Prime parking for only 5 cents

When an Italian immigrant named Andrew Pansini opened Los Angeles’ first parking lot in 1917, he didn’t attract a customer for six days, no matter how much arm-waving he did.

“People didn’t know what he was doing,” his son recalled. “It was like he was some sort of nut.”

It probably wasn’t the price -- the elder Pansini charged only 5 cents, be it for half an hour or all day. Maybe it was because he didn’t validate.


Still, Pansini was confident he could make a go of the tree-dotted lot he leased on the northwest corner of 4th and Olive streets, now part of the California Plaza complex.

He had gotten the idea one day when he “observed a peg-legged man . . . directing cars to the curb,” his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Pansini La Haye, wrote in her book, “It Started With a Nickel.”

“Drivers tossed the man a dime to watch their cars. Dad soon realized a more profitable way that cars could be safe while people worked or shopped . . . off-street parking on an empty lot.”

Finally, on the sixth day, Pansini had his first customer, but he had to stay on the lot until midnight when the guy returned to pick up the car. At least the motorist tipped him 20 cents.

He took in just $15 in the first six months, forcing him to keep his day job as a taxi driver.

But “automania,” as the newspapers put it, was in full swing.

The streets of Los Angeles were more and more crowded with cars, and eventually the parking biz picked up.

After all, customers got more than just a parking spot. Pansini “dusted off every car with no additional charge,” his daughter pointed out.

The second lot he opened was at 5th and Grand, now the site of the Richard Riordan Central Library. He was “afraid to raise the price to 10 cents all day, but they had to take the risk,” La Haye said.

By 1926, Pansini’s Savoy Auto Parks operated 40 lots. And he maintained that only two cars had been stolen.

The new properties weren’t all vacant when he took them over.

“Dad started wrecking old ‘it’s-about-to fall-down’ buildings,” La Haye wrote. There were 83 demolitions between 1920 and 1945.

One Los Angeles newspaper joked to its readers “to look out for Andrew Pansini or he’d be wrecking the whole of Los Angeles.”

Of course, there were ups and downs. Customer volume briefly declined after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which also shook Los Angeles. “People were so afraid that . . . they’d pull into a lot, look up at the tall buildings, think of the earthquake, turn around and leave,” La Haye remembered.

Pansini was not a man to let his parking business sit still.

In the 1920s, he and his wife, Mary, came up with the idea of “three-way tickets, one on the car, one to the customer and one to the attendant,” La Haye wrote.

This cut down on confusion stemming from the difficulty attendants had telling the early cars apart, especially by color. An old joke had a customer, when asked which car was hers, answer: “It’s the black one.”

Pansini also introduced an early version of the Denver boot car-restraint for non-payers.

At first, his daughter said, he tried to neutralize the cars of such scofflaws “by attaching a cement block with a chain to their back bumper.” But “one man just lifted the cement block, put it in his trunk, and drove away. After that the blocks were chained to the front bumper.”

The parking business was anything but boring, she recalled.

Once, two U.S. Marines asked an attendant at a Main Street lot if they could leave their pet monkeys in the car while they took in a Follies show.

The attendant, never having faced such a situation, obliged.

It wasn’t long before the monkeys had rolled down the window and were “jumping over the car tops,” La Haye wrote. “The more excited the men [attendants] became, the more rambunctious the monkeys became.

The monkeys were last seen riding down Main Street on top of a trolley car.”

Pansini died in 1958. Savoy, now headquartered in San Francisco, retains some parking interests.

But the company has switched its focus, owning and managing more than $50 million in commercial real estate in Northern California, according to its website.

Pansini’s son, Andrew, 91, a Bay Area resident, is Savoy’s board chairman. In the 1950s, he launched a side business with his invention of an automatic swimming pool cleaner.

La Haye, 87, lives in Newport Beach and has written four books.

Rates at the site of Pansini’s first 5-cents-per-day lot, which was sold years ago, have climbed -- to put it mildly.

The California Plaza parking garage on that spot charges $4.15 per 15 minutes. Thus, a nickel today would get you roughly 11 seconds of parking.

And the attendants won’t dust off your car.