Day Job/Night Job: The ‘California Godfather’ of Collision Repair Taps Into His Artistic Side

Wire Sculpture
When you visit Vigiani’s Auto Body & Paint in Yuba City, CA, you meet its permanent customer, depicted in a wire sculpture created by the shop owner Charlie Vigiani.

Charlie Vigiani owns Vigiani’s Auto Body & Paint in Yuba City, CA, where people call him “The Godfather of Collision Repair.”

He’s well-known for performing quality work for all of his customers---an offer they can’t refuse. He has also received a lot of praise for his wire sculptures from his customers, employees and even other artists.

Viagini has 50 years of experience in collision repair from several different perspectives, as a former technician, manager, independent appraiser and finally as an auto body shop owner.

Vigiani believes fixing a car correctly is an art form, and techs and painters are truly artisans whose work should be in museums and art galleries. A pristine panel or a stellar paint job displayed alongside a Warhol or a Van Gogh? It could happen.

As an artist himself, Vigiani has been creating wire sculptures for the past 30-plus years, receiving accolades from people worldwide.

When the time to retire finally arrives, Vigiani will be able to dedicate more time to his artistic endeavors.

Even when things get hectic at the shop, Vigiani finds the time to create something unique using simply wire and his creative zeal. It’s art therapy and a great way for him to unwind when things get stressful after a long day returning vehicles to their pre-accident condition, he said.

Vigiani's story begins in the Bronx, where his first job was shining shoes for local businessmen. After running out of local customers, Vigiani ventured outside of his neighborhood looking for more people and more shoes to shine.

One day, a beautiful red Corvette came backing out of an alley and nearly hit him. The man pushing the vehicle was a car painter who owned a small shop and he had a few pairs of shoes that needed shining. "Bonanza," Vigiani thought, but he was also intrigued about what was happening inside the shop.

Living a life that looked like something out of the movie "Goodfellas," Vigiani started hanging out at the body shop, and pretty soon he was a fixture there. The painter/owner of the shop was a guy named Cheo.

“He gave me three pairs of nice shoes to shine, so I was thinking I’m rich. He gave me $5 and I figured I can retire now," Vigiani said. "I started observing what was going on in the shop, and pretty soon, I started meeting the customers, mostly Italian, and saw what a perfectionist Cheo really was. It was a great learning experience.”

Vigiani broke into the industry the old school way---by starting at the bottom sweeping floors and dumping the trash. In the Bronx, working on wise guys' Lincolns and Cadillacs, Vigiani must have thought Martin Scorsese was directing the movie of his life.

“I worked at that shop for three years and Cheo taught me everything,” he said. “The man stressed things like precision and quality and I absorbed it all.”

One day, Cheo died---of natural causes---which left Vigiani without a job or a mentor.

“I missed the day-to-day and the interaction that happens in a busy shop,” he said. “I also missed the money that I was making there, so I got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant and figured my days fixing cars were over.”

Vigiani gets rave reviews for his creations, including a saxophone player and a bull made out of wire.

A few weeks later, Vigiani ran into a gentleman in his neighborhood who said, "Hey kid, how much do you charge to fix a quarter panel?” Vigiani saw dollar signs instantly and knew all the right answers.

“I told the guy $50 and he said do it,” he said. “I borrowed my dad’s toolbox without telling him and eventually bought some new tools once I had a little cash in my pockets. I started getting a ton of referrals and doing two to three cars every week. Now I look back at it and realize my work was terrible, but they loved it anyway!

"This body stuff is cool, I thought, and the money was great. I could earn $50 washing plates for eight hours, or take home $100 to $200 every day fixing cars. I did the body work and these people were thrilled.”

Was Vigiani making more money than all of his classmates? Fuggedaboutit!

After selling cars for a short time and pursuing other job opportunities in New York, California began calling Vigiani's name, so he made the big move from NYC to Silicon Valley, home of Apple and lots of expensive vehicles with accident-prone drivers.

“I opened my first body shop in San Jose, and I named it Dent City,” he said. “I was only 21, but I had been involved in the industry for 10 years by then. Forty-three years later, I am still using a lot of the things I learned during those years.” As a young entrepreneur who was fearless but a little over confident, Vigiani experienced a reality check that changed his life both personally and professionally.

“I found out about a meeting of the Santa Clara chapter of the California Autobody Association (CAA), so I thought I’m going to check it out. When I walked into the room, I saw a packed room full of people in suits. I thought, I must be in the wrong room," he said.

"An old body shop owner told me to sit down next to him and what I heard changed my life. I thought I knew everything, but I learned so much that night," he said. "They introduced me to the BAR, I-CAR, OE certifications---things that are vital for any shop. I needed to become a student and pretty quickly, I stopped destroying vehicles and began fixing them the right way.”

Vigiani has been the president of the Santa Clara chapter of CAA several times and encourages his technicians, estimators and front office people to take I-CAR classes and continually enrich themselves.

“I’ve worked for a lot of different shops over the years, including as a senior manager for an MSO and as an independent insurance appraiser for two years. Each time I gained a lot of knowledge that I still use today.”

Twelve years ago, Vigiani bought an existing shop in Yuba City and put his name on the sign out front.

“We had zero cars, no tools and no employees at first, but things steadily came together and pretty soon we had seven people working here.” Viagini learned how to do wire sculptures in the 1970s when he was living in Puerto Rico after relocating there from NYC. He was looking for a way to make some money, and repairing cars was not an option at that time.

“I saw these guys on the beach selling these wire sculptures and I thought---wow, I can do this!" Vigiani said. "So, I began making sculptures of bows and arrows, boats, fishermen, birds---you name it. I sold them for $10 to $15 each and on some days, I could sell three to four of them. Each one takes me two to three hours to complete, and I love doing them. I actually made a living doing it for a while at age 18 to 19, and the experience also helped me with my sales techniques.”

Haggling with tourists who wanted to buy his creations is part of the game, and Vigiani wasn’t afraid to negotiate his prices in order to make a sale. Being bilingual was definitely a plus too, he said.

“People just assumed that I spoke only Spanish, so I would go with it,” he said. “But it gave me an advantage because I knew what they were saying. ‘See if he will take less,’ they would say, but once I started talking in English, they were a little surprised and I usually got my asking price.” With several of his sculptures displayed in his shop’s reception area, Vigiani is proud of his art and has no plans to stop doing it.

“I have an abstract sculpture of a man reading a newspaper that our customers see when they walk in, and they always go right to it---they love it!”

Although he does not have any plans to retire from the collision repair industry any time soon, Vigiani, 64, can envision a future involving his sculptures.

“I love fishing and I love doing these sculptures, so both of those things will be on my to-do list when I finally step away from the business.”

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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