SIMSBURY – Mitchell Auto Group, a family-run business now in its fourth generation, marks a milestone this year – the company’s 90th anniversary.
A celebration will be held Friday, Sept. 7 on opening night of Septemberfest, being held at Simsbury Meadows. One of the sponsors of the three-day festival, Mitchell Auto Group will have a booth and a display of automobiles representing each of the dealerships under the Mitchell Auto Group umbrella: Chrysler/Dodge, Land Rover, SAAB, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Located in Simsbury, Canton and Torrington, the Mitchell dealerships reflect a range in 2012 that shows how much the company has grown since 1922 when a family predecessor opened a small auto repair business in Weatogue.
It all began with Scottish immigrant Robert Pringle, father of Mary Mitchell and grandfather of Mark Mitchell, who is company president today.
“My father rented a cow barn on Canal Street in 1922 and established Pringle’s Garage,” Mary Mitchell said. “He worked next to Bessie the cow.”
The barn is long gone but its location is the current site of Bikram Yoga Simsbury.
In 1924, Mr. Pringle expanded into sales, marketing Oakland cars. The Oakland became the Pontiac in 1930, the same year Mr. Pringle opened a new building for his business on Hopmeadow Street.
“It was built next to the house we lived in,” Mary Mitchell said.
Through the next two decades, Mr. Pringle ran a successful business while being active within the community and was involved with the progress of the automobile business in Connecticut.
In 1947 he gave his only daughter’s hand in marriage to Walter Mitchell and in the ensuing years, welcomed three grandsons.
His health failing, Mr. Pringle died in 1956, leaving his daughter and son-in-law with an important decision to make – whether to carry on the business. They bit the bullet took it over, with Walter as president of the company.
“Those were tough times but we made it,” Mary Mitchell said. “Walter saved the business.”
In addition to raising her sons, she also had a role with the company – coordinator of advertising and publicity.
Her granddaughter Jill, Mark’s daughter and the fourth generation in the business, now handles public relations, events, and community involvement.
“We have to respect the road that was laid by our predecessors in order to carry out success in the future,” Jill Mitchell said. "It is a blessing to have the opportunity to work for the company my great-grandfather started.”
Weatogue Garage was eventually renamed Mitchell Pontiac, that being the main make of car sold there.
The first new dealership Walter Mitchell acquired was Studebaker in 1958. Then in the 1960s, he acquired franchises for two Swedish-made cars, Volvo and SAAB.
When marking the 50th anniversary of being a Volvo dealer in 2010, Walter Mitchell said it took him several trips to Fort Lee, N.J., Volvo’s American headquarters, before the company president gave in to Walter Mitchell’s pleas to be a dealer in a small town in Connecticut.
“I would go knocking on his door every Friday afternoon,” Mitchell said. “I think they grew tired of seeing me and I finally got the Volvo franchise.”
Walter and Mary Mitchell took their first of many trips to Sweden in 1964 as one of Volvo’s outstanding dealers in the United States. They toured the Volvo headquarters and in a subsequent trip to Sweden, saw SAAB’s operation. The couple also won a Caribbean cruise in a nationwide sales contest sponsored by SAAB.
Bursting at the seams with four dealerships in one small building, where repairs and business were also conducted, the Mitchells decided to build a new showroom, which was completed in 1970.
In a news article heralding the showroom opening, the reporter described Mitchell’s as “one of the largest dealerships in New England.”
Mark Mitchell came to work for the family business full-time in 1970 and along the way, so did his younger brothers, Robert and Steven.
“Our kids started at the bottom emptying wastebaskets,” Mary Mitchell said.
In 1972, Mitchell’s acquired a Subaru franchise. The dealership was originally located in Simsbury but was moved to Canton in 1980.
The 1980s and 1990s saw more growth: a new body shop and a Dodge dealership in Simsbury; and a Volkswagen dealership in Canton. Further expansion came when Mitchell’s started Volvo of the Litchfield Hills in Torrington.
This century, franchises were acquired for Land Rover, based in Canton, and Chrysler in Simsbury. Both Dodge and Chrysler dealerships are now housed in a new showroom built on Hopmeadow Street in 1988.
Currently underway is a renovation the Subaru showroom in Canton. A grand opening will be held later this fall that will also mark the company’s 40th anniversary with Subaru.
Despite all the growth that has occurred during the past 90 years and four generations, some things haven’t changed.
“At Mitchell Auto Group we have two main philosophies,” Mark Mitchell said. “Treat your customer as you would like to be treated; and treat your employees like part of the family.”
The company now has 230 employees. Some have worked for the Mitchells for many years.
“There were only 35 people working here when I came,” said General Manager David Tefft, who joined the company in 1980, followed in 1983 by Joseph Baril, the company’s financial officer.
“My dad would be very pleased to see how the business he started has grown over the last 90 years,” Mary Mitchell said.
On Sept. 7, Mitchell Auto Group will have something else to commemorate besides the company’s 90th anniversary – the 92nd birthday of Walter Mitchell, chairman of the board. The public is welcome to join the Mitchells at 7:30 p.m. that evening.
“Come celebrate with Mitchell Auto Group 90 years in the Farmington Valley with a toast commemorating the past, celebrating the future, and honoring Walter Mitchell on his 92nd birthday,” said Jill Mitchell, one of six grandchildren.