Building the Valley: New Kensington transmission shop owner keeps ‘dying art’ alive

When the transmission on a 16-year-old vehicle breaks, many people might take that as a sign it’s time to buy a new car.

Carmen Jones isn’t one of those people. When the Arnold man’s 2008 Lincoln MKX broke down and needed its transmission replaced, he knew where to take it.

“I had it towed to the only place I know, my man Mike,” Jones said on a Wednesday in February when he came to take his repaired SUV home from Mike’s Wholesale Transmission in New Kensington.

In 15 years, Mike DiFrancesca Jr. has put transmissions in three of Jones’ vehicles.

“Mike’s been good to me,” Jones said. “He’s a good man, and he treats people well.”

DiFrancesca, 50, of Plum has owned the business since 2008, first at 315 Ninth St., where the building still bears signs of its previous presence, and for the past eight years at 710 Fifth Ave. He moved, he said, because it was time for him to own his building rather than rent.

He and his wife of 24 years, Jamie, have two daughters, Bella, 16, and Mia, 14.

DiFrancesca’s father, Mike Sr., and younger brother, Dominic, have run their own business, Aluminum City Hot Rods, on the transmission shop’s second floor for seven years.

A 1991 graduate of Plum High School, DiFrancesca previously worked on transmissions at chain stores. He bought the transmission business from Ronald J. Ciciarelli, who started it in 1983. He retired to North Carolina, where he died in March 2022.

“He was a scrapper. He kept getting transmissions. He’d tear them apart for the cases to smelt,” DiFrancesca said. “They decided there had to be a better use for the parts and opened a transmission shop.”

DiFrancesca worked a couple of years with Ciciarelli to prepare take it over upon his retirement.

With two employees in addition to himself, most of the work they do is repairing, building and installing transmissions, but they also do other minor mechanical repairs.

Transmission work is a specialty that is a dying art, DiFrancesca said.

“There’s very few people coming into the field to replace anybody,” he said.

When “Cash for Clunkers” came along in 2009, encouraging people to get rid of old cars for new and more efficient ones, DiFrancesca’s business took a hit, he said. But during and since the pandemic, with new cars unavailable or people choosing to keep their vehicles, he said he has been fixing more than ever.

Transmissions are still repairable but repairs are typically beyond the scope of the average person’s skill set because of advancements in technology.

“The stereotypical mechanic is gone,” said DiFrancesca, who keeps up on technology through seminars and online classes.

While vehicles are built better than they used to be, parts still wear out.

“In the 1980s and ’90s, seeing an odometer go over 100,000 miles was a family event,” DiFrancesca said. “Now we expect way more out of a car than ever before. We’re expecting a lot out of them.”

But fixing a transmission isn’t cheap. Rebuilding one can cost between $1,500 to the mid-$4,000s. In some cases, a single part can cost $1,000.

“Nobody wants to come here,” he said. “It would be nice if we sold ice cream cones so people would want to visit us.”

Maintenance is the best way to avoid that kind of a bill, DiFrancesca said. See a spot under your vehicle? Find out what it is.

“A leak will kill a transmission faster than anything,” he said.

Mike’s Wholesale Transmission has been consistently busy over its 16 years. With transmission shops not found on every corner, DiFrancesca said he draws customers from Pittsburgh to Kittanning.

“People travel,” he said. “They travel for good work.”

During New Kensington’s hardest times, DiFrancesca said he had to spread his marketing efforts farther for customers. With the city experiencing something of a rebirth, he sees more business from the immediate area.

Because there were four or five jobs ahead of his, Jones said he had to wait more than two months to get his SUV back.

“I had to wait my turn,” he said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a TribLive reporter covering news in New Kensington, Arnold and Plum. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College, Brian has been with the Trib since December 2000. He can be reached at [email protected].

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