New Canaan Now & Then: Karl Chevrolet


Karl Chevrolet was founded in 1927 by Leo and Emil Karl, two of seven brothers. Photo courtesy of the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

‘New Canaan Now & Then’ is sponsored by Brown Harris Stevens Realtors Joanne Santulli, Karen Ceraso, Bettina Hegel and Schuyler Morris.

As most people know, the Karl family has a long history in New Canaan, which began when John Karl opened his own garage at 10 South Avenue in 1915. 

John was the eldest of the Karl brothers who had lived in Milford, Connecticut, on the family farm before settling in New Canaan. Before striking out on his own, John had been the vice president and manager of the Central Garage. In February 1915, a contest organized by the Colonial Theater was held for the most “popular garage man” and, in December 1915, John Karl was in the lead with 145 votes, followed by Ed Nidd (130), William Simmon (75) and the Johnson Brothers (65). In March 1920, John purchased the grounds of the New Canaan Cab Company on Railroad Avenue and moved his business there.

John Karl’s brothers, Leo and Emil, purchased the struggling Friedman Chevrolet franchise in 1927. The rear of the garage was built in 1928. Emil left to start his own business in 1930. During the first year the new dealership sold thirty-four new cars and thirty eight used cars. In the 1930s every Saturday car owners stopped by for their weekly car maintenance which included fuel and oil fill up and air for tires. During the war sale of new cars was prohibited so Karl maintained a repair garage and gas station. When the war ended and people were clamoring for cars, Leo Karl opposed the practice of playing “favorites” and treated his customers fairly, refusing to move people to higher positions on the lengthy wait list for vehicles. 

Karl Chevrolet has been a multi generational affair since its inception, with Leo Jr. and Harry Karl working after school. The second generation of Karl brothers, Leo, Harry, and Paul, were expected to do all jobs from pumping gas, selling cars, and replacing fan belts. Archived newspapers are full of tales of the Karl family, including a brothers reunion fishing trip in Long Island in September 1938, and a 70th birthday celebration for their father Stephen in 1932 where they presented him with a purse of gold.

Leo and his wife, Rose Kelley Karl, had five children – Mary, Henry, Leo Jr., Edward and Paul. Rose had come from a family of fifteen children and she was the only girl of the seven sisters to marry. She was profiled in the NewCanaanite on December 4, 2015. Leo Jr. graduated from college in 1951 and three weeks later his father died at the age of 50, leaving him and his brothers to run the business. The Karl brothers were fortunate to have their cousin, Homer Kelley, act as manager of the Chevrolet dealership until 1957 when Leo was named manager. Homer Kelley had worked in the company since 1929 and was familiar with the business. Harry Karl, brother of Leo Jr., had two sons, Mike and Edward, who gained experience in the service end of the business which became their forte. In 1957 Leo Jr. was named dealer of the year by Chevrolet. In 1962 Karl Chevrolet started a pension benefits plan for their employees because, as Leo Karl Jr. explained, it was a way to show their appreciation. In 1958 Leo Karl Jr. married his wife, Katherine. Harry Karl died in 1995. Leo E. Karl III took over as CEO in February 1997. His brother, Steve, is the vice president of sales. Steve Karl married his high school sweetheart Tracey in 1987. Tracey Karl in her own right has a strong track record of volunteering in town, including serving as president of the All Sports Booster Club over her ten year commitment to the program.

The Karl Chevrolet complex consists of six former parcels. The original facility is located on the site of the Town of New Canaan Garage and dump. The building was modernized in 1933. In 1946 the company bought the property to the west to provide parking. In 1954 the property to the east was purchased. Eventually two other parcels to the east and another to the west were added to house previously owned vehicles and parking. The fully equipped service department opened in 1959. The sales department continued out of the old tin highway garage. The present showroom, parts department, and offices opened in July 1979. A New Canaan Advertiser ad dated November 18, 1971 shows a photo of the new paved lot. 

In December 1996, 32,000 vehicles had been sold by the business and the service department wrote its millionth service order. In 1997, Karl Chevrolet was chosen as the University of Connecticut’s Nozko family business of the year. The 70th anniversary of the business was celebrated by making contributions to local charities serving families and children as well as the fire department. In 2000, Karl Chevrolet was the largest seller of Suburbans in the Northeast.

Karl Chevrolet is now in its third generation of family ownership, having been in business for over 90 years. The Karl family has a tradition of community involvement, taking on many roles including serving on the Town Council, the Board of Education, and the Health and Human Services Commission in New Canaan. The family business continues to hold the strong values of its original founders and supports many local charities in our town and neighboring communities. 

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