The First Stock Vehicle to Cross the Sahara

“Across the great Sahara that has been through the ages the universal synonym of thirst and of death-the Sahara that is strewn with the bleached bones of man and beast entrapped in its vast treacheries.”

This is the dramatic way the Dayton Daily News described the challenges of the first stock vehicle to cross the Sahara Desert.  The vehicle was a ¾-ton International Harvester Truck, and it performed that feat in 1928.  The Sahara had been crossed earlier by modified vehicles, some with half-tracks and some 6-wheeled vehicles with 12 tires on three axles, but this mighty stock IH Special Delivery Truck made the excruciating 2818-mile trip in 125-degree heat in 16 days.

The drivers were explorers Sir Charles Markham, a British soldier and diplomat, and Baron von Blixen-Finecke, a Swedish nobleman. When asked why they decided to take on this life-threatening challenge, Markham responded simply that they decided to do it because they had been told it was impossible.

Not impossible in the IH truck, apparently, but still very difficult.  They drove an average of 20 hours per day over tracks and “roads” that consisted of small piles of stones heaped together every 100 yards.  They carried iron sheets to place under the wheels when the truck became stuck in the sand.  The iron sheets enabled them to go forward four feet at a time for hundreds of yards at a time through deep drifts of loose sand. 

The explorers carried extra tires (although they stated that the tires gave them no serious trouble), fuel and water, and were able to get more fuel and water along the way at places like Reggan and the Adrah military outpost in southern Algeria.  Running out of water was a constant fear, however:

“At 3:30 we run into a deep valley where the sand was even deeper than we encountered before.  The truck sinks in and stops, this time up to the axle.  Only a quart of water left.  For whom?  The engine or ourselves? . . . We compromise by taking a mouthful each.  The car drinks the rest and asks for more.  We jack up the truck and again place the sheets under the wheels.  Progress is terribly slow, the car shuddering under the terrific strain from the resistance of the sand.  Clouds of steam emerging from under the bonnet, but our International comes through as usual with flying colors.  . . .The International is driven to the utmost.  She herself seems anxious to know if she is to remain for all time a monument over two dead white men.”

When they arrived at Laghouat, their entrance to the hotel caused a sensation because their dirty clothing was in rags and they looked little better than tramps.  The hotel did agree to feed them and, not wanting them as guests, sold them gas to help them on their way. 

This advertisement shows the route taken. The trip actually began at Nairobi and the total distance driven was 6618 miles.

They chose this exact truck because it had already proven itself once.  An American businessman who worked for International Harvester, C. N. King, had driven the same truck across Africa at the equator.  That trip of 3800 miles was made in 19 days. When Markham and von Blixen-Finecke took possession of the truck, it had virtually no tools or spare parts.  Markham observed, “I should not have been surprised at the shortage of tools as Americans place implicit trust in their cars and trucks.” In this case, that trust was not misplaced.  The dependable truck was able to average 15.05 mpg and the engine gave them “no trouble whatsoever” and “made not a sound of complaint”.

The pair loaded the truck on a boat bound for Marseilles and, once there, drove that truck back to London.  International Harvester bought the hard-working truck back, and it toured America so that crowds of people at state fairs and IH dealerships could see for themselves the dependable International Harvester truck that was able to do the “impossible”, cross the Sahara Desert. 

1929 International Harvester Six-Speed Special Pickup at the Classic Car Collection in Kearney, Nebraska.


“Celebrated International Harvester Trust Excites Attention of Many Thousand People During Its Three Days Stay in This City.” The Dayton Daily News, 16 May 1929, p. M-17.

“Famous International Truck Inspected Here.” The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, 23 May 1929, p. 10.

“International Harvester Truck, Which Crossed Sahara Desert Without Mechanical Mishap, Will Be On Exhibition in Dayton Saturday.” The Dayton Daily News, 17 May 1929, p. M-18.

“International Truck Which Crossed Sahara to Be Shown.” The Binghamton Press, 25 March 1929, p. 13.

“Kiwanians Hear Story of How International Harvester Truck Made Trip Across Sahara Desert.” The Eau Claire Leader, 2 August 1929, p. 3.

Tells of Experiences of Men Who Drive Truck Over Sahara Desert and Equatorial Africa.” Elmira Star-Gazette, 1 April 1929, p. 15.

“The Truck That Crossed the Sahara Desert Now Crossing the United States.” The Dayton Daily News, 15 May 1929, p. M-16.

“Trans-Sahara Truck Shown.” The Baltimore Sun, 27 January 1929, p. 11.

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