LAUREL — In 1961, 21-year-old Leonard Fichtner became the youngest General Motors franchise owner in history after acquiring the family business from his father. As far as he knows, there has never been a younger GM dealer.
Fifty-three years later, Fichtner is ready to call it a career, and Fichtner Chevrolet is under new ownership, having joined Billings-based Rimrock Auto Group.
Leonard Fichtner’s father, Ted, started the dealership in Bridger in 1952 before moving the business to Laurel. The dealership has been at 202 Southeast Fourth St. since 1976, long before the recent crop of restaurants and retail stores moved in, he said.
After 62 years, second- and third-generation owners Leonard, Jeanne and Ken Fichtner agreed to sell Fitchner Chevrolet to John and Ann Soares, Steve Zabawa and his wife, Susan Sullivan, of Rimrock Auto Group. The dealership, renamed Rimrock Chevrolet, represents another market niche for Rimrock Auto Group.
“It’s time,” said Fichtner, who added that he’s looking forward to taking it easy.
The auto business has changed a lot since the days when cars sported fins and General Motors urged Americans to “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”
“They used to change the body style every year, but those days are over,” Fichtner said, referring to some now classic models, such as the yellow 1957 Chevrolet that he has in his collection.
Rolling out new car models was a process filled with mystery and anticipation. General Motors usually introduced its new models on the third Thursday of every September.
“We used to put paper on the windows so people couldn’t see the new cars until it was time,” Fichtner said.
“You hear the story that they don’t build cars like they used to,” Fichtner said. “I remember the 1953 Chevy with the straight six. After about 20,000 miles, the engine needed a complete overhaul.” At 50,000 miles, many cars needed a new engine block. By comparison, modern cars are safer, more reliable, durable and fuel efficient, he said.
Zabawa said Rimrock Auto Group started discussing the purchase with Fichtner family members last January. Other dealers had shown interest, but Rimrock Auto Group won the bid. The terms of the sale haven’t been disclosed.
Zabawa said the new owners have big plans for the Laurel dealership. They plan to triple the inventory of new cars from about 50 cars to 150. They’ll increase the sales staff from two salesmen to 10 and will upgrade the service department.
Zabawa said the Chevrolet dealership fits well with Rimrock Auto Group’s existing product mix: GMC, Cadillac, Subaru, Kia, Mercedez-Benz, Volkswagen and Sprinter Commercial Vans. Rimrock also owns the new Auto Trim Design, CarNu Detailing, Rimrock Auto Body and Paint and Rimrock Express Lube.
“General Motors has been pleased with our representation of the GMC and Cadillac lines,” Soares said. “They acknowledge that Laurel is a gateway for the rural communities in the region and a growth area for regional automotive shoppers. To support this, they have offered Rimrock Chevrolet an additional inventory allocation.”
“Our new store will be less than 15 minutes from the Billings’ King Avenue ‘Auto Row,’ ” Zabawa said. “Our group is excited because we now have a franchise with a complete car, truck and SUV offering across all model segments from subcompact cars to heavy duty trucks.”
Ken Fichtner plans to stay on in a management role at Rimrock Chevrolet. He welcomes the opportunity to turn over some of the management duties to Rimrock so that he can concentrate on sales and customer service.
Fichtner said he plans to continue his specialty as a Corvette dealer. Because of his efforts, Fichtner Chevrolet has ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 Corvette dealers.