The glow from the neon sign hanging in the showroom at Modern Auto Company can be seen from Highway 100 as cars zip by, especially at night. For Jim Feltmann Sr., whose father started the company 100 years ago, the sign holds special significance.
It was added to the front of building the same year he went to work there, in 1949.
A photo from the mid-1960s shows the sign is still in place, but Jim Feltmann Sr. said after a renovation in 1966, the sign was moved to the back of the building.
“Then the only people who saw it were the railroad riders,” he remarked with a smile.
When the family-owned car company moved from its location at Main and Jefferson streets, where it had been since 1931, to its current location along Highway 100, between Highway A and High Street, the sign was given a place of prominence again. And customers love seeing it, said Jim Sr.
He likes sharing that little bit of trivia about it too.
A lot has changed at Modern Auto Company over the last 100 years, but one thing has not — taking care of customers is the No. 1 focus.
“That’s what we preach around here,” said Brian Feltmann, sales manager, who began officially working at Modern Auto in June 2008 at the height of the Great Recession. “Always take care of the customers.”
That’s the principle the company was founded on and what has carried the company through the last century.
“When John H. Feltmann started the business, they started off fixing things and the sales came later,” said Joe Feltmann, who currently owns the company with his two brothers, Jim Jr. and John. “That was what he taught Dad, and Dad taught us. You rely on service to get cars fixed, and sales will come around. That’s what we grew the business on, our service department.”
Of course, new car sales have been a core part of Modern Auto since it became a Chevrolet dealer in 1924. Today the company sells new Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles, as well as Chevrolet medium duty trucks.
The Feltmanns are keenly aware of the fact that Modern Auto has served generations of the same families, both in new car sales and service. Customers proudly share stories of how “I bought a car from your grandpa or your dad or your uncle back in whenever,” said Brian, with a smile. “Even at our last Cruise Night, somebody brought out a ’60-something Impala that still had it’s original ‘Modern Auto’ sticker on it. That’s just the neat stuff we see. Everybody’s got a story.”
Customers, however, may not be aware of how rare a company like Modern Auto is. There are very few car dealerships that have been around 100 years and even fewer that have been owned by the same family that entire time, said Jim Jr.
“That’s true throughout the country,” said Jim Jr. “For a car dealership, usually the second generation is about as long as it will go. Fourth generation is pretty rare.”
Began After World War I
John H. Feltmann grew up on a farm in Villa Ridge as one of 13 children, his son Jim Sr., said. His formal education ended with the fourth grade. After being discharged from service in World War I, he returned to the family farm, “cutting wood to be used for railroad ties,” but he knew there had to be something better, said Jim Sr.
“The automobile production business had grown from 4,192 in 1900 to an annual production of more than 1 million in 1919,” he wrote in a company newsletter back in 1999 on Modern Auto’s 80th anniversary.
So after attending Sweeney Automobile School in Kansas City, John Feltmann opened an auto repair business with his two cousins, Joseph and Martin Hellmann, in a barn behind Jasper’s Tavern on Elm Street in Downtown Washington.
After a few years of fixing people’s cars, the trio decided they might as well sell them too, said Joe Feltmann. Modern Auto’s first showroom was located in what is now the office area of Purcell Tire and Service Center at the corner of Elm and Fifth streets.
It relocated to the corner of Main and Jefferson streets in 1931. A few years later, the company began selling Oldsmobile vehicles, in addition to Chevrolet. In 1939, John Feltmann bought out his partners.
World War II was still raging when the car company became a dealer for John Deere Farm Implements in 1944.
As business continued to grow, a two-story addition was added to the rear of the main building in 1945, and a tire recapping service was added in 1946.
As the car business grew, the family sold off both the recapping and the farm implement businesses.
The Cadillac franchise was obtained in 1948. That year the first addition to the west service area was completed.
Through the years, Modern Auto purchased neighboring properties as they became available to provide much-needed space. All told, the downtown operation consisted of 16 property purchases, including the Spangler/Ritzmann property on Main Street, Stumpe property on West Second Street, Buescher property at the northeast corner of Main and Jefferson, Jesse Bates property at the northeast corner of Front and Jefferson streets, the city reservoir on Front Street between Jefferson and Lafayette streets, Birkmann property and Cook property.
Because of the growing automobile business, the service department and showroom were expanded and remodeled in 1966. Ten years later, Modern Auto and Jim Feltmann Sr. received the Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award. The company was named one of the Top 20 new car dealers in the United States.
The third generation of Feltmanns joined the company in 1974 when Jim Jr. came on board full time. Joe followed in 1979 and John in 1986. Jim Jr.’s son, Matt Feltmann, joined the team in 2003, followed by Joe’s son, Brian, in 2008.
Modern Auto purchased the Pontiac-GMC-Buick franchise from Ron Elbert in 1998.
By 2004, the company was forced to relocate to a new 50,000-square-foot facility at its current location along Highway 100, where there was more space and higher visibility.
Over the years, there have been many milestones in Modern Auto’s history: the first auto repair shop to have a hoist; the first to provide wrecker service; the first auto dealer to have a body shop; the first to have a front end alignment unit; and the first to have a Chief E-Z Liner frame and body alignment system.
“We had the first body shop in Washington, in that old barn,” said Jim Sr. “In order to paint, they dropped canvases around on the four sides to make a paint room. That was the body shop.”
Today the company offers complete auto and truck service — from oil changes to overhauls for import or domestic, gas or diesel, car or truck. And Modern Auto’s Body Shop can handle minor and major body repairs and has two paint rooms.
Car Shopping, Buying Have Changed
The fourth generation of Feltmann have brought a new perspective to operations at Modern Auto, especially with changes in the way people shop for and buy cars.
Gone are the days when most people come to the showroom to gather information on their car options. Most customers come in now having done all of their research online and already knowing what they want to buy.
“That’s probably been the biggest change,” Matt Feltmann, comptroller, remarked. “Before everything was always done in person at the store. Now with such a wealth of knowledge on the internet about these cars, by the time the customer gets here, they already know what they want. It’s about making them comfortable with you and make it work out to where you see eye-to-eye about what they’re going to buy and what the benefits are.”
Modern Auto has a website, where all of its inventory is listed, and the company advertises its cars on other popular car sales websites. That’s the necessary approach to have for today’s car buyers, said Brian, noting it has attracted customers from as far away as Las Vegas, California and Florida.
“I sold a Chevy Silverado truck to someone from Gig Harbor, Wash.,” said Brian, although that buyer did have a connection to this area.
“But with the internet, especially if we have a specific used car that’s not really common, they’ll find it here online,” said Matt, recalling how one man purchased a used Cadillac without ever seeing it. “He sent a car hauler up here to pick it up, and he didn’t see the car until he got it at his house.”
Matt and Brian also run a Facebook page for Modern Auto. They post photos of charity and outreach work, ads for Chevrolet and current sales promotions — including a 100th anniversary discount on all new car purchases. These days they also are posting old photos and history from the company’s archive.
The two younger Feltmanns have worked their way up in the family business, having started out washing cars or worse.
“I had to get promoted twice just to be able to wash cars,” joked Brian.
They worked in service, parts, lube rack and so on until they had been to every department.
“You’d learn about each one and learned to love it,” said Matt.
Your Choice Matters, Cruise Night
More than just a car sales and service company, Modern Auto also is part of the Washington area community. Its staff members don’t just work here.
“We live here,” said Matt. “This is our community too. We’re not just here to sell cars. We want to support this community because this is our community.”
Four years ago Modern Auto launched the Your Choice Matters program, giving a percentage of sales and service profits to a specific charity every year.
Ten years ago, the company held its first Cruise Night car show, welcoming all makes and models of cars for display. The 11th annual event will be held Sept. 7.
The pupose of the event isn’t to hand out awards, but rather just to celebrate cars and put some really good ones on display for everyone to see. One year the event drew as many as 475 cars for display.
“It’s really about people coming out and hanging out and showing off your car,” said Matt. “It’s people who love cars coming together to share their favorites.”
There are no entry fees and no awards or judging. So people who don’t have a show-quality car but have something they think is really special are encouraged to bring it over to the lot.
“Like that old Impala that was bought here new from the ’60s,” said Brian. “It has some rust on it now, but it’s still cool. People bring that kind of stuff.”
You never know what you’re going to see at Cruise Night.
“One year we had a ’29 coupe sitting next to a new Lamborghini,” said Jim Jr.
People come from as far away as St. Louis and Branson to attend. One year someone even came in from Colorado Springs. Usually attendance is between 1,500 and 2,000 people. Food is sold by the Washington High School Athletic Association as a fundraiser.
Cars of the Future
Looking ahead to the future of cars, the Feltmanns said a lot of the hype around self-driving cars has seemed to die down and they don’t expect it will happen as quickly as previously forecasted, if at all. Although, they are already selling some cars that can park themselves at the push of a button.
“We have some Cadillacs out there, you hit a button, it scans the curb and it will parallel park itself. You just work the brake and gas. It steers for you,” said Brian. “It is a real leap of faith.”
They expect to see more varieties of electric cars available in the future. The Chevy Volt has evolved to the Chevy Bolt, which runs on all electricity and has 250-mile range.
“And the people we’ve sold them to say they’re doing much better than that,” said Brian.
Here in Franklin County, Modern Auto hasn’t seen any dip in the number of young people wanting to own their own cars. If that’s true in other parts of the country where good mass transit options exist, they don’t see it happening here.
So, just like 100 years ago, the staff at Modern Auto stands ready to service their cars and keep them running, or sell them a new one.
“Service has been the backbone of the business from the beginning, and it always will be,” said Brian.
Looking back on the company’s history, Jim Sr. described Modern Auto as “a monument to John Feltmann’s persistence and dedication.
“He had only four years of formal education, but he never stopped learning,” Jim Sr. remarked.