In 1930, Ella Prochnow quietly made history as the nation’s first female car dealer
Ella Prochnow, probably the first woman in the United States to own an automobile dealership, never anticipated her career. She didn’t even know how to drive when her husband died in 1930, leaving her his seven-year-old Buick dealership. But as she said in a 1964 interview, “I did know that income must be greater than outgo and based my business on this simple but essential point.” According to Prochnow’s sister, Edna Lage, “It was an unheard-of thing for a woman to take over, but she said, ‘This is my business, and I’m going to run it.’ ” The first thing she did was learn to drive.
Ella Bareis and Walter Prochnow grew up across the street from one another on First Street. Ella, born in 1896, was just a year older than Walter. Both attended Ann Arbor High. Ella was valedictorian of her class and went on to attend the University of Michigan. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Northfield Township while Walter began work as a teller at State Savings Bank (now NBD). They were married in 1922.
A year later, Walter bought the Ann Arbor Buick dealership, then located on Huron Street where the bus depot stands now. Two years later, he moved the business a block west to the corner of Huron and Ashley (the present site of a First of America drive-in branch). The dealership took over a three-story Italianate building that had opened in 1862 as the Monitor House hotel. After an 1869 fire, the building had been fitted up as a livery barn, and it was the Rohde feed and grain store when Prochnow bought it.
Walter Prochnow was so successful in the mere seven years that he owned Ann Arbor Buick that his death at the age of thirty-three was reported on the front page of the Ann Arbor Daily News. Ella Prochnow was left a thirty-four-year-old widow with two small children, Walter and Bette. At first, a manager ran the dealership, but then Ella decided she’d rather do it herself. She knew very little about cars, according to her sister, but “they were her lifetime interest from then on.”
A major factor in Prochnow’s success was her ability to enlist the support of her staff, according to her sister. Many people stayed with her for years: mechanic Bailey Rogers, who was working at Rohde’s when Walter Prochnow bought the building, stayed on to work at Ann Arbor Buick for sixty-one years, retiring only five years before his death at age ninety-four. Lage herself soon went to work for her sister, joining the dealership when the bookkeeper left. Lage worked until she was almost ninety.
Prochnow also had to persuade the Buick Motor Company to allow a woman to run a franchise; all of their other dealers were men. Buick might have had doubts at first, but Prochnow always met her sales targets and even won prizes for outstanding sales performance. According to her sister, she eventually developed a very warm relationship with Buick’s management, all the way up to the president. She also gained the respect of other car dealers in the area, serving for more than thirty years as treasurer of the Ann Arbor Auto Dealers Association.
According to her sister, Prochnow “was not a pusher or forward person, but she had a great deal of respect from a lot of people.” Although she worked long hours, she made sure it was not at her children’s expense. She had a housekeeper but made a point of going home every evening to have supper with her children and put them to bed. Only then did she return to her business to work into the night.
Space was tight in the old onetime hotel, but Ann Arbor Buick stayed because all the car dealerships were downtown. The first floor was the showroom and the parts department. Cars were serviced and repaired on the second floor, carried up in a giant elevator. The floor was made of wood, and Walter Prochnow, who owns the dealership today, remembers that customers sometimes got nervous when the floor creaked under the weight.
Car manufacturing was halted during World War II, and after the war it took time for factories to convert from defense back to civilian production. By 1948 Ann Arbor Buick had a three-year waiting list of customers eager to buy new cars. That year Prochnow bought the building next door at 206 West Huron to use for sales and repair of used cars.
Back then, many car buyers picked a brand and stayed with it, periodically trading in their cars for new models. After the initial purchase, that was a relatively inexpensive process. During the 1930’s, Grover Hauer, father-in-law of current salesman Dick Kempf, had a standing order for each year’s new model-—always in black. Trading in his year-old car, he could get a new one for prices ranging from $169 to $428. The yearly introduction of new models was done with a lot of fanfare, and there was excited speculation on what they would look like. Walter Prochnow remembers that the showroom windows would be covered with paper so that no one got a glimpse of the new models until the big day.
Problems with the downtown building became acute in 1958 when the new Buick Roadmaster Limited proved to be too big to fit into the elevator. Walter Prochnow had taken over as general manager by then, but his mother was still active. She devoted her considerable energies to the unavoidable move.
In 1957 she had bought five acres of what was once farmland out on Washtenaw. (Although closer to town than Arborland, it was then outside the city limits. Ads of the 1960’s describe the location as “between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.”) She traveled around to other dealerships, researching the needs of a modern garage, and worked closely with the builder, supervising the countless details.
The new building, at 3165 Washtenaw, was as up-to-date as the downtown garage had been old-fashioned. With its glass-walled showroom and delicate vertical “Buick” sign, it’s still a fine example of the postwar modern style. The 1964 grand opening celebration was attended by politicians (Mayor Cecil Creal and state legislators Gil Bursley and Stanley Thayer), bank presidents, and many business owners. It was still a man’s world: pictures of the ceremony show Ella Prochnow as the lone woman among the dignitaries. She lived twenty-one years longer, dying in 1985 at age eighty-eight, and she stayed active in the dealership almost to the end.