I've been poking around on the internet for Panzer / Copar / Virginia Metalcrafters / Pennsylvania information for several years now and thought I had read everything available. Then last week I found something I hadn't seen before. It's a posting of an article from the April 1956 issue of the Garden Supply Merchandiser. This was written only three years after the Panzer was first conceived. I thought it should be preserved here.
The Unusual Tractor
Copar Incorporated - Laurel, Maryland
( Reprinted from the April 1956 issue of Garden Supply Merchandiser )
This an unusual story . . . a true, but once-upon-a-time sort of story from out of the prosaic world of business. For it is the unusual story of an unusual tractor. It is the unsuspected drama behind the birth and development of a riding garden tractor. It is also a glimpse of that indefinable, essential character that makes some business enterprises a living dynamic force rather than the impersonal world of slide rules, profits and loss statements, sales literature, production machines, and purchase orders. For this is the story of the Panzer riding garden tractor—the tractor that owes its existence to chance, its conception to one man's curiosity, and whose developments took place in an environment far removed from anything akin to tractors.
Riding garden tractor . . . From a strictly business standpoint, the folks at Copar Incorporated, Laurel, Maryland, where the Panzer is now manufactured probably would like to be able to boast of royal tractor lineage for the Panzer. It would be nice to relate that the Panzer was the end result of a long and comprehensive research program, undertaken for the purpose of designing a better riding garden tractor by personnel experienced in the field. But . . . strange as it may seem, the Panzer was the brainchild of a man engaged in the research and design of highly complicated electromechanical instruments and it was developed amid the strange surroundings of guided missile control system components, automatic target plotting equipment, gyro-stabilizing systems, and other equally strange bedfellows.
The whole thing started on a very hot summer Saturday in 1953 when James (Jim) A. Clark tackled the chore of preparing the ground around his attractive new home in the residential section of College Park, Maryland for a lawn. Jim was Chief Engineer of The Ahrendt Instrument Company of College Park, a company specializing in the research, design, development, and manufacture of precision electronic instruments and around the plant, his philosophy "that there is a simpler way to do anything" was well-known. But it is safe to assume that on that particular day, Jim was not thinking of electronic instruments or engineering matters of any nature.
Since the area to be prepared was quite large, Jim had rented a walk behind tractor with various ground preparation attachments and utilizing this equipment, he started the job with enthusiasm. Now it would be impossible to determine at just what precise moment on this day that our story actually had its genesis or just what the actual combination of circumstances were that started the wheels turning. No doubt the hot sun, his limited experience with the equipment, the exercise of seldom used muscles, the size of the task, and the labor involved each had something to do with it, but to what degree will never be known. However, these factors com- bined to make Jim a thoroughly "bushed" amateur gardener. But more important to the Panzer story, Jim was dissatisfied and curious.
It was obvious to Jim that the reason he had worked so hard was that the equipment be had, only eliminated a part of the labor required for the job. This indicated to Jim that the type of power equipment needed was a unit that required the user merely to regulate the units actions and that such a unit would therefore be a riding unit. So he began to check around to see what was available.
Within a relatively short time, he had located and examined the various makes of riding garden tractors available for sale in the area. So, he had satisfied his curiosity that a riding garden tractor was available for the garden and lawn chores such as homeowners like himself faced. But . . . although Jim had found that riding garden tractors were available, his findings had the odd effect of increasing his curiosity. To an engineer such as Jim - whose engineering philosophy was based on simplicity—the units just did not measure up.
From seed to reality . . . Thus the seed which was planted on that earlier hot summer day began to germinate. Jim talked about his idea for a tractor to anyone he felt would know of such things - members of the Department of Agriculture of the University of Maryland, experts of the United States Department of Agriculture, farmers and gardeners. He learned of such things as ground clearance, furrows, side draft. Finally he talked to his boss Bill Ahrendt, President of The Ahrendt Instrument Company, about his idea. Bill Ahrendt, a young man who had built up an electronic instrument company from scratch to a business employing 200 in only seven years, gave Jim the okay to design his tractor.
Jim had felt that most riding units were too complicated and too limited in their capabilities. So his tractor had to he simple, so simple anyone could operate it. So simple that there would be very few adjustments to make. So simple that there would be very few maintenance problems. Jim knew that garden tractor users were seldom me- chanics by nature or training equipped to cope with the problems of a complicated mechanical unit.
His ideas became rough sketches — and the rough sketches became parts. Some ideas were scrapped, some changed, some replaced by better ideas. The tractor captured the imagination of everyone at The Ahrendt Instru- ment Company and the progress on the tractor project became a general topic. Jim had an enthusiastic rooting section and the help of some topnotch men including Pete Cravaritis, able Plant Superintendent, who contributed much to the design and development of the tractor. It was Pete, for example, who convinced Jim that the tractor should have nice lines, and an attractive appearance.
The first model was finished in the fall of 1953 but was discarded. Finally in late 1953, Jim's tractor was finished to his satisfaction And with the exception of a very few minor changes, it was just the same as the tractors now bearing the Panzer name.
The Panzer . . Of course, at this time the tractor had no name except possibly "Jim's tractor." A contest was held among the employees to select a name. When the judges made their selection, Jim's tractor had its name …Panzer.
Yes, Jim had built his tractor. But now the Panzer was a problem child! The Ahrendt Instrument Company were specialists in the electronics field. Sure, they had hand built one tractor, but manufacturing tractors on a production basis was something else again. Their production machinery was precision machinery necessary for the fantastic tolerances of electronic instrument production, but much too costly for tractor manufacture Their workmen were skilled to a degree far beyond the requirements.
While the fate of the problem child was debated, it was shown at the 1954 Garden Supply Trade Show in New York. At the show, the Panzer recieved such an enthusiastically favorable reception that The Ahrendt Instrument Company took the plunge and entered the garden tractor manufacturing field. Not without plenty of misgivings! For the problems seemed mountainous and endless - the risks high. They had one Panzer tractor - some drawings - some sketches — and the enthusiasm of the men who had developed the Panzer. This wasn't much upon which to justify the gamble or to raise the capital needed. A complete production had to he planned. Tools, dies, jigs and fixtures had to be designed and fabricated. Attachments had to be designed. Sources of materials and parts had to he located. Everything had to be fitted into the primary work of the company electronic instruments. Sales and promotion plans had to be mapped.
At the same time, Copar Incorporated was formed to handle the sales of the Panzer. It is interesting to note that the name of the company is taken from the name of the town in which it was first located, College Park. Somehow, progress was made. Not without costly delays and mistakes born of inexperience in the tractor field.
But, although it was not finished until midnight on June 4th, 1954, the first. Panzer tractor was delivered on June 5th to a dealer in Virginia. The sale had been made by the first Panzer distributor, Allied Equipment Company, Richmond, Virginia
The year 1954, was a rough one for Copar. All the things that had to be done just couldn't he accomplished soon enough. However, the progress was remarkable. And here and there about the eastern part of the United States, Panzers began to appear. Not many, it's true but some!
A separate plant . . . During 1954, it became apparent that garden tractors and electronic instruments were not compatible from a manufacturing standpoint. So it was decided that Copar Incorporated would take over the entire tractor operation. A search was made for a suitable plant but industrial property of sufficient size was scarce and what was available was somewhat too expensive for the fledgling Copar organization's pocketbook.
Again, a fellow by the name of Jim Clark enters our story. Jim recalled an old idle mill building on the banks of the Patuxent River in Laurel, Maryland.
The mill property was investigated and the first impression was hardly an encouraging one. The mill had not been used for 30 years and part of it was over 100 years old. It had about 1000 windows, most of them broken. The area around the building was a jungle. Some of the floors were dirt and some were concrete with deep grooves across them. But Jim Clark convinced every one of its possibilities so it was purchased along with 16 1/2 acres of land.
Under way. . In only five months, the property was renovated under the direction of the ubiquitous Jim Clark. All the broken windows were replaced - 12 tons of radiant heat pipes were laid in the new concrete floor - ramps were built - a new plumbing and electrical system were installed and the jungle around the building was cleared. And on January 17, 1955, Copar Incorporated began manufacturing operations at Laurel. Austin C. Kennell was named President - General Manager and George Gibson, who had been associated with the Panzer development from its beginning, became Shop Superintendent.
The new plant provided over 30,000 square feet of manufacturing space. A special assembly line was designed where Panzer tractors could he assembled in thirty minutes. The Panzer now received the individual attention it deserved.
The Panzer made great strides in 1955. Charles A. Feick, Jr., became Sales Manager and sales increased steadily. More and more, Panzers could be seen in gardens and on lawns. New attachments were designed and added to the Panzer line.
The Panzer had become a definite factor in the riding garden tractor field.
Yes, today the Panzer has come a long way to be so young. The list of Panzer distributors contains many of the best known garden equipment distributors in the country. The Panzer has been told in Alaska, Mexico, Uruguay, Guatemala, Spain and Norway.
Around the Copar plant, where the Panzer is the object of button popping pride, approaching idolatry, the folks will bet anyone that the Panzer is not only the best tractor ever built, but that it will soon be the largest selling riding garden tractor. After all, they point out, what's so unusual about expecting a terrific success for such a very unusual tractor.