By Steve McLinden
Body shop veteran Teresa Armstrong has tried to exit the collision center business on several occasions, but to paraphrase the Al Pacino line in “The Godfather III,” her loyal customers just keep pulling her back in.
When her father, Charles Armstrong, founder of Armstrong Garage and Body on Fort Worth’s Vickery Street, passed away in May 2005, Teresa wasn’t interested in taking over the place at that point in her life. But no one else stepped forward, and customers were begging her to re-open the shop. With some trepidation, she did.
After a family dispute effectively caused the closure of the Vickery operation in 2015 after 45 years, that was that, Armstrong thought. But customer demand, she and husband/workmate Curtis Fuqua determined, again seemed to ordain a replacement shop. The two opened one, just a year later.
So the Armstrong shop lives again, under the new name of Armstrong Garage and Body Shop, this time at west Fort Worth location at 325 N. Grants Lane just off Lockheed Boulevard, across the street from the enormous defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin and adjoining Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth (formerly Carswell Air Force Base). Both are huge employers and provide a built-in customer base.
But the new paint-and-body/mechanic shop almost didn’t happen. Short on capital, Armstrong desperately sought out a potential rental location but couldn’t find an even remotely suitable one for a shop. A devout Christian, she set out one morning and prayed constantly as she drove and drove and drove. Nothing.
Frustrated, she started the trip home, passing the Grants Lane property for the second time that day. Unlike hours before, there was suddenly — and almost miraculously — a freshly-posted for-rent sign on it. It had ten bays spread over three buildings and would work perfectly, she realized.
“The landlord was a 90-year-old man who was blind in one eye and losing sight in the other, so he really wasn’t actively trying to rent the place,” she said. “It turns out that he had put up the sign 30 minutes before I drove past again.”
The two quickly struck a deal and Armstrong — whose married name is also Fuqua but maintains the Armstrong name for business purposes — was back at it. The family had sold off the equipment from the previous shop, but Armstrong and her husband worked deals with vendors to retool, getting what was essentially a free PPG computerized mixer from paint reps and deals on other equipment.
By August 20, 2016, Armstrong was back in business. The place quickly filled with old customers as well as new ones from Lockheed and the base. All ten bays “were full before our official opening,” she said. “All my old customers followed me; they kept saying they didn’t trust other shops or had somebody else do poor work on their car tor got a bad paint job, so they came back to me!”
This time Armstrong didn’t want the pressure of having her name on the title as owner of the business. So her hubby, who had joined the previous Armstrong shop in 2012 as head mechanic, did the honors. But that hasn’t stopped Teresa from continuing in her old role as point-person, painter and office manager, and as de-facto co-owner/operator.
The shop does a healthy mixture of insurance, fleet, and custom work. There were several custom jobs on hand on a blazing hot afternoon in mid-September, including a 1963 Ford Galaxy 500 XL and notably, a pair of like-colored 1972 El Caminos from different owners. A restored 1974 Jaguar and 1973 Chevy Blazer had left the shop in previous days. One curiosity in the shop was an antique, century-old children’s metal playground sliding board that the shop will be painting.
These days, Armstrong doesn’t see adjusters as often as the past, since insurance companies started converting to “virtual adjusting” technology such as Allstate’s Virtual Assist. It’s a live, on-demand video chat app. that allows Armstrong and other shops to instantly demonstrate damage in real time via Facetime, a process that expedites the adjusters’ supplemental reviewing and decision-making processes, and helps get jobs started faster.
The shop employs six, including Armstrong’s youngest son, Jeremy, who works in a variety of roles.
“He can do it all,”” she said.
To save time, Armstrong goes online to order most needed replacement parts, which typically arrive the next day. Instead of a rigid scheduling calendar, Armstrong takes in jobs on the fly.
“I just let things happen,” she jokes, “and it still flows pretty smoothly.”
The shop also owns an interesting little side business. It took over a service called Wild Hog Removal from the old landlord, featuring a 30-foot cage with a camera, set in a rural area that notifies the office when something has entered it — ideally a feral hog — allowing the shop to remotely shut the cage door and trap it.
Not long after Armstrong rented the shop space, the landlord died and a Syrian investment group bought out the shop, which gave the owners a start, though the group has proven to supportive of the shop, even as it raised the rent, she said.
The business is in earshot of the national anthem that’s trumpeted every morning and evening at the military complex across the street.
“It’s pretty cool, being here at this location,” said Armstrong, pointing to aircraft hangars a few hundred yards away where the F-35 is assembled. In the previous week, aircraft from Canada and Israel had been present at the base, Armstrong said. “It’s also where a lot of planes are moved when their areas are threatened by hurricanes.”
Armstrong learned auto painting and the rest of the trade under the tutelage of her father, and managed the family’s second body shop on Fort Worth’s Jacksboro Highway, where she was also a painter. It closed after the city bought the property to widen the road, though it turns out the space was never actually used for the expansion.
Armstrong recalls the days when her father, who also worked second shift at Lockheed, would meet her and other family members for dinner outside the company gates just down the street from the current shop. Laughing, Armstrong recalls how her father once installed an engine on a tricycle to the amusement family and friends at a nearby workshop.
“It’s funny because the police were clocking that thing all over these streets,” she said.
Armstrong recently got a pleasant family surprise. For years, the Armstrong family raced custom stock cars at area tracks in Kennedale, Boyd and Waco.
“My dad raced in his youth, and I only came to find out recently that my great-great grandfather raced stock cars too. It must be in the blood!”
How do her workers stay hydrated in the searing, relentless North Texas heat all day? They push gallons of water, of course, but with an added twist: aloe vera juice, Armstrong said. The juice, it turns out, contains electrolyte minerals, including magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium, and tempers the heat’s impact on the body.
Armstrong’s offers easy terms if need be: the shop will let customers pay down their bills in installments, particularly on custom work.
“And I don’t charge a lot,” she said. “People will come here for an estimate then drive off and get competitive quotes, then hurry back here after getting their eyes opened.” •