Wednesday, January 16, 2013

International Harvester Truck That Crossed the Sahara

This is an International Harvester advertising postcard from A Century of Progress Exposition held in Chicago in 1933. After some research I discovered that the picture on the postcard is actually one of the photos taken in Africa. Now I am not sure whether this truck was actually exhibited at the exposition. International Harvester did have several exhibits at the exposition, and their other cards that I have show only farm machinery. The photo is one included in Markham's account of his trip where it is labeled "Baron Blixen, Ali, and the International Special Delivery photographed on the desert. Reserve tires and water were more important than food."

The journeys across Africa took place in 1927-1928. International Harvester got a lot of mileage out of this truck, both literally and figuratively. The truck was exhibited widely after the trips ended, and local papers printed articles about the exhibits. The following article is from The Auburn (NY) Citizen of March 21, 1929. (Source)

Operator Recounts Tale of Memorable Journey and the Hazards Overcome.

The famous International Harvester stock-model, three-quarter-ton Special Delivery motor truck, in which Sir Charles Markham, British soldier, explorer, and big-game hunter, and Baron Bror Frederik von Blixen-Finecke, Swedish nobleman, recently crossed the dreaded Sahara Desert, is on display at the International Harvester motor truck salesroom, 25 Genesee Street, Auburn. After being exhibited in various European cities, where it aroused a great amount of interest, the truck was brought to this country and during the past several weeks has been driven from city to city in the East on its own power.

From Kano north across sandy desert wastes to Algiers in sixteen grueling days of driving—a total of 2,818 miles—and then on to London, was the recent phenomenal accomplishment in this stock model International by Sir Charles Markham and Baron von Blixen. Remarkable to relate, also, they purchased the motor truck by telegraph without first seeing it from C. N. King, an American, who had just finished another very unusual trip of 3,800 miles in 19 driving days across equatorial Africa from Nairobi to Kano.

From radiator to tail-light—save for the safari body and top built for Mr. King at Nairobi—the truck was and is identical with any one of the thousands of Special Delivery Internationals that are busy doing the worlds prosaic work in every civilized community under the sun. In spite of the terrific strain that the truck was subjected to in the rough going encountered in crossing equatorial Africa and the deep sands of the Sahara Desert—some 6,618 miles all told—the truck is still in good condition and able to travel thousands of additional miles at low operating cost.

In an account of his trip across the desert, Sir Charles Markham continually voiced his praise of the motor truck and its dependableness in every emergency. His records show 15.05 miles per gallon across the Sahara, and he said, "Oil consumption was a perpetual wonder to us."

Both Sir Charles Markham and Mr. King had been strongly advised by various colonial officials not to take their respective trips, and each was repeatedly told that it could not be done. But as Sir Charles put it in a detailed account of his trip: "If I were asked to state why we crossed the Sahara by truck, I should find it difficult to answer, beyond admitting that in doing so we attempted and accomplished something which everybody claimed was impossible."

Different though the country was through which Mr. King passed, he was subjected to difficulties and hardships a-plenty. Rivers were frequently crossed on primitive native canoe rafts. In crossing one of these streams it was necessary to buoy up an almost useless native raft with large bundles of cornstalks. Steep, muddy escarpments and dry, sandy riverbeds had to he negotiated. In places the sand was so deep that plated grass mats had to be utilized. On one 21-hour stretch Mr. King covered 380 miles. Through it all the stock-model International pegged away faithfully with an average of 18 miles and more to the gallon of gasoline.

And then Sir Charles Markham and Baron von Blixen bought the truck "unsight, unseen" on the strength of what it had done in traveling across the equatorial wilderness and began their remarkable trek across the Sahara. The going in the deep sand was slow and difficult. Day after day the thermometer registered around 125 degrees in the shade. There was always a dearth of water, and at one time when the supply was exhausted and sure death seemed to face them they discovered a cache of five tanks of the precious fluid.

Full details regarding these two trips are contained in two gripping tales written respectively by Sir Charles Markham and Mr. King and are printed in a beautifully illustrated booklet published by the International Harvester Company. The route traveled by these men is indicated on an unusual map in colors that graces the two covers of the booklet. Copies of the booklet may be obtained at the International Harvester showroom in this city.
Another similar newspaper article that I found appeared in the The Pittsburgh Press of April 21, 1929. You can browse the Automobile News section of that newspaper and find a variety of pictures and stories about automobiles of that time.

You can actually find and read the "two gripping tales written respectively by Sir Charles Markham and Mr. King" in the "beautifully illustrated booklet published by the InternationalHarvester Company" online, but I recommend downloading the 24 page PDF file for easier reading at your leisure.

For More Vintage Images



  1. Fascinating! The publicity must have gone a long way to secure IH's reputation. After reading this, I would certainly want to own one.

  2. Compared to this the Paris-Dakar rally is child's play!

  3. What adventures! And such great mileage. Sounds like the perfect vehicle for battling your way around on our L.A. freeways.

  4. Just imagine, battening your truck to native canoes and still achieving a respectable mpg!

  5. Wow. They knew how to have adventure then.

  6. I marvel at that truck crossing the Sahara Dessert!

  7. So great to read about a trek in the IH truck, with images from Out of Africa (Blixen was there) and English Patient (much Sahara) in my mind. Thanks!

  8. A wonderful card. And as soon as I saw it and read the heading I was transported back to the International Harvesters factory in Doncaster, England (now long gone) where I did some teaching work back in the early 1980s. Who needs to cross Africa when you can cross time.

  9. Absolutely fascinating to read this. I was closer to their combine harvesters than trucks, I knew the Doncaster plant Alan mentioned as well but in the 1990s.

  10. Did you realise that this was THE Baron Blixen, husband of Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, who Meryl Streep famously played in "Out of Africa"? Oh I see B Rogers has drawn the connection too.

  11. I wasn't familiar with the movie or the name.

  12. Ahh, indeed fascinating -- and even more so when I actually recognized the names von Blixen and Markham. And the truck was just bloody amazing.

  13. Very interesting! I couldn't help but notice all of the spare tires that they took along with them for the trip. Can you imagine the sand, dust and heat that they endured?

    Thanks for telling us about this trip!

    Kathy M.

  14. See, now this would be one fun trip! I once saw a movie (remade)about such a journey as this, it was amazing how they trudged on through the deepest of mud and their spirits were still intact!

  15. In college, in the 80s, a boyfriend had an International Harvester from the 70s. It was a tough machine! Thanks for taking me back to my youth, heh.

  16. What an adventure, tough truck, tough passengers! I guess they were the talk of the town invited to every dinner party!

  17. Remarkable that it made it through the desert. Nice find!!


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