Is Toyota of Berkeley the Country’s Oldest Collision Center?

Is Toyota of Berkeley the Country’s Oldest Collision Center?

Years ago, car dealerships did a great job of branding. 

I’d like to know the name of the person who began calling their body shops “collision centers,” because it stuck. Most industry people know a collision center is likely connected to a body shop nowadays, although it’s not the standard. 

I bring this up because recently, Toyota of Berkeley’s Collision Center Manager Paul Orea told me his collision center was opened in 1969, which makes it the oldest in the country. 

I did some research and even consulted our own collision historian Gary Ledoux, and I could not find another of its type that was older than 51 years.

The Bay Area has a rich and long history when it comes to collision repair. 

George V. Arth & Son, the oldest body shop in the country, is in Oakland, CA, just seven miles away from Toyota of Berkeley’s facility. It opened in 1877 and worked on horse-drawn carriages during its early years. 

As someone who started out as a painter and worked his way up to management, one of Orea’s main goals is to develop young talent and set them up for success. He wants Toyota of Berkeley to flourish for many years to come, and knows it can only happen with an infusion of new talent, he said. 

The crew’s newest addition is Augustin Rojas, age 21. Similar to the way Orea progressed within the industry, Rojas is learning by doing and absorbing as much Toyota training as he possibly can. 

“Paul gave me a chance and I definitely appreciate it,” Rojas said. “I have worked on cars since I can remember and have wanted to be a body technician my whole life, so this is a great opportunity. 

"I knew upfront what this job would entail, so I was prepared for the commitment," Rojas said. "I like challenges and this job challenges me every day.”

Orea knows it’s sometimes better to hire a rookie and teach them the Toyota way as opposed to a veteran who is likely to be set in his ways and not open to new technology and ideas. 

“Some of these guys can learn how to do the work, but other things can get in the way,” he said. "When I started in this industry, we didn’t have cellphones, for one. There are so many distractions these days, so if they can’t prioritize and multi-task, they’re going to have trouble in a high-production environment like this.”

Orea was recently involved in a career trade fair at Contra Costa College hosted by its auto tech department, where he was able to get a read on the future of this industry by meeting the techs of tomorrow. 

“More and more young people want to get into this business due to the technology,” he said. “Plus, it’s a trade where they can make a good income and that there will always be jobs if they work hard and have the skills.” 

Staying on top of the new technology as Toyota introduces it is a never-ending learning experience, Orea said. 

“This is an exciting time in collision repair because things are changing rapidly and we know that autonomous cars are going to happen within our lifetimes," he said. "Much of this new ADAS technology was developed for self-driving cars, so when the time comes, we will already know how to diagnose and fix these new features.”

The shop’s Assistant Manager Terrie Thompson is like a second mother for many of the employees, offering advice and award-winning fudge. 

She began working for Toyota of Berkeley in 2005 but entered the industry in 1981, she said. 

“I remember when we used manuals to get the information to do repairs and I still have a few of them at home," Thompson said. "Back then, the cars were not as complex as they are now. Today, they are big computers with four wheels underneath and it has plusses and minuses. They’re harder to repair, so we need more training and equipment to do it right.” 

By cultivating new technicians, painters and estimators, Orea is creating careers, but also keeping his cycle time low and his quality high. 

“It’s encouraging to see what my people are doing and excelling,” he said. “We found some people who are driven and share our passion, so it’s been very fulfilling.”

Ed Attanasio

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

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