Cliff Casolla is busy rebuilding the past.
Story David Bolling | Photos Steven Krause
When Cliff Cassola was born, Bob Marshall was waist deep in used fenders, bumpers, frames and other mechanical detritus at his Glen Ellen auto body business, which sometimes looked not unlike a wrecking yard.
The decades-long owner of Marshall’s Body Shop, an iconic and beloved figure in the culture and history of Glen Ellen, Marshall could fix anything and paint anything, but he couldn’t always find something once it had been swallowed by the parts graveyard behind his Arnold Drive shop.
There was a charming if challenging chaos to Bob’s business, but everyone who knew him loved him, and the quality of his work was superb, as was his generosity in extending credit and kindness to local customers.
When Marshall retired and sold the business in 2000, he left it in the able hands of Kevin Flores, who continued the shop’s tradition of servicing the community’s needs, no matter how small or large the challenge. But then, a year ago, Flores decided he too wanted to sell and, again, by some sort of alchemical serendipity, the right buyer came calling.
Cliff Casolla grew up working with cars. It was part of the family tradition. “We were always tinkering and building on something,” he says. His father has a custom furniture business and favors classic cars, including, says Cliff, a disassembled 1956 Chevy Bel Air in need of some Casolla restoration. “I always loved to see the transformation of bringing old cars back to life,” he explains, from his seat behind the small desk, inside the tiny office where Bob Marshall once held automotive court.
On a stand in front of his office window sits an immaculate, custom-built V-8 engine waiting for an appropriate transplant. And on the wall above him there’s a shelf filled end-to-end with model cars, neatly organized and perfectly painted. “Every Christmas,” Casolla explains, “my dad and I would build model cars. I have probably 100 of them now.”
Translating that automotive passion into a career took Cassola some time (he’s now 30), and a temporary trip down a very different career path. He studied criminal law at Sonoma State University, intending to become a member of the bar. “I thought I wanted the security of making $500 an hour and wearing a suit,” he says with a rueful smile.
But all the while he moonlighted as a mechanic, maintaining a little two-car garage on Broadway where he exercised his mechanical brain and his creative hands for a small group of select car customers, one of them being Sonoma philanthropist, investor and patron of the arts Simon Blattner. More on that later.
Casolla got his degree from SSU in 2009 and then enrolled in the San Francisco Police Academy, thinking law enforcement might be another good entry point to the field of criminal justice. He spent time on the street as a San Francisco cop, but came home to the Sonoma Valley for nights and weekends as he continued to mess around with machines. He worked with and learned from a number of skilled craftsmen, people he refers to as, “an older generation in the trades, a dying breed. You can learn things from the pros you can’t learn in trade school.”
But at some point he woke up and realized that, between hours he spent as a police officer and the time he put into his one-man auto repair shop (never mind the 101 and 37 commute), he was burning 90 hours a week.
“I just felt like my drive and passion was directing me toward cars,” he says now, as a stunning, black 1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II gleams in the carport at the front of the shop. Still, to move beyond his modest enterprise on Broadway and open a real commercial operation would take some real commercial money.
Cliff Casolla is a good candidate for the axiom that intention and decision are the first steps to success. First, he nourished the intention to follow his father’s advice to do what he loved. Next he made the decision to go for it, giving up a salary, a pension and the early retirement of a cop for none of the above. Then he collected all his savings and talked to Simon Blattner who, besides being wise in the ways of business, is also an investor with his wife, Kimberly, in a micro-loan program, administered through the social service agency La Luz, to help new Valley businesses get on their feet.
With his own money, and a micro-loan in hand, Casolla was able to buy Marshall’s Garage and kick the dream in gear. An added bonus: He lives in Glen Ellen and can bike or run to work.
The first thing he did was slap some white paint on the aging structure, which looked like it hadn’t had a new coat since the 1930s when it was the only gas station between Sonoma and Santa Rosa.
Then he meticulously reconstructed the original Marshall’s Body Shop sign out of a new piece of plywood because so many screws and nails had been driven through the old one that it was perforated, he says, like Swiss cheese.
The fact that he cared enough to preserve the shop’s original identity—a familiar part of the town’s image—has made a positive impression on many locals. He also hauled away container loads of junked car parts dating back to Bob Marshall’s days, meticulously reorganized and decorated the shop, using old fence boards to face one wall and the bathroom which, at one time, required real courage to enter.
Casolla has added two hydraulic lifts to enhance mechanical work, and his restoration of the shop has been so meticulous that, to keep it that way, he re-sprays the paint booth with high-gloss white every two weeks.
Now he is intent on building a business based on the premise that you only get the kind of handmade quality that master craftsmen achieve when you do it with pride.
“I feel I’m more concerned and more involved,” says Casolla. “I don’t just spit them out. It’s a great feeling when you get the job done right, like a fine painting.” And while he admits, “I get the most satisfaction from custom work,” he’s quick to add he’ll work on anything, and welcomes insurance jobs.
To do that, Casolla has grown from one man—himself—to six. He has four full-time craftsmen doing mechanical and body work, a full-time “office guy,” and, of course, himself.
Marshall’s has always had a reputation for good work, but Casolla seems to have raised the bar. Custom and classic car owners have heard the word and have begun to flock to the shop.
His biggest challenges now are managing and delegating the workload to achieve the highest quality, and setting up a business for maximum efficiency.
“Already,” he says, “we have almost outgrown the shop.”
In the best of all possible worlds, Casolla says, he would like to focus on ground-up restorations, projects like the 1949 Chevy pickup truck he did for Hamel Family Winery.
“We replaced every nut and bolt on that truck,” he says. “I know that truck inside and outside better than anybody.”
Doing a body-off, ground-up restoration—during which both the body panels and the frame are sandblasted to remove all paint, rust and corrosion —can easily top $100,000.
Ask him about his long-term vision and Casolla will tell you that he wants the best of both worlds. “I’d like to establish a crew that can build one-off classic cars. But then, I also want to service the needs of the community.”
Cliff Casolla seems to understand that, in buying Marshall’s Body Shop, he didn’t just start a new business, he also provided crucial continuity for a very old one. If the quality of his work is any indication, it’s a pretty good bet he’s going to take very good care of a cherished part of Glen Ellen’s past.
Marshall’s Body Shop is located at 13695 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. The shop is open Monday through Friday and randomly by appointment on Saturday. Call 707.996.8155 for more information.