SPECIAL TO THE HERALD
NEW BRITAIN - Brian Teske of Southington stopped by Dalena Auto Parts on Glen Street the other day to pick up a couple of headlights for his minivan.
“I always head here when I need something like this,” he said. “My family has been coming to Dalena’s for 60 years. There’s no better place in the state to get auto parts.”
Apparently, others agree. Ever since 1953, when Dalena Auto Parts opened, the three-generation family-owned company with Plainville roots has built a loyal clientele. Dalena offers a full line of parts for domestic and foreign cars, trucks and buses. It also runs a complete machine shop for commercial customers including Tilcon, Manafort, Dattco and the city of New Britain.
“New Britain is incredibly fortunate to have such dedicated businesses like Dalena Auto Parts, which has called our city home for more than six decades,” Mayor Erin Stewart said recently, while noting the business’ 54 years in the central business district. “Their success is testament to the quality of their business and attention to customer service.”
Over the years, the Dalenas have built close relationships in the business community. Don Dalena, 88, recalls building a cottage in Harwinton with his friend, the late developer Angelo Tomasso. Dalena doubts that he could do that kind of work now and admits that his legs bother him a bit from time to time.
“What do you expect?” his doctor told him. “You’ve been walking on concrete for 60 years.”
Other than his legs, Dalena is as sharp as one of his shop’s grinding machines and looks younger than his age.
This longstanding family business includes Don, who ran the business after his father died; his brother, Peter, 82; and Don’s two sons and current co-owners, Peter and Dan. For decades, the store offered auto and industrial parts. Dalena has only one computer in his office, which he doesn’t bother to use.
“See all these catalogs on our shelves?” he aks. “We still rely on them.”
Ask him about annual sales and he shrugs his shoulders. “We won’t know until our accountant tells us,” he says with a laugh.
Don’s father, the late Peter Dalena Sr., founded the shop in 1953. A master trained machinist, he had served in the U.S. Army in France in World War I, working on motorbikes. Following the war, Peter Dalena went to work with Louis H. Weiner Stores as a machinist. Then in 1953, when Don and Peter were discharged from the U.S. Air Force, and their brother Cosams, known as “Cozy,” decided to leave heavy construction work, their father convinced them to join him in a family business.
With a $3,300 bank loan, Peter Dalena bought a shop on Arch Street from Banner Auto equipment. The area was cramped, making the work hard. So in 1963, when a new, larger facility became available on Glen Street, the Dalenas wasted little time in acquiring it.
In the early 1960s, the family built modified race cars that won championships at Plainville Stadium. Years later, Dan Dalena became a championship driver at Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts.
“We had our hands in most of the cars that raced in Plainville and at Riverside,” Don said.
Though its race car days are now a memory, the business hasn’t been hurt by the state’s lagging economy.
The real money-maker in recent years has been the store’s machine shop. “We can do anything to repair vehicles,” Don said. “Engine work, crank shaft jobs, grinding and cylinder operations. Most car dealers and auto service chains don’t want to touch this kind of work. For them it’s too difficult, too messy.”
Don Dalena acknowledges that machine shops like theirs are becoming as rare. However, car buyers still need their services, as do contractors and city government.
“People will spend two or three hundred dollars at (national retailers) for an auto part, then bring the part down here and let us do the dirty work of putting it in,” Don said.
Will Dalena Auto Parts still service customers after the family is gone? Don doesn’t know.
“Nobody wants to buy our shop,” he said. “Who wants to do the kind of work we do? My boys are smart enough to run the business, to know when there’s engine trouble and how to fix it.”
The Dalenas have no special plans to celebrate their shop’s 65th anniversary next year.
“We offer discounts now,” said Don Dalena. “We don’t need a special event like an anniversary celebration to give our customers a price break.”
Though the Dalena family may shy away from a big celebration, New Britain natives like Stewart said it’s important to note the contribution of family businesses to the city’s character and economy.
“Small, local businesses are the heart of our local economy,” the mayor said. “I wish the Dalenas many more years of success.”