Lycoming engine, air compressor, distributor, starter, lights, horn. Casual observers could be forgiven if they believed, in overhearing Gary Aakre talk about his pickup truck, that he was speaking of a modern-era vehicle he had restored. They would be wrong, however. The 45-year-old rural Nelson, Minn., man is talking about his rare 1921 International Harvester Co. "Red Baby" truck.
Gary grew up surrounded by IHC equipment on a large farm on the western edge of Minnesota near Rollag. "I grew up with International Harvester machinery and have been on it since I was 10 years old," he says, "and I have always been interested in IHC equipment."
When he had a chance to purchase the rusted-out hulk of an old IHC truck that had sat in a Brooten, Minn., museum for 20 years, and in the Alexandria, Minn., museum for another 10 to 15 years, he was interested. "The Brooten museum had sold it to the Alexandria museum, about a mile from where I lived, and though it was there all those years, I never knew it." In 2001 he saw an advertisement selling the truck, as the museum was closing. The truck was in desperate need of restoration, with a door missing, rotten wood, a running board cut off, and much more. Still, the engine wasn't stuck, and the truck did have a couple of original decals. So Gary called a friend who knows about old IHC vehicles. "I described it to him, and he told me I had to go buy it, because if I didn't, I would never find another one."
The actual history of the Red Baby truck is murky. According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Trucks and Commercial Vehicles by Albert Mroz, "International introduced its speed model truck, which was rated at 3/4-ton capacity and had a 115-inch wheelbase, late in 1921." Standard design was used, with a radiator fronting a 4-cylinder Lycoming engine - an unexpected choice for a company that also built its own engines. A multiple disc clutch coupled the engine to a 3-speed transmission. The IHC company used a fleet of red 'speed' trucks, and with a pickup body, this model was nicknamed the 'Red Baby.' Truck-manufacturing companies in that era gave their lightweight speed trucks special names: Federal had the Scout, Stewart the Buddy, REO the Speed Wagon, and IHC the Red Baby.
Gary has heard that just 100 of the service-type Red Baby trucks were made, all turned out at the same time. "I had a picture of all of them together at one time," he says. Gary says he was told that IHC had some surplus trucks in 1921, so they painted them all red, put decals on them, and discounted them to dealers to use as service trucks. An IHC man named Legge was responsible for the idea.
"Most of them had an air compressor running off the bell housing with an on-off switch," Gary says. The small air compressor, without a reservoir, had a pipe running out to one of the channel irons with a valve stem on it. A hose could be screwed onto the stem, and tractor tires, for example, could be aired up right in the field. "It was advanced for a 1921 model," Gary says, with a 6-volt system with lights, generator, horn and starter. "It had about everything." The Red Baby was originally introduced in St. Cloud, Minn., in 1921, he says. Gary's truck is serial no. 2871, and says "Chicago, Illinois" on it.
Advertising materials for the trucks had an enthusiastic tone: "Agriculture smiles her best when service is at her command. Her millions upon millions of farm machines must be kept at work. Her power equipment must not fail. Her methods must keep pace with the times. Thousands of … dealers have equipped themselves with International Speed Trucks - trucks, which, because of their flaming red color, speed and snappy lines, are popularly called Red Babies."
The advertisement's claims were clearly exaggerated. The Red Baby was created during the Agricultural Depression of the 1920s, and IHC, like other companies, was struggling. The large number of units sold seems unlikely, if for no other reason than the fact that the Red Baby is such a rare bird today. "I've only heard of one other one," Gary says, "and judging by the photos, it wasn't as complete as mine."
Gary is no stranger to restoring farm equipment, having completed a WD-40, an F-20, a Farmall B and a Farmall C tractor, as well as others. "When I saw the Red Baby in Alexandria, the motor wasn't stuck, so I thought, 'This won't be too bad,'" he says. "But when we got into it, we found it had a cracked block and head that needed to be repaired." Luckily, Gary's brother-in-law, Gary Jensen, is a full-time mechanic. Piston rings for the Red Baby were nowhere to be found, so they substituted rings from a Volkswagen engine. "We couldn't get the originals, so we measured it out and found out the Volkswagen rings would fit. It seems to work fine with them." They also adjusted the babbitted bearings. The woodwork also needed to be replaced. "The top of the cab has a curve to it, so we used 1/4-inch-thick balsa wood, because the wood had pretty much deteriorated." They also replaced the floor of the pickup box, as someone had installed a different one years ago, and in the process had cut off part of the running board on each side. "We had pictures of what the Red Baby should look like," Gary says, "so we built a new box and lengthened the running boards, and made it look as close to original as we could." Ray Myers helped with the woodwork, and Gary's sons, Robert and David, pitched in, too.
With one door missing and the other in poor condition, new doors had to be made. "Luckily we had that one that we could use as a template," Gary says.
The door had had the name of a dealership on it, but it was rusted over so badly that it couldn't be made out. A couple of other decals on the cab - McCormick-Deering and IHC - were clear. Gary ordered duplicates, which now grace the Red Baby cab, along with the "Aakre And Sons" designation. "We wanted to have something like that because it had been a dealer truck at one time," he says.
They lucked out, and found rear fenders for the Red Baby (otherwise they would have to have been built from scratch), and they rebuilt the cab and did other bodywork. The transmission and differential were in good shape and didn't need any work.
The Red Baby needed new tires, but because the wood spoke wheels were in good condition, the wheels didn't need attention. "That would have been a big item, if we would've had to work on those wheels," Gary says.
By the time Gary and friends were finished, the entire truck had been stripped down to its channel iron frame. Then began the arduous but rewarding work of reassembly. This took a long time. "I bought the Red Baby in 2001, but due to our moving twice, and not having a shop for a while, I didn't work on it at all for an entire year, and didn't finish until last summer (2004). It sat outside for an entire year. It took a lot of patience to wait that long to get it finished."
The Red Baby, which has three forward speeds and one reverse, has an unusual driveshaft. "It doesn't have any u-joints," Gary says. "Instead, it has some belting, pieces at the front and rear of the drive shaft that take the flex."
Also, the pickup has open brakes, with the shoe running around the outside of the drum, where it is exposed to the elements. If the pickup wasn't used on a regular basis, Gary figures that could lead to maintenance problems. However, Gary uses the truck regularly, and expects that will keep the brakes in good working order. "To stop, you push on the brake pedal - that moves metal rods that run from the pedal to the rear brakes only," he says. "It doesn't have front brakes, and hydraulic brakes hadn't yet come along when this pickup was made."
Gary regularly drives his Red Baby to little towns in the Alexandria area where the older crowd really enjoys it. "They get a charge out of it," he says. "Some who are past retirement age remember when the dealer used to come to the farm in a truck like that."
Gary took the truck to an International Harvester Chapter 15 Red Power Roundup at the Scott-Carver County Fairgrounds in Jordan, Minn., last summer. The Red Baby was a hit. "Some IHC people didn't know there was such a thing as this Red Baby," he says. "I think maybe people that don't know the tractors think it's painted the wrong color. People who know IHC equipment were pretty impressed and happy to see it there."
Every time he looks at his Red Baby, Gary says, he sees little things that aren't perfect, but the only major work it really needs is on the headlights. "They are wired, but they need new light bulb sockets. When that's done, they'll be working." The majority of the work on the Red Baby is now finished, and whatever tinkering needs to be done he'll take care of eventually, because he plans to keep the grand-looking Red Baby "a long time."
He says he really enjoys the Red Baby, and hopes people who see it enjoy it, too. "I had the Red Baby for three years before I ever heard it run, and that was a pretty good feeling," he says. "Maybe it didn't look like much when I got it, but it turned out pretty good. And I think it complements my restored IHC tractors pretty well."
Red Baby trucks were unusual enough that at least two toy companies, Arcade Manufacturing Co. of Freeport, Ill., and Buddy L. toys, manufactured by the Moline (Ill.) Pressed Steel Co., made toy Red Baby pickups. Almost as soon as cars and trucks were available to the general public, children began playing with toy cars and trucks, especially after Arcade introduced their toy vehicles in the early 1920s at the previously unheard of price of $1 each. Despite such a huge price, the toys were popular, and Red Baby toy pickups could be found all over the nation. Both the cast iron Arcade Red Baby and pressed iron Buddy L. Red Baby bring premium prices today. FC
- For more information: Gary Aakre, 6106 Alyssa Lane N.E., Nelson, MN 56355; (320) 852-9953.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org