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Meeting the Demand

Flanagan Motors remains a community classic

Shannon Flanagan’s roots in Missoula’s car culture run deep. It’s in his DNA: his father began selling cars in the 1960s for H.O. Bell, Missoula’s original Ford dealer dating back to the early 20th century. Shannon’s father then started Flanagan Motors as a used-car dealership in 1975 when Shannon was five years old. Whether nature or nurture, Shannon became a car guy who’s been in the automotive business since he turned eighteen.Since their beginning, along with the town in which they’ve become an institution, Flanagan Motors has seen its share of upheavals and changes.

“I’ve been on my own as a business owner in Missoula now since 2012, and it’s been up-and-down,” Shannon says of the car business. While today they are solidly a Mazda franchise, they’ve also had their hands in a slew of other makes, including AMC, Jeep, Renault, and Lincoln-Mercury, and they’ve seen bankruptcies and restructuring remake their business time and again.

Furthermore, the overall landscape of the automotive trade has utterly transformed in that time, in two big ways: technology and information.

“The biggest thing that’s changed in the industry since I started selling cars is that information is so readily available. And I actually embrace that, I think that’s a good thing,” Shannon says. “Even though you still have to build confidence with your customer, they come in with a set of information they believe in. Our dialogue with customers is usually making sure their set of information aligns with ours. Nine times out of 10 it does, and that makes our job a lot swifter and easier.”

On the subject of technology, Shannon is similarly open-minded.

“Cars are now basically technology hangars,” he continues. “They have this massive suite of technology that makes things easier and safer. And that’s changed our service business. In the '80s, '90s, 2000s, we used to do a lot of heavy repair work and we’re doing less and less of that every year. Nowadays with warranty repairs, it’s like a refresh of a computer: you download a new program and off you go. We’re going to be looking at manufacturers with over-the-air updates and a more unified manufacturing process. All of this is coming down the road, and it’s really exciting.”

So, Shannon Flanagan does not shy away from change, and is in fact quite optimistic about it. Which is a good quality for a Missoulian to have. When he was born in 1970, Missoula’s population hovered around 30,000 people. Today it’s creeping up to 80,000. Along with a more-than doubled population, the primary industry in town during the same period has shifted dramatically from logging and forest products.

“It polluted the whole valley with woodsmoke,” Shannon says. “There were fewer sunny days then than we get now.” 

Now there are cleaner jobs, primarily in the tech and medical sectors. The sky has cleared--at least a little bit--and the present is a little bit brighter. Flanagan Motors has been here through it all, a pillar in an ever-changing community, and Shannon is excited to usher the business into the future.

In some ways, Shannon Flanagan is like an artist, providing the community what it subconsciously needs.

“I always think of American culture as car culture,” Shannon says.

The model that Flanagan Motors sells that embodies this spirit is the MX-5, popularly known as the Miata. It’s one of Mazda’s flagship models, by some measures the most popular sports car in automotive history in terms of units produced and sold. “It’s the one that everybody recognizes,” Shannon says. “It’s super fun to drive, compact, nimble, economical, and also reliable.” And in many ways, the Miata represents an ideal for the Montana adventurer, a mindset and ethos that Shannon Flanagan knows intimately.

“Customers have wants that they want fulfilled, and they have this ideal in their mind about driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road with the top down, or heading to Yellowstone National Park, or hitting Highway 12 and following the Clearwater all the way to Lewiston, Idaho,” Shannon says. “I think in Montana specifically there’s an ideal where people want to be out. They want to go on an adventure, they want to explore, they want their car to take to them to the base of a mountain they can hike to the top of. All these things are really important to Missoulians.”