Thursday, 12 July 2018 10:57

Oldest Body Shops in America: Bistagne Bros Body Shop

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Tom Bistagne (in truck) and George Bistagne circa 1950 Tom Bistagne (in truck) and George Bistagne circa 1950


If any body shop in America can be called the quintessential post-war body shop, it’s Bistagne Bros Body Shop in Glendale, CA. 

Just out of school and before that devastating December morning in Hawaii, Tom and George Bistagne were already getting their feet wet in the automotive industry. In the backyard of their Glendale home, the two brothers began customizing cars, working on the engines and chassis. They were what one might call a pair of “pioneers” in the California car craze later made famous in movies and music by such artists as The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.

An article about the brothers in the August 1955 edition of the Western Automotive Journal reported that the brothers, “…had a free hand in operations, but not too much financial resources. They turned out some pretty smart rebuilt Fords of which they justly were proud.”

Friends saw their work, liked it and wanted the brothers to work their charm on their own cars. Before they knew it, they had a small business going, customizing cars for friends, neighbors---anyone who saw or appreciated their work. They worked days … they worked nights … they worked on weekends just to keep up. A career in automotive customizing looked promising. And then it all came to an abrupt end when Uncle Sam “requested” their services.

Eventually WWII ended. Tom emerged a captain and George as a first lieutenant. They tried to pick up where they had left off in the customizing business. But after several years of war, rationing and just plain doing without a lot of things, the market just wasn’t there anymore.  Business was “spotty” and not enough to earn a living. So they decided to drop what was not profitable and “specialize.”

Heavy engine work was dropped, as was customizing. Maybe they were visionaries and saw the future of increased post-war car sales and increased miles traveled now that gasoline was no longer rationed. Or, maybe it was just instinctive to the brothers. But they decided to concentrate on body repair and automotive painting.

In 1946, the Bistagne Brothers Body Shop was founded in a rented, 400-square-foot shop on the northeast corner of Chevy Chase and Verdugo in Glendale, CA. The two brothers and a single hired helper now had a clear vision of where they were going and how they were going to get there.

In 1948, the business expanded and a plot of their own real estate, on the southeast corner of the same intersection, was purchased. A purpose-built garage building was erected on the site into which the brothers moved in 1949. As of January 2018, they were at the same site.

A 1955 magazine article notes, “All operations on the 5,000-square-foot lot are under direct Bistagne control except two which are sublet. Vic’s Top Shop is conducted by Victor Roehner, an old Pierce-Arrow craftsman from Buffalo where quality workmanship was a creed. The other sub-tenant is Russell Thomas, who runs a frame and alignment operation in a 40 X 30 foot shop. He has a $5,000 investment in the latest Bear equipment for frame and front end work on which he specializes.

“Mobile equipment of the Bistagne plant consists of two pick-up trucks and a tow car for bringing in wrecks. The firm maintains a fleet of 10 loan cars for the convenience of customers whose vehicles are tied up for service. There is no charge to customers for use of a loan car.”  

By 1955, Tom and George employed “eight metal men, four painters for spot and complete jobs, one glaze and polish man, one frame specialist and one tow truck operator.”

By their own admission, some of their early days in the collision repair business were rough-going financially. In the days before CCC, Mitchell and Audatex, they had no idea what to charge for a repair to ensure that their costs were covered and a fair profit was realized. But eventually they figured it out and “diplomatically declined” those jobs that were not profitable.

In June of 1955, the shop performed the following work: 148 customer-pay jobs for which they collected a cash payment, 114 insurance jobs and 48 miscellaneous jobs. During this period, the shop was part of one of the earliest forerunners of the DRP concept: the Available Garage Plan, which gave them “preferred listings” with insurance companies bringing them “prestige and business from the carriers.”

Only a few years after its founding, Bistagne Bros. began to get recognized for its superior repair work and custom paint jobs. At that time, it used Acme refinish paint exclusively. As was the tradition in the mid-1950s, paint companies put out their own “newsletters” to promote their products and highlight those shops that used their product. In the mid-‘50s, Acme paint dedicated an entire issue to the Bistagne brothers’ work and their use of Acme paint.  The cover of the periodical featured the brothers and a freshly painted bright red Jaguar, with the lovely Miss Glendale at the wheel.

The Bistagnes’ head painter at that time was Dean Avery, a man with 16 years’ experience who used the “Acme Color Eye,” resulting in “excellent color matches.” Avery liked the ability of the shop to create and tint its own paint instead of ordering the “factory-packaged paint” from the local jobbers.

The 1970s saw the second generation of Bistagne brothers (Tom Bistagne’s sons) enter into the office and become part of the family business: Bob Bistagne in 1975 and Chuck Bistagne in 1977.

Over the years, the automotive repair business flourished under the family ownership and management, and expansion was sought yet again. In 1999, an adjacent gas station was purchased and construction was started on expanding the business to encompass the entire southeast corner of the intersection. The new office headquarters opened in 2000.

Over the years, the Bistagne family has been involved in various industry initiatives, including the California Autobody Association, and local civic groups like Rotary.

In 2003, Bistagne Brothers saw its third generation, Robert Bistagne (Bob’s son), enter into shop management. In 1946, one or both Bistagne brothers welcomed each and every customer that stepped on the lot. Today, almost 75 years and three generations later, a member of the Bistagne family continues that same tradition.

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