By Patrick Barnard

As traffic congestion in our area continues to create headaches for commuters, shoppers, or anyone else who needs to use the roads, it has provided steady business for auto body shops including Grant’s Auto Body on the Post Road.

“It’s true that with traffic congestion increasing, we’ve seen an increase the volume of cars that need repairs,” said Peter Grant Sr., a Darien native and owner of the business since 1956. “There’s no great mystery behind the fact that if you have more cars on the road ...  you’re going to have more accidents.”

But as Grant pointed out, auto body shops are increasingly turning the latest in technology and repair equipment to accelerate the repair process and get cars back out on the road fast.

“The increase [in accidents] is compensated for through the way we manage our business — and the fact that were able to repair a car so much more quickly. compared to 20 years ago.” he said, adding that it takes his shop 1 - 2 days for a typical repair job. “That’s mainly because of all the advancements in equipment and the availability of parts. In terms of auto body today, the management end of the business is much more important than actually getting the hammers out.”

Grant’s Auto Body is one of Darien’s oldest businesses - however, it didn’t begin with Grant.
The original business, Bassler’s Auto Body (located at 16 Grove Street. was started by Darien natives Roy Bassler (who handled the auto body work) and Joseph Mason who handled the mechanical work) in 1937.

‘It was two separate businesses operating under one overhead,” Grant said. “At that time, it was the only auto body shop in town.’’

In 1946. Bassler retired and Darien native Tom Grant (Peter’s alder brother - now deceased) stepped in and bought out Bassler’s business - and the name was changed to Mason and Grant Auto Body and Repair. Mason continued to run the mechanical side of the business, sharing space in the tiny two-car garage behind Grieb’s Pharmacy (the original building still stands today).

In 1949, Tom’s younger brother, Peter, began working for the business at age 22.
“Actually, I started working on cars when I was 9.” he said, explaining that he used to hang around a neighborhood gas station when he was young. “Some of the old-timers at the shop took me under their wing - I started fixing flats and changing tires.”

Grant said working on cars in the l940s and 1950s was a” whole different ball game,” compared to today.

“When you were working on cars in those days, you were working more with hand tools ... and with your hands,” he sad, recalling his early years at the auto body shop. “The goal was to re-create the original shape of the metal. You had to unfold it - and pick and file it - all without machinery. Back then, the metal used in cars was thicker and stronger — so it took longer to repair a car.”

Unlike today, car parts were repaired more often than they were replaced.

“A fender was very cheap,” Grant said. “But the labor was even cheaper — So we spent lie time to repair it, rather than replace it. In the 1940s, $2.25 an hour was considered a reasonable labor rate for auto body repair.”

But repairing twisted steel was a time-consuming task.

“We were always busy - mainly because it took so much more time to make the repairs,” Grant said. “Parts were available, but there was always a waiting time to get them, It wasn’t like today, where you have a supplier down the street, and you can get whatever you want with just a phone call.

‘‘1 remember we had a 1931 ‘Model A’ pick-up truck which we used to pick-tip parts,” he recalled. I remember, if we had to go to Stamford and we were using that old truck, we were lucky if it didn’t over-heat, either on the way down or on the way back.”

During the 1950s, the car industry grew by leaps and hounds. Large interstate highways - including I-95 - were being built, and people in Darien were investing their money in two or more cars for their families (often expensive models).

“In the early '50s, car manufacturers got into more models - and a larger variety of colors.” Grant said. “That was mainly because, by then, more women were driving - so the cars were expected to he more stylish. When [a woman] wanted to buy a car, she didn’t want the black one - she wanted a Selection of colors.”

For an auto body shop, this made the task of re-painting a car a bigger challenge.

“Back then, the paint had to he mixed — and it was very difficult to match [the original color] ,“ Grant said. “When we would paint a car after an accident, we would always tell the owner that it wouldn’t be a perfect match - whereas today, you can get it better than 95 percent.”

Even the paint which came directly from the dealerships. “was only an approximate match.”

“We had an enclosed spray area -  which was basically a canvass curtain,” he said. “God only knows what breathing all those fumes did to us. But that’s all changed now, with the latest technology and down-draft spray booths.”

Through the 1950s, working on battered cars continued to be a time-consuming process. But it was also a time when auto body repairmen took a lot of pride in their work.

“The most gratifying part of this work, back then, was being able to restore something back to its original state,” he said. “By that. I mean simply taking a piece of metal - and returning back to it’s original shape. I think that made it all worthwhile.”

‘‘Back then, people took so much more pride in their automobiles,” he added. “Often, when someone would pick up a car, they would come with their own little bag of wrenches, so they could take things apart and put them back together .. and make sure everything was OK. Some of them even came with a ruler to make sure one tail light was the same height as the other.

In I 956. Peter’s brother, Tom, retired from the auto body business due to health problems (he subsequently opened a small pet shop on Heights Road in Noroton Heights). Through a special arrangement. Peter bought-out the business and paid for it over a period of several years.

"Back then. if you wanted to go in to business, you had to sell almost everything you owned first.” he said adding that he did exactly that. To help make ends meet, Grant worked nights repairing milk delivery trucks for companies such as Sealtest and Miller’s Dairy.

"I had very little tune to sleep,” he said. ‘‘But that’s because I had a lot of drive."

Grant and Mason continued to operate side-by-side in the small garage or the next 23 years. Business increased steadily through the late 1950s and 1960s (along with all the cars on the roads) and in 1962 Grant brought his wife. Francis, into the business as bookkeeper a job she has held to the present.

By the mid - 1970s, traffic was everywhere in Darien. and the tiny garage on Grove Street was proving to be too small for all the business which was piling up.

"Not only did business increase - but the extent of the repairs began to increase.’’ Grant said. ‘‘Suddenly the compact cars had come on strong - and the methods for repairs were changing. You couldn’t just straighten things anymore. Everything had to be replaced - so you were constantly ordering and waiting for parts." In the mean time, you had new legislation that was passed - and suddenly there were new regulations for proper repair. You had to repair to [manufacturer’s specifications] I which often meant replacing more parts.’’

In 1977, just when his long-time business associate, Mason, had retired - Grant purchased Mitchell Brothers (owned by former Darien residents Gene and Joe Mitchell) a Texaco service station located at 469 Post Road, and the adjoining piece of property. He had the gas pumps and the in-ground tanks removed, made some modification to the building, and the business became auto body only.

While still in high school in 1981 , Grant’s son, Peter Jr.. began working for the family business. He currently manages the front desk and does all of the estimating and ordering. Grant’s older brother, Jimmy, 81, also works at the shop lull time.

Today, Grant’s Auto Body features a state-of-the-art spray booth and the latest in measuring and straightening machines - including a ‘‘Continental’’ flat-rack frame machine, and the larger “Chief Easy-Liner” straightening bed. Both machines use hydraulics to straighten wrecked cars back to manufacturer’s specifications.

As Grant explained, changes in the insurance industry have led to big changes in auto body repair during tile Past 15 years.

‘‘Insurance claims now makeup about 80 percent of my business,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to follow their systems ... because they’re the ones doing the paying. They do some chopping down on the price ... including our labor rate ... and their rate is all they’ll pay. It’s almost like hospitalization.’’

Grant added, however, that he’s never had a problem completing a full repair on a car due to an insurance dispute.

“For the car ... they’ll always pay.” he said. “It’s the other kinds of claim ... such as personal injury ... where they have the most problems.”

According to Peter Jr. the computerization of the claims process - including the estimating and ordering of parts - has revolutionized the business.

‘‘The day will come when you won’t need an adjustor from the in insurance company to come look at the car anymore,’’ he said. ‘‘You'll just take a digital photograph of the damage ... send it to the claims agent using the internet ... and they’ll tell you whether or not to go ahead with the job.’’

Grant is also an antique car buff. He owns two Ford Model A's and a 1931 Buick - and has won several national competitions, including the annual Automobile club of America shows and the Plymouth Nationals.

 Grant’s Auto Body is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday though Friday. The shop is recognized by all major auto insurance companies, offers 24-hour towing and is a member of the Fairfield County Auto Body Association (which Grant helped found) and the Connecticut Auto Body Association.