Swindler or Saint: Sam Pandolfo and the Pan Tank Tread Tractor

Sam Pandolfo and his Pan Tank Tread Tractor put St. Cloud, Minn., on the map.

A Pan automobile

A Pan automobile on display at the big Fourth of July picnic in St. Cloud, Minn.

Photo courtesy Sam Moore

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Pan was a Greek god with horns, a hairy body, and the hindquarters and legs of a goat. The god of shepherds and flocks, Pan spent his time playing on a set of pipes and chasing beautiful nymphs, most of whom spurned his advances, usually with disastrous results to themselves.

In 1917, Sam Pandolfo may not have been chasing nymphs but he was definitely out to seduce the city of St. Cloud, Minn., with his grandiose plans for a Pan automobile, truck and tractor.

Samuel Conner Pandolfo was born in 1874 on his father’s cotton farm in Mississippi. He taught school and then became a highly successful insurance salesman in New Mexico and Texas. By 1916, Pandolfo had some 500 agents working for him and had sold millions of dollars’ worth of insurance, becoming wealthy in the process. He sold his insurance business in 1916 and cast about for something else to do.      

Pandolfo bought his first car in 1909 and from then on used an automobile to conduct his insurance business. Because there were then few gasoline stations, restaurants or hotels in Texas and New Mexico, he often had to ship gas and oil ahead by train; finding a place to eat and sleep was a problem. This led him to invent an auxiliary automobile tank with separate compartments for extra fuel, oil and water, as well as an insulated compartment to carry food and beverages.

Man with a vision

By 1916, when Pandolfo sold his insurance business, the automobile was no longer just a rich man’s toy and many automakers were making large profits. Pandolfo decided to get into the automobile business by building a car he called the Pan. His plans included a Pan truck and a Pan tractor as well.

Super salesman Pandolfo, along with a large number of assistants, began selling stock in the new Pan Motor Co., which was incorporated early in 1917 with offices in Chicago.

An Indianapolis engineering firm was contracted to build the first 10 Pan cars according to Pandolfo’s specifications, which called 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.” The cars would incorporate the Pandolfo Combination Compartment Tank for carrying extra fuel, water and provisions.

Promotional genius

Pandolfo wrote to a number of cities, asking if they were interested in hosting his new factory. St. Cloud, Minn., answered in the affirmative and several of the city’s most prominent businessmen offered their financial support, an offer Pandolfo couldn’t refuse.

A skilled promoter, Pandolfo took St. Cloud by storm, promising to build three large factories, one to manufacture cars, one for trucks and one for tractors. He claimed to already have more orders for cars than could be built in a year.

Nearly 50 acres of land was bought and construction of a factory began. There was a housing shortage for workers in St. Cloud, so Pandolfo undertook to build 100 homes for his employees, although only 52 were actually constructed. The homes were well-designed and well-built, and most of them survive today in the section of St. Cloud still called Pantown.

In June 1917, the first three Pan cars arrived in St. Cloud, having been driven from Indianapolis. Ever the promoter, Pandolfo scheduled a huge Fourth of July picnic to mark the event. More than 15,000 pounds of beef, 8,000 loaves of bread and “every pickle for miles” was ordered and everyone in St. Cloud was invited. An estimated 70,000 people showed up and, although the beef was almost raw in the center, by 2 p.m. it had all been devoured.

Cutting-edge design

Pandolfo hired a group of competent young engineers, who immediately began designing a new car, one much improved over the rather crude interim examples assembled in Indianapolis.

He also hired a so-called tractor engineer named L.A. LaFond, who, possibly under the influence of the new weapon then making its first appearance on the Western Front, designed the Pan Tank Tread tractor. A full-tracked vehicle, the 12-24 Pan had a Buda 4-cylinder engine, a three-forward and one reverse transmission and a 12-foot turning radius. The steering column and control levers telescoped to allow the tractor to be driven from a trailed implement.

A single prototype tractor was built and exhibited at a Kansas City tractor show early in 1919; during a Wichita test it plowed about 8 acres without stopping. LaFond was replaced by Alfred Krieg and the tank tread design was dropped in favor of a more conventional 4-wheel design, of which at least one seems to have been built as attested by the photo.

Clouds on the horizon

Even though the Pan factory engaged in extensive World War I work, Pan cars started to roll out of the doors early in 1918. Three were sent on an endurance run up Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, which they negotiated with ease.

Maybe 500 Pan automobiles were built in 1919, the firm’s best year. However, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had been investigating Pandolfo almost from the start. His emphasis on, and questionable methods of, selling stock in the company, as well as the amount of stockholder money he seemed to convert to his own use, raised suspicions that Sam Pandolfo was nothing more than a swindler.

After much legal maneuvering, the federal government tried Pandolfo and his board of directors for mail fraud in the selling of securities. A long and contentious trial before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who wouldn’t permit the defense to show movies of Pan cars actually being built in the factory, resulted in acquittal for everyone but Pandolfo, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4,000 fine.

Reversal of fortune

That was the end for Pan Motor Co., which struggled on for a year or two. The last Pan car was assembled in March 1922, but the 75,000 Pan stockholders never saw a dime of their money again.

Pandolfo was paroled from Leavenworth after serving three and a half years and headed back to St. Cloud. There, in spite of all that had happened, he was still a hero and was met with a large welcome. Although broke and in ill health, he was a born promoter and engaged in many more money-making ventures during the following years, including selling “greaseless” donuts.

Sam Pandolfo died on Jan. 27, 1960, in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he had lived for several years. One of the last of the flamboyant hustlers who had built the American automobile business was gone.

So, was Pandolfo a crook or was he an entrepreneur with a vision? No one knows for sure, especially me. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.