Until another shop can step forward and prove that it has been in existence for more than 140 years, George V. Arth & Son is arguably the oldest continually operated, family-owned auto body shop west of the Mississippi, and maybe even in the entire country.
A body shop lasting more than 20 years is considered a good run, and if it can make it to 50, that's a big deal. Successful body shops with long histories can easily stumble along the way for a wide range of reasons, including changes in the economy, too much competition, family issues or other factors. It's a volatile business that has changed tremendously within the last decade, so how does a shop not just survive, but thrive for 140 years?
When George V. Arth opened his shop back in 1877, there were obviously no DRPs, aftermarket parts, supplements, waterborne paint, collision avoidance systems or autonomous vehicles---or even cars, for that matter. It all began when George V. Arth and his family arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area after having made the long journey from Alsace Lorraine, France. A career blacksmith, Arth purchased a small shop named the Oakland Carriage Manufactory and renamed it George V. Arth & Son shortly thereafter.
The business was very successful and quickly became well-known for being adept at fixing every type of horse-drawn buggy in existence at that time. Just like today, the vehicles the shop was repairing became more sophisticated quickly. The business model changed dramatically in the late 1890s when Henry Ford’s “horseless carriages” began dominating the streets of Oakland. Arth realized rather quickly that they would have to reinvent themselves to survive, so they embraced the technology and began repairing and painting these new motorized vehicles. Arth wasn't enamored with these new creations and often told people that they were loud and filled the air with smoke, unlike the horse-drawn carriages they had been working on for almost two decades.
Today, 140 years and eight generations later, George V. Arth & Son is still repairing cars in Oakland, CA, and flourishing, despite experiencing at least five recessions over the last several decades (including the Great One in the 1930s), two major earthquakes and a professional hometown football team that left, returned and is now heading out of town again. Having been located at its current address since 1963, the shop has gained major respect in the Bay Area for its longevity and consistent participation in the California Autobody Association since its inception 50 years ago.
Ron Arth is the great-grandson of George V. and the shop's manager today. He began working at the shop as an adolescent alongside his father, George W. Arth, Jr. and his brother, George Arth III. Ron believes that his shop is the oldest in the West, but he isn’t sure if it’s the oldest in the country. A national trade publication had a contest back in the early 1970s and found two older shops located on the East Coast, but that was almost 40 years ago, and Arth has no idea if those two shops are still in business.
“To be safe, we just refer to our shop as being the oldest family-owned shop west of the Mississippi,” Ron Arth said. “I can’t imagine that there are very many body shops, or even mechanical shops, that have been in continuous operation for 140 years."
When his father, George W. Arth, Jr., stepped down and retired on his 65th birthday, Ron took on full responsibility and management of the shop. His father is still going strong at age 86 and stops by the shop on a regular basis---usually three to four times a week---just to check in, Ron said.
“My father still plays a role here and actively attends Oakland Rotary meetings every Thursday,” Ron said. “These connections to the city were built over years and years of living and working here, and they still help us keep the shop going strong. We fix cars for people whose parents and grandparents started coming here many years ago. When we recognize their last names, it's always satisfying.”
George W. Arth, Jr. was also one of the founding members of the East Bay Autobody Association, now known as the East Bay Chapter of the California Autobody Association. Ron’s father served as the organization's president and was on the board of the association for many years before finally retiring. Ron has followed in those same footsteps by serving on the organization’s board and as president of the association for several years as well.
Arth cites several reasons for the company’s longevity and ongoing success, and customer service is right at the top of his list.
“The fact that we’ve always been a family-run business is important," he said. "People like to see the same faces every time they bring their car in. It provides them with a sense of stability in what is usually a stressful situation. It also allows us to build relationships, which really are the foundation of our business."