Origins of the California Autobody Association as it Celebrates 50 Years

CAA History
Art D'Angelo, Sr. (third from left) worked as a 3M sales representative for many years before purchasing an existing paint company with two stores. He was the CAA's first president and many consider him the founder as well.

The California Autobody Association (CAA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year after serving the collision repair industry in the Golden State since 1966.

This non-profit trade association consists of more than 1,000 individual and independent businesses within the automobile collision repair industry. Its mission is to enable the auto body industry to survive and prosper by helping its members to produce a quality repair for the consumer at a fair price for a reasonable profit.

Many people know the name and the acronym (CAA), but how many people working at body shops right now in California know anything about the genesis and early years of this organization?

Sadly, most of the people who know about the inception of the CAA are no longer alive to tell their stories. Fortunately, several of their descendants know the history and are willing to share it.

One of those history-gatherers is Art D'Angelo, the son of Art D'Angelo, Sr., who is considered to be the Godfather of the CAA. Although D'Angelo, Sr. never owned a body shop or worked in one, he was in a prime position to bring together shop owners who were feuding big time in the early and mid-1960s.

D'Angelos Automotive and Industrial Coatings, with its headquarters in Oxnard, CA, was started in 1956 by D'Angelo, Sr. who began his career in the industry as a 3M Sales Representative. Art started with two locations in Glendale and Van Nuys, CA when he purchased Acme Color Service and then changed the name to D'Angelos and Sons in 1965.

Art D'Angelo remembers his father's colorful anecdotes about the early formative years of the CAA. "Back in those days, the insurance companies would have a damaged car towed to one shop and then invite other shops to go there and write an estimate. It's hard to believe, but that's how they did it."

This method logically led to animosity between the competing shops and also caused other drama, according to D'Angelo. "First off, they started poaching away each other's employees and that made it worse. Then, if another shop got the job and they had to come and take the vehicle out of the first shop... Man, that got ugly."

Once, a shop owner whose name is being withheld for obvious reasons decided that he was tired of watching cars being removed from his shop. "It was a Cadillac as I recall, and the other shop was coming to tow it out when he took a sledgehammer and did a lot more additional damage to the car," D'Angelo said. "'Now, have some fun fixing that one', he told the tow truck driver. When the other shop saw all the new damage to the vehicle, the situation obviously started to escalate."

As a paint jobber and a 3M rep before that, D'Angelo, Sr. was in a prime position to act as a moderator and a peacemaker between competing shops, his son explained. "My father was calling on all the shops, so he started to see the conflicts firsthand," D'Angelo said. "He began talking to the shop owners and telling them that the other owners weren't really bad people.'You're going to have to figure out a way to work with these guys, because otherwise the insurance companies will let you fight it out' he told them."

Slowly but surely, the owners started listening to D'Angelo, Sr., which eventually led to the very first meeting of the Glendale Autobody Association, according to D'Angelo. "It was at Foxy's Restaurant in Glendale, and my father had to actually do a seating plan, because everyone thought these guys might get into fisticuffs. That's how much they disliked each other!"

That meeting went well and that's how the Glendale Autobody Association was born. "The Glendale chapter eventually became the CAA," he said. "Some shop owners in the Long Beach area soon started their own chapter and then the South Bay followed and it just grew from there."

Another current body shop owner whose uncle was one of the first members of the Glendale Autobody Association is Chuck Bistagne, owner of Bistagne Brothers Body Shop in Glendale. Founded in 1946 by Brothers Tom and George Bistagne, the shop has survived everything, including those early feuding years.

"Glendale and Long Beach were the originators, and that's why the CAA exists now," Bistagne said. "My Uncle George got involved right at the beginning. In the early 1970s, the shop owners up in San Francisco opened their own chapter and that's why CAA started to form. They wanted an umbrella organization to manage the chapters and give them a statewide presence. The first shop owners who joined are the pioneers in this industry in California. By figuring out a way to work together and act professionally, the shops were able to flourish and succeed in a business that was changing dramatically."

To attract body shop owners to that first meeting, D'Angelo, Sr. decided to provide a little entertainment, Bistagne said. "Art got a film of that year's Indianapolis 500, and that got the people there. Back then, they did not broadcast the race on TV, so it was a smart move."

Those initial meetings also helped body shop owners in many ways, Bistagne said. "These guys compared notes, which was excellent. They learned how to write solid estimates and how to work better with the insurance companies in order to get paid. Up until then, they were all in the dark about these things, but by sharing information, the industry in California became stronger overall."

That first chapter needed some strong leadership, and Art D'Angelo, Sr. was the man with the plan, according to Bistagne. "Art was the perfect person for the role, because the body shop owners did not see him as a competitor," he explained. "To work with all of these owners and find some common ground that they could build on was brilliant, and that is why every shop in the state should credit Art D'Angelo, Sr. for being the founder of the CAA."

One of the first things shop owners figured out was how to to get past the practice of doing estimates at other area shops. "There were a few shops that said no way---we're not going into another body shop to make an estimate," Bistagne said. "Some others figured out a way to keep the cars in their shops, by basically rigging the bids. The invading shop agreed to make sure that their estimate was a little higher, so that they would not get the car. I believe that this eventually led to the advent of the insurance staff appraiser, so that the insurers at least could know what was going on with these estimates."

Ed Attanasio

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

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