Navistar Proving Grounds Show Off Trucks

Aug. 26, 2015

Over the years I’ve visited the old Studebaker proving grounds in northern Indiana at least a dozen times. No, not when the long-gone automaker owned it (it opened in 1926, and I’m not quite that aged), but while other companies ran the place in the 1980s and '90s. Truck and component makers hosted demonstrations and they had more than enough room to do it, for the grounds occupy 668 acres.

The facility is now under the ownership of Navistar Inc., which bought it effective April 1, and a month later showed it off to trade press reporters. Executives were as proud as can be, for the proving grounds west of South Bend are far more spacious than the company’s old tech center and nearby track in Fort Wayne, which it’s selling.

Aside from a briefing and a look around the headquarters area, reporters engaged in a multi-vehicle ride-and-drive that covered many of the on- and off-road testing paths.

Its main feature is a 3-mile paved and banked oval that allows steady 65- to 70-mph cruising by heavy tractor-trailers without using public roads, something Navistar engineers never had before, executives said. There are also several miles of dirt trails and oddly paved surfaces that shake and rattle trucks almost to pieces.

The New Carlisle proving grounds also include shops and equipment that allow extensive testing and maintenance of the trucks and buses that Navistar builds. Navistar bought the facility from Robert Bosch, the German component maker that had acquired it in the 1990s from Bendix Corp., which picked it up after Studebaker-Packard folded in the 1960s.

“Bosch didn’t use it anymore,” said Dennis Mooney, vice president for global product development. “We were really lucky. We got it for a really good price,” though he declined to say what it was.

Navistar could afford the place because its sales are up and financial performance has greatly improved since new top management cut costs and made changes to their engines to make them more reliable. And for a couple of years now, buyers of several International truck and tractor models can again get Cummins diesels, which previous managers had axed in 2010 as part of an ill-fated go-it-alone strategy. In some cases, Cummins power is outselling Navistar’s own engines.

Cummins’ ISX15 is the only power available in a pair of Internationals I focused on for this report: a retro-styled LoneStar road tractor and a traditionally styled 9900i set up for heavy hauling, with strong power and torque ratings and mated to Eaton Fuller 13-speed manual transmissions. Each was hitched to a densely laden trailer. The tractors were among 14 variously configured vehicles that we were assigned to drive, though I spent additional time in these long-nose conventionals simply because they were joys to operate.

The LoneStar with its art-deco lines debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in 2008 amid photos and displays of late-’30s Internationals after which its nose was patterned. It was beautifully odd looking, and the first one I drove got considerable attention from the general public as well as truckers. It is the most premium of all Internationals, and this shows in its cab’s interior, which is richly finished and sports numerous gauges and switches from the Old School of design. It was the judges’ pick in the American Truck Dealers’ first Commercial Truck of the Year contest in ’08.

The LoneStar languished during the Great Recession, but was revived when prosperity resumed and has become popular with some over-the-road fleets that have been buying them as “reward” trucks for their best drivers. That very first one I drove, a daycab tractor with an ISX15, was subsequently acquired by a coal-hauling owner-operator in West Virginia; he saw my story about it on and wrote a note saying, “It’s the best truck I’ve ever owned.” If I bought an International highway tractor, I’d pick the LoneStar.

Or would I choose the 9900i? I recall the 9900’s introduction at a dinner about a dozen years ago, where Navistar execs boasted that its chrome-adorned styling was high-hood traditional but readily recognizable as an International. It still is, and I think it remains one of the most handsome truck models out there. It got the ‘i’ suffix when “intelligent” electronics were added later. Unlike the LoneStar, which uses a cab from the ProStar series, the 9900i’s cab comes from the vocational 5900 PayStar.

That long, wide hood dominates a driver’s foreground view out the windshield, while the LoneStar’s hood is narrower and more sloped, so forward visibility is better. The narrow hood also seems to give the LoneStar a more precise handling feel – or maybe it was my imagination. I wish I understood why company execs don’t order the International name spread along both sides of each model’s hood, as it was on the company’s trucks for much of its history. Along the way, some execs seemed to back away from the International name. Anyway, I liked how both models steered and rode as we zoomed around the 3-mile oval.

The 14.9-liter ISX in the 9900i I drove was rated at 500 horsepower, which to me is good use of its big displacement. The LoneStar’s ISX15 had a more modest 450 horsepower, perhaps reflecting its probable destiny as a fleet tractor, where saving fuel is important. In the three short spins I took around the flat track with each tractor, I didn’t notice the power difference. And lots of cubic inches make themselves felt at highway speeds, where an ISX feels noticeably stronger than 12.4-liter Navistar N13s in other tractors I drove. For sure the smaller Navistar  engine does a good job of propulsion, but the big Cummins does it with more authority.

The 13-speed manuals in each truck shifted smoothly and easily, and I split the top four gears as often as possible just for fun. A year before I drove a LoneStar at Navistar’s Melrose Park, Ill., engine plant and had a devil of a time with its 18-speed, a similar transmission operationally. Maybe I was having a bad day.

Navistar makes Internationals for almost any commercial purpose, which was the point of lining up 14 models and letting us drive as many as we could during this event. Two were WorkStar dump trucks that I took over dirt trails and rough concrete surfaces and watched the cabs bounce around me as my air-suspended driver seats cushioned the worst of the bumps.

One trail had an acute-angle turn that our guides threw in to demonstrate the trucks’ maneuverability and, I suspect, to see which of us writers could drive worth a hoot. Some of my colleagues had to do a back-up to complete the turn, but I saw it coming and spun the steering wheels early, making it in one fell swoop. Ouch, I just pulled an arm muscle patting myself on the back.