Most old farm trucks are destined to rust away quietly in a tree line when their working days are done. That seemed to be the fate of “Old Red,” a 1937 International Harvester that Sue Sallee’s grandfather had bought new and used for many years.
“I don’t remember riding in it, but my mom did,” Sue Sallee said. The pickup, its fenders battered and its paint gone, had been consigned to a resting place on the farm many years before Warren and Sue Sallee stumbled upon it in 2009, while attending her mother’s 80th birthday celebration.
“It was known as `Old Red’ back in the day,” Warren said. The old truck had somehow survived a tornado that collapsed a building on it in 1991. When the Sallees mentioned finding it, her mother was surprised it was still there.
“Mom had sold it after the tornado. She got $35 for it, but the guy apparently never came and got it, so it sat there for another 18 years,” Sue said. Her mother told them if they were interested in it, they could have it. It required cutting down a tree to drag the old hulk out, but they hauled the relic out and stashed it in their oversized workshop where Warren was busy building a customized 1951 Ford.
“I knew what I was going to do with it,” Warren said. “That’s about when rat rods were starting to catch on and I really wanted to build a rat rod.”
With two projects staring her in the face, Sue said, “I had to slow him down a little bit.” She suggested he focus exclusively on one of the projects.
“I wanted to see it done before I died,” she joked.
When they began cleaning out the interior of the truck about three weeks later, they found they had inherited an unwelcome guest: a skunk had taken up residence inside the cab and was still there.
“She screamed and I took off running,” Warren recalled.
Eventually, the stinky offender was captured in a live trap and removed from the building with only a slight aroma left as a reminder.
The plan called for leaving the original patina in place, but getting radical with the drive train and running gear. Warren Sallee set about building a mid-engined, Cadillac-powered IHC pickup.
As a longtime jig-builder in the aircraft industry, he had the skills to design his own chassis setup and the creativity to put it all together.
“From the back of the cab forward, it is the original frame, which I boxed,” he said. From the cab back, he crafted a framework to mount the 1991 Cadillac El Dorado Northstar V-8 engine and transaxle, using rectangular tubing.
With the original engine gone, Sallee decided he needed something under the hood, so he created what appears to be some kind of an exotic power plant. It consists of a polished beer keg fitted with chromed air intake tubes and a pair of semi truck exhausts jutting out the sides. He even installed a “flux capacitor” under the hood.
“This is for mass confusion,” he said, noting that he and his wife keep track of all the expert comments from onlookers who have called the setup everything from an exotic turbine engine to a helicopter power plant.
In keeping with the old-school look, the truck rolls on aluminum 5-slot mag wheels with extra wide whitewall tires.
The original Macpherson strut suspension from the Cadillac was discarded in favor of using vintage parallel leaf springs. Sallee created his own old-time friction-style shock absorbers. Up front, he mounted a 1937 Chevy straight axle. Disc brakes are used at all four corners of the chassis.
With the power plant and transaxle occupying the area that normally would have been used for the cargo bed, Sallee went to work chopping the pickup box down to size, removing about half its length. Sue was tasked with creating the stained wood bed cover, which normally would have been the bed floor.
The bed, which tilts up to allow access to the mechanical components, is outfitted with a pair of 1963 Ford Fairlane tail lights with 1959 Cadillac bullet tail lights in the center. Using the truck’s old springs, Sallee also fabricated one of the stoutest wheelie bars ever, mounting a single go-kart wheel and slick between the springs. A sinister-looking skull is attached to the assembly, with red eyes that light up when Sallee touches the brake pedal.
Sallee created his own cable shifter running from the 3-speed automatic transaxle to the console in the cab. It’s shifted by means of an oversized sheet metal clamp. An old Dodge mini-van third-row seat was installed in place of the original seat that had once been a skunk’s nest.
The Cadillac instrument cluster was incorporated into the original dash board and a $2 swap meet spotlight was hung on the driver’s side of the dash.
With the Cadillac radiator tucked up close to the rear of the cab, they discovered they had an overheating problem due to lack of airflow. They learned this on a 110-degree day when they set out to drive the 90 miles to the Leadsled Spectacular in Salina.
“We had to pull over every few miles and let it cool down,” Warren said.
“It took us four hours to get there,” Sue said, and they were covered with rust that had sifted out of the cab by the time the arrived.
To solve the overheating issue, Sallee built a pair of air scoops fitted to the rear sides of the cab, which duct cold air back to the radiator. To get even more air flowing, he decided those ducts needed to be punched full of louvers.
When he could find no one willing to take on that task, he built his own louver punch and dies and set about ventilating the International from one end to the other.
“There are 934 louvers in that thing,” he grinned.
Sue found the perfect hood emblem for their truck, a $20 nickel-plated flying gargoyle, at a nearby curio shop.
“It makes it look kind of evil,” she said.
Pinstriper Shane Arpin was called in to add some designs to the rusty hood and graphics to the air scoops.
“It took about two years to get it done,” Warren said. “We’ve had a lot of fun with this old truck. It definitely turns heads.”
It won a creative engineering award at the Greaserama show, which attracted 1,200 vehicles over Labor Day weekend, Sallee said.
For an old farm truck that worked so hard for so many years, it’s fitting that in its reincarnated form, Old Red’s primary mission is providing good times for its owners and those who can’t believe their eyes when they see it at a car show.