Tony Dobrowolski | Out of the Pages: Pittsfield's automotive pioneer
PITTSFIELD >> It wouldn't be stretching the truth, even a little bit, to say that Gary Johnson's whole life has revolved around automobiles.
"The first car my father gave me was when I was eight years old," said the third generation owner of Johnson Ford- Lincoln on East Street.
Dad let son run it around the farm that the family owned on Churchill Street.
"He said if I broke it, I had to fix it myself," Johnson said.
That's a tough way to be introduced to operating and fixing motor vehicles, but those hard lessons have paid off in longevity. This year Johnson's company is celebrating a significant milestone — its 100th anniversary.
We mention business anniversaries in this space from time-to-time, but Johnson's is especially significant because it basically spans almost the entire history of the automotive industry in the United States.
Gary Johnson's grandfather, Arthur C. "Chris" Johnson founded the company in 1916 when he entered into a partnership with Ralph M. O'Connell Auto Sales & Service to sell Smith-Forma trucks and Chandler cars.
Although auto production on a commercial scale began in France in 1890, it didn't reach the United States until the early 1900s. Henry Ford's Ford Motor Company, which revolutionized the American automotive industry, was organized in 1903, just 13 years before Johnson and O'Connell teamed up.
In the early part of the 20th century, there were about 2,000 firms producing one or more cars in the United States, according to a history of the automobile from the University of Colorado. From 1904 to 1908, 241 automobile manufacturing firms in this country had gone into business. The number of companies had declined to about 100 by 1920, and fell even further to 44 by 1929, but there was obviously enough of a market for autos in Pittsfield 100 years ago for Johnson's grandfather to enter it.
Johnson doesn't know exactly why his grandfather entered the auto business.
"He and Ralph O'Connell owned a farm on Churchill Street," he said. But the two men's business venture expanded quickly.
In 1921 while auto manufacturers were going out of business, the two partners had enough confidence in the industry to form the Berkshire Auto Co. when they built a 70,000 square foot building at 109 South St. to sell Cadillac, Oldsmobile and GMC cars and trucks. That building currently serves as the entrance to the Colonial Theatre, which is why it is known as "The Garage." You can still see the Berkshire Auto Co. name in the glass above the doors.
Gary Johnson's father, Arthur C. "Art" Johnson Jr. joined the Berkshire Auto Company in 1939 and became vice president in 1958 after his father died.
Six years later, he sold his interest in the Berkshire Auto Company to the O'Connell family and purchased a Lincoln-Mercury dealership from AJ Scarafoni on North St.
Gary, who returned to Pittsfield on the weekends while attending college in Boston to sell cars, helped his father run the dealership until Arthur Johnson Jr. died suddenly in 1967. At 22, Gary Johnson became the youngest Lincoln-Mercury dealer in the United States.
"I guess I had some good training," he said.
Gary Johnson acquired a Ford franchise in 1980 — by his count, the dealership has sold motor vehicles from 16 different manufacturers during its long history — and in 1982 purchased the company's current location on East St.
Johnson's seen a lot of changes in the auto industry.
"It's become more competitive," he said. "We didn't have the manufacturers and the models we had back in the 60s today.
"I remember we called them the big three back in the early 60s," he said, referring to U.S. automakers Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, who dominated the market back then.
But despite the changes, the dealership has stayed in the family. Gary's son, Chris, and daughter, Tary, have become the fourth generation to run the company. Gary believes Johnson Ford-Mercury is the oldest family run dealership in Western Massachusetts.
Will there be a fifth generation of Johnson's running the company?
"I don't know," Gary said. "I don't know if they would want that. I was born in it. I guess I never knew anything but the car business."
That knowledge has led to a century of success.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.