John Longenecker and the Road-O-Plane

By on February 24, 2017

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When it came to being a salesman, from an early age, John Longenecker of Lititz was an “out of the box” thinker.

Originally selling his mother’s cup cheese door to door, he later sold silverware. Then, after saving his money, he decided to rent a sales room and stock it with buggies and sleighs.

Realizing the business potential of the “horseless carriage,” in the early 1900s, he opened an automotive dealership at 64 N. Broad St. in Lititz.

It would be the first of its kind in town, and the second in all of Lancaster County.

“He went into the automobile business and had my father and his brothers, Eugene and Paul, all driving and delivering cars when they were 13,” says Longenecker’s granddaughter, Mary Hendrix of California.

In no time at all, Longenecker became a savvy salesman.

For a parade float during November of 1918, he built a car that resembled a ship.

One year later, during the 4th of July parade of 1919, he constructed a half airplane half automobile, complete with a revolving propeller mounted on the front of a Scripps-Booth vehicle.

He called it the Road-O-Plane, and this new “contraption” proved to be the hit of several town events.

And as popular as it was locally, not even Longenecker could have guessed how far the news of this “modern marvel” would reach.

The next month, a photo of the Road-O-Plane appeared in a supplement of the Detroit Free Press. Because this was supplied by the Central News Service of New York, the same picture also appeared in newspapers in many other cities across the country. To many readers, his simple novelty was misunderstood, and taken seriously as the next wonder of the world. Because of this, within a very short time Longenecker began to receive lots of mail.

One such letter was sent from a doctor in Minnesota, and read in part:

“I am a physician with a large country practice and if the influenza comes back this winter, it will be pretty hard to make my calls if roads are impassable for autos and the distances are too long for teams to make all the points, and furthermore there is no livery stable here, so I might have to furnish my own horses which does not pay for only a couple of months in the winter. I was wondering if you could just skim the surface with your device without going high in the air, say only a few feet from the ground or merely touching the top of snow drifts or ground. Kindly inform me the price of such a machine if practical for my work and how long it would take you to make one. Of course I would like a reasonable price and with sled runner combination, if possible and necessary.”

Another letter which arrived from Norfolk, Va., stated:

“Owing to the fact that we have splendid manufacturing facilities and considerable inactive capital and some rather bad roads in this vicinity, we believe that Norfolk would be a splendid place to manufacture such a product as you have. We would be glad to take the matter up with you for a location for your factory as we have excellent shipping facilities for distribution to all parts of the world and a very great advantage in freight rates.”

Still another letter was received from the Director of the Kenton, Ohio, Chamber of Commerce, who hoped that Longenecker would relocate there to begin manufacturing the Road-O-Plane on a mass scale:

“As a small city, Kenton has low rent, low taxes, no labor trouble, happy home life and reasonable living expenses, three railroads reaching out east, west, north and south, plenty of electric power and excellent factory sites. We have several buildings well suited for factory use that can quickly be secured. We trust you will be sufficiently interested to send a representative to look us over and see the good things we have to offer or I will be very glad to come to Lititz for a personal conference on the subject.”

Not too shabby for what was intended to be just a small attraction in a local parade.

Longenecker indeed pondered the idea of manufacturing Road-O-Planes by the hundreds, but realized that it would require a lot of time and money, not to mention ingenuity. It was for these reasons that he never really pursued the venture seriously.

Despite the decision not to mass produce the Road-O-Plane, Longenecker continued to find local success in the automobile business.

On one particular day in 1921, five loads of vehicles carrying 19 total cars arrived to be sold.

“Many of his clients were Amish,” his granddaughter said. “They didn’t drive cars, but bought them and had their hired man drive them around.”

In August of 1923, Longenecker co-hosted “Chevrolet Day” in the Lititz Springs Park. This event, also sponsored by several dealers around the county, included family fun, food, and games.

For the 1924 season, Longenecker entered into a contract to purchase 779 cars. Around this same time, he opened a dealership at East King and Duke Streets in Lancaster city; and soon after that, he purchased an old warehouse at 213-215 N. Prince St. and converted it into a showroom.

Sadly, the Great Depression hit, and this would slowly spell the end of his business.

John Longenecker would pass away in 1941, but became known not only as a pioneer in the automotive industry throughout Pennsylvania, but also as a beloved Lititz resident who believed in honesty, creativity, and hard work.

Cory Van Brookhoven is president of the Lititz Historical Foundation and has authored several books on topics involving Lancaster County history, including Lititz. He welcomes your comments at coryvb @hotmail.com.

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