Photos by Larry Edsall
Don Mitchell is the automaker you’ve likely never heard of, and after the contents of the Mitchell Car Museum are sold at auction Wednesday, you may never hear of him again. That’s a pity, because Don Mitchell is responsible for many things, including those wonderful woodies that classic car enthusiasts so love.
Oh, and he also helped produce the first Chevrolet Corvettes, and all the bodies for the Lincoln Continental Mark II, and created the automotive bucket seat, among other things.
Mitchell lived from 1903 to 1972. His son, Bill, joined the family company after World War II. In 1991, Bill set out to honor his father’s memory by creating the Mitchell Car Museum, stocking it with vehicles his father (and a great uncle) had a hand in building. But the museum has pretty much been closed for a while now and after Bill died earlier this year, at the age of 87, the family decided it was time for the cars and other contents to go to car, military and other enthusiasts and collectors who would appreciate them.
Wednesday, Sheridan Realty & Auction Co. of Mason, Michigan, will stage that sale. The auction will be held on the campus of Baker College in Owosso, Michigan. A preview of the cars and other lots takes place the previous day, also in Owosso, but at the old Mitchell Corp. building.
Included in the sale are seven cars produced between 1904 and 1919 by the Mitchell Motor Car Co. of Racine, Wisconsin, or as a sign in the museum notes, by “great uncle” Henry Mitchell, whose company was sold to Nash in 1924.
But the cars of most interest to Bill Mitchell were those in which his father was involved, and they include half a dozen woodie wagons, several later 1950s station wagons, a pair of Lincoln Continental Mark IIs, a Kaiser Golden Dragon, a Packard Caribbean, and the stunning Dodge Granada concept car.
Don Mitchell was born in Owosso, where he and childhood friend Thomas E. Dewey (yes, the future governor of New York and two-time U.S. presidential candidate) had their own landscaping business while in high school. While Dewey left for points east, Mitchell studied at what is now Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, and went to work for the Detroit Weatherproof Body Corp. as an engineer and salesman, selling Weatherproof tops for Ford Model Ts and other open cars.
Mitchell later worked for another automotive body producer before starting his own sales company, brokering parts from various suppliers to Detroit’s automakers. He became a consultant to and then the owner of a furniture maker, employing some 11,000 people during World War II when his Ionia Manufacturing Co. (later to become the Mitchell Corp.) was making tents, seats and trailers for the military.
After the war, he kept his employees busy making folding chairs, television cabinets and other products while also building station wagon bodies and doing woodie trim for the automakers. Mitchell also owned half interest in Creative Industries, a prototype and concept car builder in Detroit, as well as 20 percent interest in the Detroit Lions football team.
Don Nemets, a long-time Mitchell Corp. staffer who returned to become the museum’s curator and to write a biography of Don Mitchell, told me Mitchell not only was an innovator, but worked hard to keep his employees employed. At one time the Mitchell companies employed 18,000 people in various Michigan facilities.
“He came from humble beginnings,” said Nemets, whose biography of Mitchell is titled Michigan’s Station Wagon King. “He really wanted to keep his people working.”
For more on Mitchell and the products his companies produced, see Nemets’ book or read the story about Ionia Manufacturing on the coachbuilt.com website.