Chrome comin’ at ya! The bright, retro-styled nose on this International LoneStar heavy duty tractor got more looks and stares from motorists and pedestrians than anything I’ve driven in recent years. Folks smiled, some gave a thumbs-up sign, and one guy in a small town along the Ohio River shot a pic of us passing by. It’s also a mighty fine ride with an upscale interior, easy gear shifting, precise steering and good visibility.
Styling of the LoneStar’s grille and hood trim were inspired by late-1930s International D-series trucks, executives said at the new model’s introduction more than a year ago. You can see the heritage in any photo from that period, but the bright-metal streaks on those trucks were lace-thin. Chrome lines on the LoneStar are far heavier, more like those on a late ’40s or ’50s Diamond T, and the grille and trim are chromed plastic — not traditional but a sensible material because it won’t rust. LoneStar also claims good aerodynamics that should save fuel at highway speeds.
If you think that no self-respecting work-a-day trucker would run a LoneStar, you might think again, because the folks at Hill International Trucks in Wheeling, W.Va., who supplied this daycab version for my drive, report that they’re getting a lot of interest from coal-hauling customers who pull end-dump trailers like the big Mac we had. It was filled with sand to give a GCW of about 78,000 pounds, according to Jerry Neville, the dealer’s operations manager who set up the rig.
The LoneStar is not a vocational model, Navistar people emphasize. Neither is their 9900i or 9900ix, yet many are at work around area coal fields, Neville said. With the right power train and frame, road tractors do just fine pulling many types of vocational semitrailers on paved highways, and all this one would need is a wet kit to tip the dump body.
You might think that this is an axle-forward model, but the steer axle sits back 41 inches from the tip of the bumper. The bumper is V-shaped and it sweeps back on both sides to almost meet the tires’ leading tread. So the set-forward look is a neat illusion, while the setback positioning of the steer axle aids wheel cut and maneuverability, so the vehicle turns smartly.
With a 600-horse Cummins ISX and a Fuller 18-speed Roadranger, the tractor had no trouble pulling itself and the loaded trailer at any speed. Upon leaving the dealership I was able to float-shift the Fuller right away, and continued the mostly clutchless gear changes as we headed west on nearby Interstate 470. We immediately crossed the Ohio River and motored into the Buckeye State.
We paused at a rest area while I shot some pics and Neville fielded questions from a guy driving a log-hauling Peterbilt 379. He liked the LoneStar a lot. Then we backtracked to Ohio Route 7 and followed it north as it paralleled the river toward Steubenville.
The February day was mild and sunny, and we pondered passing scenes of past prosperity. This was once a steel-producing area and, after the fateful switch to a global economy, vast mill buildings now sit empty or only partially active. But things are far from dead and many businesses thrive; one is Hill International, family owned since it opened as a farm implement dealer in 1897, became an International truck dealer in 1939, and is still going strong.
Highway 7 is a winding four lanes most of the way and I cruised at 50 to 55, using the tranny’s 7th-over or 8th-direct ratios and keeping revs at about 1,500. Engine sounds were muted, but loud enough to savor.
LoneStar is International’s most premium model, a step up from the ProStar on which it’s based. This is reflected in its interior trim. This one had cloth-and-Vinyl seat covers, but its instrument panel had “titanium” facing with chrome bezels surrounding white-on-black gauges. The leather-wrapped steering wheel had four spokes joined by a huge center section housing soft-touch switches for the cruise control, air horn, and other functions. Me, I’d rather leave the switches on the dashboard and grip an old fashioned skinny rimmed wheel with thin spokes and a little hub with a button for the electric horn and, up in the ceiling, a lanyard for the air blaster, but this is the 21st Century.
An orange-diamond logo appears big and bold on the grille and you can read “International” plainly if you stare at it. That name in big letters would fit nicely on either side of the hood, perhaps as part of the wide chrome streamlines, like in the ’30s and later when the International name was a bigger part of product identity. Alas, the name’s not on this truck’s hood. But the truck drives beautifully just as it is.
We crossed the Ohio River again at Steubenville and then turned south on West Virginia Route 2, which is a mostly two-laner that meanders through countryside and smallish towns and thence to Wheeling. Steep bluffs were on our left and the river on our right, with old steel mills and industrial buildings separating us from the water. We hit several red lights, and when they changed to green I’d accelerate away, usually splitting every gear and using every one of the 18 ratios, just for the fun of it. But I tended to use the clutch more because there were more chances to grind gears, and this was just too nice a truck to abuse.
It was through here that the pedestrian saw us coming and, apparently awestruck by the rakish nose gleaming in the sun, he raised his camera and waited until we filled his viewfinder to snap an image. I think that says so much about the friendly statement broadcast by this truck that only a big yellow “happy face” would be louder. When the economy comes back we’re going to see a lot of LoneStars on the road, and then it will become commonplace and Navistar’s talented stylists will have to sketch another hit.
And a hit it is. The American Truck Dealers has named LoneStar the Truck of the Year for 2008. It was selected by a panel of judges including yours truly. Styling is what caused me to rate it just above other entries, so styling counts.