Arlo Cota

Riding High

Arlo Cota, the owner of Imported Car Center Auto Sport in Williston, took his talent for fixing cars and built a thriving business from it ... more than once.

Arlo Cota’s run has been a roller coaster ride, and just as fun for him

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Arlo Cota is a fast talker ... in the literal sense: he talks fast. It’s probably because he has so much to talk about.

His business, the Imported Car Center Auto Sport, has been on Vermont 2A in Williston since 1976, “when we had to shoo the cows from the Rowley farm out of the lot,” he says. He knew how to deal with cows, because his parents ran a satellite creamery in Fairfax in the 1950s, when he was growing up in “a classic Vermont Catholic family,” one of eight siblings.

After 1955, a switch was made from cans to bulk tanks and his parents were out of a job, so the family ran farms in Charlotte, Ferrisburgh and, eventually, Hinesburg. 

In 1966, when he graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School, it was the height of the Vietnam war. He opted to enlist rather than be drafted so he could choose his field of study.

Cota enlisted as a missile technician and was sent to El Paso, Texas, where he was an instructor for three years, teaching radar assembly. When he left the Army in 1969, he landed a job at General Electric. “I walked through the door, they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got this training for radar, and we’re going to put this on the Gatling gun,’ and it happened to be made right here in Burlington!” he exclaims.

A wildcat strike in December of that year changed things. Unable to understand how anybody from a poor family could give up a paycheck to picket, he joined 22 others who chose to stay on the job, although when materials couldn’t get through, they were laid off.

Back home, he headed for the employment office, where he learned of an opening at Almartin Motors.

Cota had a talent for fixing cars. “When I was a kid, we always fixed our cars ourselves,” he says. Three of his friends owned British cars, and in the Army, he had spent most of his spare time fixing cars at the base auto shop. 

Almartin was the area’s MG/Austin dealer. Cota had a “little fishing tackle box full of wrenches” that he took with him to the job interview. “I was the laughing stock, but Al hired me off the bat to fix British cars.”

Imported Auto mechanicsThe back of Imported Car Center’s 8,000-square-foot building is where the mechanics work. Standing, from left, are Scott Goodrich, service writer; Michael Spear (Cota’s nephew), mechanic; Sherman Bleau, general manager; Paul Gurdak, mechanic; and Jason Ricker, service manager. In front are mechanics Jerome Pettinga, and Stan McAuslan. The shop dog, Tank, belongs to Spear.

Winters, when British cars were not on the roads, Cota worked on Renaults and Peugeots. He confesses he didn’t like the French cars until he started driving them. “Shunpike Road had the worst potholes and an old bridge where you’d cross. Go through there with a British car, and you’d bottom out, bend the exhaust system; take a Renault and you could go 60 miles an hour.”

The Renaults’ engines were under the dashboard. “I’m only 5-foot-3 and I could get up under there,” says Cota. He told the service manager, “Look, nobody wants to work on these cars; give me all of them. I love these things.”

Cota worked at Almartin until the fall of 1971, when he left to go for his mechanical engineering degree at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center. “The dean had a Peugeot 504 and two of the physics professors had Renaults,” he says, “so I was the  hit of the college. They had their own mechanic in the middle of Randolph.” 

At the end of the year, when he handed in his math test, he didn’t think he’d done well. “The professor said, ‘Why are you here?’ I told him I wanted to study mechanical engineering. He said, ‘I understand you’re very good at fixing cars; you should probably think about taking that on as your vocation.’”

Cota laughs. “I had already gone through the service, been an instructor, worked at General Electric, and all the people I was in college with wanted those jobs!”

After working through the summer at Almartin’s, he decided not to return to college. Instead, he started moonlighting, working for Almartin during the days, and nights, fixing cars from a bay in a you-fix-it shop on Williston Road, where he could leave his tool box. 

Pretty soon, Cota was earning more moonlighting than on his day job, and his employers were not happy about it. He decided to rent the shop by the month and go out on his own. The service manager told him he wouldn’t last a month. 

But last he did. He cut a deal with Nelson Shepherd, to whom he had sold an old Peugeot. Each of them invested $2,000, they rented the Phillips 66 gas station at Dorset Street and Williston Road, and opened in May of ’72.

Events conspired in Cota’s favor. The Volvo/Saab/Triumph dealer went out of business. Almartin would pick up Volvo, and P.J.’s Auto would take Triumphs and Saabs. 

Volvo wanted Almartin to build a showroom, which Almartin didn’t want to do, he says. This meant Almartin needed to send Volvo owners elsewhere for repairs. Cota got the business, and although Almartin eventually built the showroom and picked up the Volvo account, by then, he had a pretty dedicated following of Volvo owners.

The business encountered a bump in the road when Phillips Petroleum decided to no longer sell gasoline in Vermont. Without gasoline sales, Cota couldn’t support his monthly lease.

Imported Auto sales consultantsIn the showroom are, from left, sales consultants John Casey, Mark Guyette and Bill Brady. The tropical plants were installed years ago by Arlo Cota’s mother.

He moved to a three-acre plot at 3060 Williston Road, which he had bought for overflow. “I had six technicians working within the year fixing cars,” he says. “We put a little garage on the end; we had an elm tree for shade. We put all our parts in this chicken coop out back, called it a Coop Deluxe,” he says with a chuckle. 

In 1976, he bought the Williston location from Gary Lacillade. Customers enjoyed Cota’s location near the interstate. “We were doing lots of French and Italian cars,” he says. “Fiats were popular, and Peugeots — cars people didn’t know much about — Jaguars, Rovers, Italian cars — a good customer base.”

From a demographic study, Cota learned that, in the 1970s, Chittenden County and Los Angeles had the highest concentration for foreign cars in the United States. In 1979, he decided to buy a Peugeot franchise. When he learned the Fiat franchise was open, he bought that, too.

His father had retired in 1977 and gone to work driving Cota’s shuttle. His mother cleaned the building, made the coffee and decorated the showroom with huge tropical plants.

Things were rolling, until 1983, when Fiat decided it was no longer going to import cars into the United States. Cota concentrated on the Peugeot end of the business. The business grew, he says, becoming one of the second- or third-largest Peugeot dealers in the country in sales volume.

Peugeot came out with faster cars and decided to launch a racing program. Cota had started racing mini-stocks in 1974, and participated in the New England Hill-Climb series. He bought one of the new, fast Peugeots, put $10,000 in a kitty and decided to race until the money ran out. “At the end of the year, we were one of the most winning teams in the race series, winning $151,000,” he says.

In 1989, the factory became his racing sponsor. “That was probably one of the highlights of my life,” Cota says, “because I had this enormous following from the company, and being emotionally involved in the cars, enjoying the life, the hotels, the company.” He went on sales trips around the world. “They treated me like a king.”

The bottom dropped out one day in ’91, with a phone call from the president of the corporation telling him Peugeot would no longer be selling cars in the United States. Peugeot represented the majority of Cota’s business. Although the company provided him with inventory to sell off, and he was still racing, the support money disappeared.

By then, he was the sole owner of the company, having bought out his partner in 1987. He found another partner, and picked up a Mitsubishi franchise in 1993. Things went well for a year, but the business had outgrown the facility and a lot of customers did not want Japanese cars. He bought Auto Sport, a business near the airport, and took the European car business there, leaving the Mitsubishi dealership on 2A.

When the Pecor Nissan dealership on Shelburne Road departed, the decision was made to take the Mitsubishi business there and close the place near the airport, he says, “thinking even with the extra cost, we would sell additional cars down on Shelburne Road. 

“It was a horrible, horrible failure. We had extended ourselves too much; didn’t have the sales on Shelburne Road we expected; the partnership didn’t work; so over the next six years, I was at the point of bankruptcy.”

He decided in December 2000 to close the Shelburne Road location. He had bought off his partner and decided to make a go selling used European cars. “That’s what I did well,” he says. 

Out of money, awash in bills, Cota gave serious thought to quitting the business. He called together his people, who had been with him most of his working life. He laid it on the table. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve got all these bills, a lot of people are suing me, so until some sheriff carries me out, I’ll just keep going.’” Not one employee left. 

It took four years, Cota says, but he paid off the debt. These days, his biggest worry is inventory cost for the 50 or so cars he keeps on the lot. “I have a million dollars worth of cars here, and $15,000 to $25,000 is our average sale. They’re cars off lease, 2 to 3 years old, with 40,000 to 50,000 miles and an after-market warranty.”

Joan Fox, Cota’s wife of almost three years, helps him in the business as a buyer. He hopes that working together will give their marriage the chance his first marriage lacked — he admits he was “kind of married” to his business in those days. His son, Nick, 23, works in the parts department. 

Cota no longer races professionally, but he continues to enter the New England Hill Climb series, currently in a Subaru WRX-sti. He’s class champion again, but says he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold out “with these young guys nipping at my butt.”

Aside from the occasional vacation, the business is still pretty much his life, “but I love what I do,” he says. “We’ve become a pretty good little toy store.” •