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Rise and fall of Pan Motor Co.

The Pan Model A automobile was produced in 1918. It was deemed “a motor car that will appeal to both the masses and the classes.” Image contributed from Bill Vossler Collection

Either a saint or a sinner. That’s how Samuel Connor Pandolfo is remembered in Stearns County and St. Cloud.

While driving the wide-open spaces of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico, selling life insurance to farmers for 15 years after the turn of the 20th century, Pandolfo was required to ship oil and gasoline ahead by train because of the dearth of gas stations. With all that driving, he used up 37 cars, and was satisfied with none. Those problems got him thinking about building a better car.

As Wikipedia reports, “He had developed very particular opinions of what constituted a good car: It needed high clearance for the back roads of the day, should have provisions for accommodating the driver overnight if required, and should have the ability to carry extra supplies that might be needed in sparsely populated areas.”

But where should he build his factory? The St. Cloud Photo News wrote in 1972 that, “A number of cities had been considered, with many of them offering inducements and concessions through commercial organizations in the towns.”

This newspaper photo of ”The Pan tractor that would win the war,” is shown along with Pandolfo and his wife, with a child standing on top of it. Contributed photo

As the 1917 Pan Motor book Pictorial Proof of Progress said, “Mr. Pandolfo had an extraordinary project on foot and was naturally looking for an extraordinary location, one that would supply as nearly as possible all the needs of such an institution.”

Those needs included, according to Minnesota History Magazine: proximity to 80 per cent of the iron ore produced in the U.S., proximity to the Mississippi River and several power dams, proximity to Duluth, the best deep-water port on the Great Lakes; and proximity to two transcontinental railroads, “separation from the seat of labor troubles in the East yet centered in an area with an immense number of skilled mechanics, and a large territory from which to draw workmen. …We don’t see any excuse for locating an automobile plant anywhere else.” That is, St. Cloud.

Party Time

Pandolfo began attracting investors by holding a giant free barbecue in a huge empty lot on the outskirts of St. Cloud on July 4, 1917. By this time he’d had three Pan cars built “by an Indianapolis engineering firm,” according to Sam Moore in a Farm Collector article. The specifications were for a “handsome car, rugged enough to withstand the Western terrain, with 10-inch clearance for the hog-back roads it would have to travel, with a seat that folded down to make a bed, and to sell for less than $1,500.”

According to Minnesota History, “Visitors saw (three) Pan cars, painted red, white, and blue for the occasion, as they munched their beef sandwiches and wandered between the foundations that had been poured for the large assembly building of the plant.” Police said 40,000 automobiles were in the area, with an estimated 75,000 people eating 15,434 pounds of beef (much still raw in the center) and 8,000 loaves of bread, while salesmen circulated, selling stock in Pandolfo Motor Co.

Pandolfo sold $10 million in stock that day, enough to build a 14-building factory connected by underground tunnels, as well as, according to Mnopedia, “…58 homes (still called Pan-Town today), a fire department, and hotel.”

Plans were also made to build a hospital, community house for entertainment, a school, even a police force. A few months later, the company announced that all its assets–cars, buildings, and machinery–were paid in full. Everything looked rosy.

In 1918 the factory started churning out cars, starting with the Pan Model A, “a motor car that will appeal to both the masses and the classes.” It was built by hand, with great detail paid to each process of the assembly. All the Pan cars were extremely well built and detailed.

The body was called the Pandolfo Sleeping-Car body. “Converting this body into a comfortable bed is simplicity itself–release the back of the front seat, drop it down on a level with the rear seat cushion, slide back front seat cushion and pull out a collapsible foot support, and the ‘Tourist-Sleeper’ is completed,” Pan literature crowed.

Pan cars also had a “Commissary Compartment,” in the back seat with partitions for a reserve supply of gasoline, oil, water, tools and food. Pan Motor Co. also produced a Pan Tank-Tread Tractor.

In August 1918, Pandolfo sent 10 cars to the Minnesota State Fair and Iowa State Fair. He needed more stock sold so he could build an entirely new 1919 Pan 250 auto. The tenor of the times was to perform arduous tests to show the value of a new-style vehicle, so Pandolfo sent three cars on an 11,000-mile trip through the most difficult American terrain he could find. The one driven by a 480-pound man had a few minor problems, while the others got 14 miles per gallon, traveling off-road, culminating with a trip up Pike’s Peak, where they stepped out for a picnic.

One of the Pan Motor Co. stock certificates (above) and a photo of Samuel Pandolfo (right) Contributed photo from Bill Vossler’s collection

Over The Top

Because advertising of the time was over the top, (“Pan War-Tank That Will Win the War!” for example, or “The Pan Tank-Tread Tractor will do your work better and in less time at a saving of one man and eight horses,” or “We have a plan that has astonished automobile men everywhere”), it’s difficult to determine if Pan’s was more unbelievable than others’ advertising by other companies at the time, especially in the tractor field, as the Nebraska Tractor Tests, to prove claims by companies, did not start until March 1920.

But there were other problems besides advertising. Pandolfo sent his only Pan Tank-Tread Tractor to the National Tractor Show in Kansas City. The St. Cloud Times of Feb. 27, 1918, said

“Without a question the Pan Tank-Tread Tractor proved the biggest sensation at the National Tractor Show from the moment it went in to action until the closing hour of the show.” The paper added that other tractor men could not conceal their surprise and admiration when they inspected the “Farmer’s War Tank.” “Hundreds of farmers,” the paper said, “who had visited the show at Kansas City the first three days–before the Pan tractor arrived–came back to see the Pan. That it made a decidedly favorable impression was evident by their remarks. Many showed their disappointment when they found they could not have a ‘Tank-Tread’ delivered at once.” The article said the tractor would revolutionize the tractor industry, and farming. Western Magazine of April 1, 1918, said the same thing.

However, first, Pandolfo was the source of that positive information and paid to have several positive articles printed, saying the tractor “is revolutionary–it will revolutionize the tractor industry–it will revolutionize farming, in the opinion of many.”

Second, the tractor could not go into action, as one article said, because it had no engine, and the single prototype didn’t run until November 1919.

A pamphlet by the National Vigilance Committee said “Only one model of this much promoted Pan Powered Tank-Tread Tractor has ever been built, so far as can be learned. This model–politeness only could concede it to be a real tractor–was built by the Progressive Machine & Model Works, 119 Southeast 5th Street, Minneapolis.”

Other Problems

Claims for 40,000 cars, 75,000 people, eating 15,434 pounds of beef at the 1917 barbecue seem at least far-fetched. Target Field in Minneapolis holds only 40,000, for example. And were there 40,000 cars in all of Minnesota in 1917?

Also, a 480-pound man driving a car seems far-fetched, but makes for good advertising. Also, the claim in the 1918 St. Cloud Times that “Hundreds of farmers who had visited the show at Kansas City the first three days–before the Pan tractor arrived–came back to see the Pan.”

After viewing tractors from more than a hundred different tractors companies at the show, according to Implement and Tractor after that 1918 show, nothing was mentioned about the hundreds of people returning just to see the Pan tractor; in fact, the Pan tractor was not mentioned at all. Nothing was said of the Pan in dozens of interviews I & T held after the show.

It also seems odd that the Pan tractor would not have been delivered to the show on its first day so everyone could get a good look at it, instead of waiting until the end of the last day.

In court, the defense for Pandolfo said “The firm definitely was manufacturing autos, trucks and tractors and doing a great deal of work for outside concerns.” (No records have been shown for production of trucks.)

In addition, they added, the company had orders for a hundred million dollars as soon as the plant could be put on a large production basis. But there was no proof. Other inconsistencies continued to multiply.

Sad Days

However, considering how the trial turned out, people could think that Pandolfo was being railroaded, perhaps because the large automobile manufactures were afraid he would be successful.

The case was heard by cantankerous Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who made several rulings hostile to Pandolfo.

When Pandolfo’s defense team wanted to show a film of the Pan plants, produced by an advertising man, Landis said, “It is a matter of common knowledge…that an advertising man does not reproduce a thing as it is. If he did, he would lose his job.”

Landis also said he didn’t want to influence anybody against Pan Motor Company stock: “A United States citizen has the right to throw his money away if he feels like it.”

These comments do not sound like someone viewing the case through neutral eyes.

The week the trial took place, the Pan Motor Car Company went into full production of the Pan Model A, and by the end of that month 70 cars had been produced. But it was too late.

According to Wikipedia, “On February 1, 1919, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted Pandolfo, and all officers of the company, with seven counts of mail fraud for sending misleading materials through the federal mails.” (Among the charges was that a company flier included a ‘plane’s eye view’ of the Pan Motor Car Company that wasn’t actually drawn from an airplane.) Pandolfo was sentenced to 10 years in prison for mail fraud, mainly for using company stock for personal expenses. (Under oath one worker said the first half of all the money that came to the company went to Pandolfo. The defense said, “Every dollar received by the company can be accounted for, and every charge made has previously has been disproved.”)

Who knows? If things had not transpired as they did, the Pan auto and Pan tractor might be big names today, along with Ford and Chevy.

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