Feltmann family celebrates 100 years of Modern Auto


Sophie Koritz

Modern Auto celebrates 100 years of business. “It makes me feel proud to be a part of it because so many people know who we are," Joseph Feltmann Jr. said, "and what we have done for the community.” Four generations of Feltmanns have worked for Modern Auto.

The year is 1919. Men once in distant battlefields in Europe are slowly returning to a small town along the Missouri River with only a population of 3,000 called Washington. John Feltmann was among one of the World War I soldiers arriving home, and with the knowledge acquired at Sweeney Automobile School in Kansas City, he opened an automobile repair shop called Modern Auto in a barn on Fifth and Elm Street.

The repair shop established in 1919 became a Chevrolet dealership in 1924 and over the past 100 years obtained Buick, GMC and Cadillac franchises, making it the oldest dealership in Washington. Throughout the expansion of Modern Auto, the Feltmann family’s presence has been constant and influential.

“I think it all comes down to customer service,” Brian Feltmann said. “When you get to a lot of car dealerships, everything centered around the sales department—selling cars is the end all be all. Since my great grandpa started as a service shop, service and customer service has the overall theme of taking care of customers, and I think that goes a long way with people.”

Since the acquisition of the Chevrolet dealership in 1924, Modern Auto has sold hundreds of cars.

“We’ve sold families generation after generation of cars,” Joseph Feltmann said. “We’ve sold their grandfathers, their parents, and now they’re here buying cars. I think we try to take care of people as best as we can.”

Modern Auto’s economic stability throughout its 100-year history has assisted in the development of the community of Washington. In 1919, Modern Auto had only three employees. In 2019, Modern Auto has approximately 50 employees with jobs varying from service technicians to secretaries to salesmen. This expansion has forced Modern Auto to switch locations from Washington’s historic downtown to west Hwy 100 in 2004.

“You miss the nostalgia of being down there,” Jim Feltmann Jr. said, “but everything was so compartmentalized because it was added onto how many times. Now it’s nice to have everything in one big spot.”

Modern Auto occupied multiple buildings in downtown. The only one still standing is on the corner of Main and Jefferson streets.

“Everything on one floor makes it a whole lot easier,” Joseph Feltmann Jr. said. “The parts department was on three different levels and two different buildings, so we put a few less miles on our legs being here rather than there…Down in the basement, when we were downtown, you had the body shop on one side and the new and used car clean up area on the other side, and then you came upstairs you had the shop and the showroom and parts. Then you went upstairs, and you had more parts and the offices.”

Joseph’s son Brian and his cousin Matthew began working for Modern Auto when they turned 18, similarly to the Feltmanns that came before them as well as other Washington citizens who have Modern Auto as the first job on their resume.

“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of employees who have started working for us in high school washing cars, sweeping floors and that, and they have stayed with us for a number of years and moved on. A lot of them have their own businesses now and have raised families,” Joseph Feltmann Jr. said. “I think we have helped mold some of these people into some good citizens for the town.”

Along with helping teach core values and ethics to the youths that worked there, members of the Feltmann family have had a history of influential effect on the growth of Washington outside of their family business.

“Grandpa John was one of the founding members of what is now the 353 Redevelopment,” Jim Feltmann Jr. said. “There was a need to cultivate industry to come to Washington back in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, to help bring industry back to Washington. Washington now has a vital living economy now that we are not all depending on one thing for everyone’s livelihood.”

John Feltmann’s desire to improve the people of Washington’s lives was most evident, however, in his work with the Lions Club, which he co-founded, as well as how he raised his children. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have continued his work with the Lions Club and other community service outlets—making community involvement an important aspect of Modern Auto.

For 100 years, Modern Auto has been a cornerstone of the Washington economy and society. The Feltmann family and Modern Auto have watched Washington grow from a population of 3,000 in 1919 to approximately 14,000 in 2019. And though the world around Modern Auto has changed, their commitment to customer service and community involvement has not halted.

“For me, it’s just very interesting to be part of a family business where you get the tradition, the history, and for me, it’s a very good feeling when somebody knows who you are…” Joseph Feltmann Jr. said. “It makes me feel proud to be a part of it because so many people know who we are and what we have done for the community.”

As the third generation of Feltmanns begin to transition leadership and responsibilities to the fourth, the ideals and lessons taught by their fathers, grandfather and great-grandfather will guide these cousins through the challenges and triumphs that come with managing a family business.

“…There’s a lot of pride involved with something running that long and having your last name attached to it and you working for it,” Matthew Feltmann said. “There’s also lots of anticipation. A lot of it comes down to a legacy.  Each Feltmann is trying to leave their own legacy and leave their own mark on the business side. I’m excited to get my shot at some point of time.”