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Automobile Dealers Prepare For Centennial Celebration

By JESSE LEAVENWORTH | Courant Staff Writer

May 08, 2008

Like many car dealers across the country, Papa's Dodge and the Mitchell Auto Group had humble starts.

In 1947, World War II veterans Dominic and Eugene Papa opened a two-bay garage in New Britain, where they made repairs and sold used cars. Beginning in 1949, the brothers sold new cars with now obscure names, including Crosley, Hudson, SIMCA and Sunbeam.

The Mitchell Auto Group story began in 1922 in Simsbury, where a young immigrant from Scotland opened a service garage in a barn.

"He repaired cars and shared the barn with Bessie the cow," Robert Pringle's daughter, Mary Pringle Mitchell, wrote in a brief history. Robert Pringle's story would end sadly, but his family business would survive by embracing the early market for foreign cars.

Papa's eventually focused on Chrysler products as Detroit's Big Three shouldered out domestic competition. Today, business principal Ken Papa inspired by Disney and Wal-Mart has invested in new ideas for selling cars.

On May 15, Papa, Mitchell and other central Connecticut dealers are planning to attend the centennial celebration of the Greater Hartford Automobile Dealers Association at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

Some of the association's 68 members recently talked about their past, today's challenges and their strategies for the future.

U.S. car manufacturers have died off by the hundreds since the Hartford association was officially formed in 1908.

For several decades after the automobile emerged in about 1880, almost 3,000 brands rolled onto the nation's ragged, muddy streets. Legions of investors and backyard entrepreneurs struggled for a slice of the market.

"It was like the dot-com deal," author and industry historian Joel Finn of Roxbury said. "Everybody jumped into making automobiles."

The Hartford Automobile Dealers Association (there was no "Greater" in the early name), was formed, in large part, to establish some order among the chaotic competition, according to a Jan. 14, 1908, article in The Courant.

"In the automobile industry, as in any industry which springs up in a night, unsettled conditions were bound to exist," the newspaper reported. "There was no gradual growth of the business which could establish precedents and a trade etiquette; there was no long apprenticeship which could give a time honored position to any one man any dean of the industry."

One Connecticut industrialist, however, had a shot at the title. Like many early automakers, Albert A. Pope's car business emerged from bicycles.

The skilled machinists at Pope's Hartford bicycle factory understood gears, drives and metal fabrication. The early auto industry centered on Pope and other Connecticut car makers, but they were soon eclipsed by Henry Ford and his affordable, efficient and easy-to-maintain Model T.

"You could repair one with a screwdriver and a hammer," Finn said.

Ford dealerships sprung up across the country, and many dealers of other cars switched to Ford. Others stuck with Chevrolet and other makes, but hedged their bets by selling more than one brand.

"Cross-selling was an acceptable business practice into the late 1940s, when brand loyalty took hold," Robert Genat wrote in his book, "The American Car Dealership."

Most surviving dealerships have sold several kinds of cars. Papa's, for instance, dealt Rambler, International Scout, SIMCA and Sunbeam (both made in Europe and marketed through Chrysler), Renault, Shelby and Hummer.

Gengras Motor Cars of East Hartford and Meriden now has Chrysler, Chevrolet, Lincoln-Mercury, Volvo and BMW dealerships, among others. But those businesses are distinct because modern automakers, like their counterparts in the retail and service industries, want brand-centered facilities what company principal Skip Gengras called "the McDonald's phase" of the car-selling business.

Walter Mitchell, 88, the granddaddy of Connecticut dealers, said Subaru representatives demanded in 1982 that the dealership's Subarus, which the Mitchells had sold at one facility along with several other brands, be moved to a separate lot. The franchise was moved to Route 44 in Canton. Years earlier, Mitchell said, he had to paint exposed wooden beams in his new Volvo dealership to match the Swedish company's showroom model.

American and foreign car makers have for many years wielded a heavy hand with dealers. Robert Pringle, for example, was selling Pontiacs and Chevrolets in the 1950s when he fell ill with cancer. While Pringle was in the hospital, his business manager refused to accept some Chevrolet models that he considered inferior. Chevrolet yanked the franchise and Pringle died heartbroken over the loss, his daughter said.

In 1956, Walter Mitchell took over the business. Mary Mitchell was shut out because General Motors refused to allow a woman, even the daughter of the previous owner, to run a franchise, the Mitchells said.

The family had a more pressing problem filling the gap from the loss of Chevrolet. In the late 1950s, Walter Mitchell began "bootlegging" new Volvos from a Hartford dealership, which sold him cars for $100 more than the factory price.

In the next several years, Mitchell acquired the official Volvo franchise, along with Saab and Subaru. His son, Mark, further expanded the business, which now also includes Volkswagen, Dodge, Chrysler and Land Rover.

Betting on the success of foreign cars was the right move, Walter Mitchell said, particularly in the Farmington Valley, where the increasingly reliable and gas-sipping models became popular.

Some dealers acknowledged that they missed an opportunity in the 1970s to add Japanese makes to their stables, but, then again, the early models were not the caliber of today's Toyotas and Hondas.

"They weren't highly thought of," Skip Gengras said. "The Toyota we used to call it a piece of junk. But there's no question about it, the American car manufacturers took their eye off the ball, and the Japanese have continued to beat up on us," Gengras said, although he added that American cars are now up to the quality of their Asian counterparts.

Ken Papa sells only Chrysler products, but he has also taken a big chance with his dealership. Papa calls himself a student of the Disney and Wal-Mart companies. From Disney, Papa said, he learned about customer service; from Wal-Mart, the value of a focal point entry and putting all products under one roof.

There's no mistaking the giant doorway to the 72,000-square-foot dealership on East Main Street in New Britain, where extensive renovations were completed in 2005. Inside, Papa installed a full-service diner, barber shop, children's playrooms, a mini-museum of classic and racing cars, a store that sells T-shirts, car models and other auto gear even a game arcade. The dealership also does catering and hosts conferences, charity benefits and car shows.

The idea, Papa said, is to create a long-term relationship with customers, to make people want to do business with him rather than have to. Asked if the effort and expense (he won't say how much he spent) increased business, Papa said, "Yes and no. These are trying times for car dealers."

He and other dealers talked about increasingly tight profit margins, the difference between the factory and sales prices. The sluggish economy and soaring gas prices also have hurt everyone in the business, but Papa said his father, Dominic, used to tell him, "People will always need cars, so don't get discouraged during the hard times."

As for the car salesman's sometimes slimy reputation, dealership owners and industry watchers said that has changed for the better, chiefly because of the Internet. People can now go online to sites such as www.edmunds.com to learn in great detail about cars and prices. Skip Gengras said that has been good for business because his people have to be up to par with sophisticated buyers.

"They walk in knowing as much as the good salesman knows," Gengras said. "I think the Internet has made us better in every department."

The Greater Hartford Automobile Dealers Association runs the annual Connecticut International Auto Show, slated this year for November at the Connecticut Convention Center. The association, part of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, also does marketing for members and distributes scholarships and grants to charities. The centennial celebration on May 15 is not open to the public.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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