the cargo area with.
It took two renditions and a couple hundred bucks in materials for me to decide it didn’t look as cool in real life as it did in my head, scrap the idea, stack the wood on my porch and throw a Mexican road blanket down in the truck instead. Which, actually, looks pretty much on-point and doesn’t add a deck’s worth of weight to the vehicle.
Thankfully, I had a lot more luck recovering my seats.
The Scout’s were blue (gross) and torn (worse), and their oddly simplistic shape made the seat covers you find at most auto parts stores look like excess skin on a freshly liposuction’d hippo.
Then I had the brilliant idea of throwing old khaki shirts over the seats. A little bohemian kitsch? Eh?
I decided that was dumb too, after one of my many rides to the hardware store for more wood. The whole truck’s look was already dangerously teetering between “Margaritaville Restaurant Prop” and “Survivalist Parody” and the shirt-seats just... weren’t helping.
I tried and returned no less than three sets of actual seat covers before I found the cheapest, most basically L-shaped tan cloth covers on eBay that dimensionally matched the truck’s seats almost exactly.
To jazz ’em up, I ordered “INTERNATIONAL SCOUT” patches that looked like they might have gone on mechanic’s coveralls, sewed them into the headrest area, and stretched the whole deal over the ripped fabric of the regular seats.
To finish the seat job, I cut and stained a very thin and light piece of wood to replace the horribly aged cardboard backing of the rear bench. It’s no ICON restomod work, but it also only cost about $30.
While I’d end up outsourcing even more work to improve the truck’s operational situation, I was able to replace:
- a leaking fuel line
- a battery that inexplicably decided to stop holding a charge
- wiper blades (probably the second set the truck’s had in its life)
- a stereo head unit with one I had laying around from another project
Add that to the tailgate lifter shocks and replacement fog light bulbs I just ordered, plus a few quarts of 10w-30 oil, and I’m into odds-and-ends for about $300.
After about six months of driving my Scout around on the blissful high of those early professional repairs and leaking exhaust gasses, I started to think a little more seriously about the rest of that list my mechanic had given me the first time he saw the truck.
Every task was pretty easy, even for a novice: mostly gaskets. But those three months the Scout had already spent as a leaky derelict had already put me on my landlord’s shit list. Also, our neighborhood homeless guy had taken over the best outdoor spot to wrench within walking distance of my tool box.
I drove the truck back to the shop and had the valve cover gaskets, oil pan gasket, a transfer case gasket, a transmission gasket, an exhaust manifold gasket, a wheel bearing and spark plug wires replaced for a little over a grand.
“Now we pretty much just wait for something else to break,” the mechanic told me. There’s that optimism again, but now I had it too.
The truck wasn’t leaking anymore, the cabin smelled considerably less noxious, and now I’m just a set of tires away from being able to take this thing on a real adventure!
Every universal truth you hear about project car ownership has come true for me: each step takes more time and money than you think it will, way more when you don’t have your own workspace. Old cars have more warts than your pre-purchase inspection will indicate. Vehicles that have been boondocks barnstormers for 20 years hide innumerable sins of past amateur mechanics. They will invariably haunt you.
While I’m still embarrassed by my mechanical ineptness, I don’t feel bad about seeking the advice and services of a professional mechanic. I’ve found a wrench who gets it, both my weird car itself and my easy-does-it restoration schedule. It makes their labor rate feel like money well spent. And at least receipts from an International Harvester specialist will do more for the vehicle’s resale value and collectability than my hand-scribbled maintenance notes.
That said, I am increasingly finding that the hardest part of owning this truck is committing to fix it. If you’re only creeping into your garage on a Sunday night and prod a few brittle hoses, the car’s going to languish and you’re going to have a bad time with it. If you can’t kick your own ass to work on it first thing Saturday morning, then plan on saving a little longer and letting someone else do the dirty work.
Despite spending a lot more money on other people’s labor than I’d set out to, one year after plucking this truck out of the desert it’s finally starting to feel like mine. I’m sure there new mechanical issues will turn up soon enough, and I’ll get more chances to turn the fine art of turning wrenches. Meanwhile, maybe it’s time to figure out how to commit to taking that spray paint off.
- Purchase: $6,000
Estimated purchase price. (Straight-up trade for a 2000 Toyota Tundra.)
- Baseline Repairs: $1,100
Fresh fluids, brake pads, starter, ignition, distributor, towing.
- Assorted Maintenance: $300
New battery, random wiring, oil, hose, wiper blades, tailgate lifters, light bulbs, miscellaneous nuts and bolts.
- Customization: $300
Lots of lumber, seat covers, sewing kit.
- Restoration Work: $1,150
Gaskets, wheel bearing, spark plug wires.
- All In, Year One: $8,850
Approximate project investment minus insurance, tools, parking and fuel.