Story and photos by Brian Earnest
If ever there was ever an ideal candidate to be bouncing around in an old International Harvester gas truck with the words “City Service Oil Company” stenciled on the side, Terry Flannery is the guy. Flannery’s father was a big fan of International trucks, and he eventually owned his own City Service bulk distribution business. He also hired his son to drive for him, with the trucks wearing the same City Service green paint scheme and same lettering on the doors.
That experience is probably what spawned Terry’s love of all things petroliana, and led him to eventually assemble his own mini gas station at his Goodman, Wis., home.
So when he had a chance a few years back to restore his own gas truck — a 1941 International K-4 — and turn it into a cool hobby conversation piece, Flannery didn’t hesitate. The purchase was simply a no-brainer.
“I’m into oil collecting. I collect gas and oil stuff and I have a little gas station and that kind of stuff, and when this came along I bought it and restored it,” Flannery said. “It took me 10 years.
“It wasn’t really hard because it was all there. It was all in one piece. I got it from a junkyard. I have a cousin who runs a junkyard and he called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this old truck, come and take a look at it.’
“He knew that I was into this stuff. I had bought a ’57 Ford gas truck from him that I was going to restore, and then he came up with this one and asked if I wanted to stop and take a look at it… It was painted yellow. And underneath the yellow was red, but there was no signage or decals. I couldn’t tell what it had been hauling.”
Flannery didn’t know it at the time, but the old tank truck he picked up for the fun of it turned out to be a rare bird. The K-4 trucks were “tweeners” in the IH lineup in 1941, rated at 1 ¼ tons and residing between the more well-known K-3 light-duty trucks and the larger commercial K-5 offerings. When he eventually started collecting parts for a restoration on the truck, Flannery got some unexpected news about his K-4 from longtime parts supplier and IH expert Pappy Vance, of Vance’s Garage in Hannibal, Mo. “We got to talking about it one day, and said, ‘Do you know what you’ve got there?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I just got an old truck,’ and he said, ‘No, you have an extremely rare truck.’ The K-4, he says, is almost impossible to find. He said, ‘In the 60 years I’ve been sitting in this garage, I’ve seen one and heard of another one.’”
Flannery’s truck shows 54,000-plus miles on the odometer and probably rolled up almost all of those rounds on some sort of local fuel oil or gas route. The truck had no lettering or signage to give away what it’s previous lives had been, but the truck had obviously been taken care of during its working life. Flannery said the steel tank and cab assembly were still in remarkably good shape, and the 213-cid flathead six-cylinder was in pieces, but it was salvageable.
“It’s got 54,000 miles on it, and I think they are all original miles,” Flannery said. “The speedometer worked, so I think all that was correct. But where it came from and where it sat, I have no idea. I know it started as a Wadham’s truck and converted over to Mobil … beyond that, I don’t know. Being as this truck is so small, it’s only got a 450-gallon tank on it, I think it was probably used primarily for home delivery to farms …
“It was painted yellow. And underneath the yellow was red… It had been sitting for years. All the paint was cracking and peeling on it, but there was no rust. So I got a big power washing — a steam washer — from a friend and turned that big blaster loose on the paint and it just rolled it off there by the gobs! We must have peeled 20 lbs. of paint off this thing in an hour. [It avoided rust] because there was so much paint on it.”
Perhaps the biggest hiccup Flannery experienced during the decade-long restoration involved his decision to swap in a different engine not long after he got the truck. After looking the original engine over, he was convinced a donor mill would be needed, so he went out and found an identical engine in another old IH. “The head was laying in the seat when I bought it, so I thought it was a junker,” Flannery chuckled. “So I searched around and found another truck with the same motor, but it was a ton-and-a-half truck. The motor ran great. I bought it in Milwaukee, trailered it home, and I ran it around the farm for a couple weeks, here and there, then got ready to pull the motor and take it to my engine builder, and he called me up and said the motor’s no good. He said, ‘You’ve got a crack in the block.’ I couldn’t believe it.
“Then he says, ‘What about the motor that’s in it?’ I said, ‘The head’s laying in the seat, it looks like junk!’ You could see the pistons in it and everything was all rusty on it … But he told me to pull it out and bring it to him, so I took it to him and he said, ‘It’s a good motor.’
“He rebuilt it and put it back in. I bought [the second motor] for nothing — spent 400 bucks for nothing!”
The K-4 trucks featured 113-inch wheelbases, but they could also be ordered in 135-, 147- and 159-inch configurations. They were available with a variety of bodies from the factory, including dump beds, stake beds, express bodies and coal beds.
The truck still carries its original Heil tank in back, hose reel, plumbing and “Neptune Auto-Stop Print-O-Meter” that kept track of the petroleum being dispensed at each delivery stop. Open-top cargo areas were built in above each dual-rear wheels, and a large barrel holder was located just behind the passenger door. A small ladder led up to the cargo area on the driver side and allowed the driver/operator to climb up on top of the tank for refueling in of the three fuel portholes.
The all-steel cab was strictly utilitarian. Brown vinyl covered the bench seat. The windshield was a two-piece unit, and the simple headlights were recessed into prominent front fenders. In back, two rear access doors swung together over a huge rear bumper.
Everything on the truck has been re-done, but Flannery said he didn’t want to overdo it and make the truck something it wasn’t meant to be. “It’s not a perfect restoration, and I didn’t care because it’s a truck. Trucks should not look like a restored ’28 Packard,” he said. “A truck should look like a truck.
“You can go around and find a few blemishes in the paint and a knob here and there, and I don’t care. I think it’s a truck. I don’t want it to be a pimpmobile. It rides like a truck, steers like a truck. It’s a truck.
“I’ve restored a ’46 Ford pickup about 25 years ago, and then I restored a ’55 Mercury car,” he added. “Trucks are easier. Cars are a pain to restore. You have all the trim and all the interior pieces to deal with, and all the beauty things on them to shine and buff. Trucks are much simpler. Paint a fender, put it on. Paint a hood, put it on.”
As much as he hates to admit it, Flannery figures he’ll eventually have to part ways with his time capsule fuel delivery truck. It’s not that he’s itching to unload it or try to make a profit on it, but he lost one foot and part of a leg years ago in a lumberjacking mishap and he worries about his ability to drive the truck safely.
“I have two boys, but I have to lean on them to be drivers,” he said. “I can drive it, and I have, but when I get in traffic in town some place or find a stop sign on a hillside, or a stoplight, I’ve got one foot, and I’ve got the clutch, the brake and the gas. That’s all right, except when somebody pulls up behind me, then it gets tricky.
“I think I’ll have to sell it because I can’t drive it the way you should be able to drive it.”
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Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975
This revised 4th Edition is the most thorough post-WWII automobile reference ever assembled. This huge reference book includes complete model information for every American-made car manufactured from 1946-1975.