Award-winning Mistlin a salesman extraordinaire

Tony Mistlin recalled a day when, as a young car salesman on San Francisco's busy Van Ness Avenue, he showed colleagues just what he could do.

He walked out to a random car at a stoplight, asked if the driver wanted to buy a vehicle from the dealership and closed the sale that same day.

"Dad was a born salesman," said his son, Gary, during a Wednesday evening program saluting Mistlin's long service to the Modesto area. "It turns out he had a knack for selling cars."

Mistlin, now owner of Mistlin Honda on McHenry Avenue, received the Champions of the American Dream award. It has been presented 16 times since 1998 to area businesspeople.

The award is sponsored by Prime Shine Express Car Wash, the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance and The Bee.

Mistlin's wife, Joan, and their daughters Gala Lindvall and Melody Mistlin also were there to enjoy the event.

About 150 people listened as Mistlin, 82, told his life story at the State Theatre event. It's a story that touched on war and Hollywood and philanthropy, as well as the car business.

Mistlin was born in London and, at age 15, was sent to New York City by his parents because of the onset of World War II. He spent a year at New York University and in 1943 became a pilot and navigator in the Canadian Air Corps.

After the war, he tried several occupations. He opened an advertising agency in London, sold magazines door to door in New York, waited tables in Miami. He then followed his father into the movie business, working first in theater management for MGM and later in distribution for RKO Pictures.

In 1948, while he was with RKO in San Francisco, his roommate suggested he get into car sales. He got a job at Ellis Brooks Hudson, later Ellis Brooks Chevrolet, and worked his way up to new car sales manager.

In 1964, Mistlin moved to Modesto and put all of his savings into a struggling Buick dealership downtown. He moved it to McHenry Avenue in 1967 and in 1974 added the Honda line, which eventually became his sole product.

Today, it's the largest Honda dealership in Northern California, employing nearly 100 people and selling about 1,000 vehicles a year. Mistlin still works there almost every morning.

He said his greatest challenge was dealing with a 1969 plane crash that killed six of his employees. They were flying to Stockton in a private plane to celebrate a Buick sales award.

"It's still hard to talk about," Mistlin said. "It's hard to think about."

He said he has long known the value of hard work, whether it was cleaning bathrooms in the Air Corps or running a car dealership. And honesty counts, too.

"Modesto is still a small town," Mistlin said. "It has a lot of people, but everybody seems to know everybody, and if you don't treat someone right, it's going to come back to hurt you."

Shaun Toma, a Ceres High School student who came to the event with his leadership class, said Mistlin impressed him.

"I thought that was an inspiring story -- just the fact that he put up all that he had for something that could have been a disaster," he said.

Mistlin is a major supporter of the arts and is especially known for donating fountains. Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon, where he lives, is named for him. Within a few blocks of the site of Wednesday's event are the Mistlin Art Gallery and the Chief Estanislao fountain.

"All you have to do is walk through this downtown and walk through Ripon and you know Tony has given back," said Paul Van Konynenburg, chairman of the alliance board.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.