Wednesday, 25 June 2014 21:51

Niebling Auto Body: 120 Years and Still Going Strong in Missouri

If a body shop is in existence for more than 30 years, people view it as a successful business and justifiably so. But, if a shop has been in continuous operation for more than 120 years—well, now it’s more like a landmark and a big part of automotive history. And that’s why folks in Missouri and throughout the country know of Niebling Auto Body, because it’s been a household name since 1892, when a German wagon maker opened his own wagon shop in St. Louis, MO.

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It all began when Louis Niebling immigrated to the U.S. and moved to West St Louis in 1887. Horses, wagons and carriages ( and good old walking) were the mainstays of transportation back then, as the industrial revolution shifted into high gear. Gasoline-powered vehicles were only for the rich and eccentric in the late 1800’s, just like the Teslas or Bentleys of today. Sure, automobiles were only for a select few back then, but the times were a-changing and pretty soon everyone wanted one of these noisy, cantankerous and expensive machines.

 

At the beginning, the shop was busy and flourishing, but then a tornado hit hard and completely destroyed Niebling’s business in 1895. But, it didn’t faze him one iota, and pretty soon Niebling started up again, building a new two-story shop. A decade later, Niebling’s shop was building truck bodies for Mack’s five-ton capacity trucks, in which the driver sat over the engine, and pretty soon wagons and carriages were no longer a business focus for Niebling and his crew.

A year later, the city had its own car manufacturer when the St. Louis Car Company started producing the American Mors under license from a French company. Soon, Louis Niebling Carriage and Wagon Manufacturing was constructing car bodies for the Mors. At a time when the average salary was around $40 a month, the Mors cost between $3,000 and $6,000. The Mors line was eventually discontinued, but Niebling kept moving forward and looking for another dependable source of revenue.

By re-inventing his business model once again in 1918, Nielbling began manufacturing wooden truck bodies while his shop grew to 13 employees. These wooden trucks were built to order in the days before customization was prevalent. Customers brought in a bare chassis with a dashboard and a hood and Niebling built the body based on the owner’s specifications. On the shop’s ground floor, there was a carpentry shop, blacksmith shop and assembly area. Each completed body was sent to the second floor by a hand-operated elevator. There, the trim shop made cloth tops and upholstery as well as completing the necessary painting.

At about the same time, Louis Niebling’s son, Erwin, joined the business and subsequently focused more on mechanical repair. The wagon-making business dwindled rapidly and Erwin decided to move the shop to a more residential neighborhood in 1927. His two sons, Warren and Ray had grown up in that shop and then joined him in the business at the end of World War II. When Erwin retired, the sons remained partners and expanded by opening a body shop operation under Warren’s management in 1968.

Warren and Ray both had sons and like their fathers and grandfathers, they grew up in the family business - Jim with Warren in the body shop and Tom with Ray in the mechanical shop. When Warren and Ray retired in 1986, Tom and Jim became the managing partners. Jim passed away in 2010 and his cousin, Dave Dolphus (who has worked at Niebling Auto Body since 1985), now manages the operation.

Dolphus, 59, is what they call a “lifer” in the collision repair industry. He’s been running the show at Niebling for the past five years after working there for 30 years. Today, he manages 14 people as they fix 65-80 cars monthly. Dolphus has a Masters Degree in Public Policy and Administration, so his career plan surely didn’t involve collision repair, at least at the outset.

“Getting involved in this industry was the furthest thing from my mind,” Dolphus said. “But one day, my cousin asked me to come in and help and I guess I wasn’t paying attention, because I just kept staying here. At first, I was doing paperwork and handling supplements and to be honest I was looking for the door. But, eventually I learned the business side of auto repair and realized that this was going to be my job for the long-term.”

Dolphus has seen the collision game change several times during the three decades he’s been in it, he said. “Back in the 1980’s, we could make good money by just opening our doors, but no longer. We have a lot of competition now and everyone is vying for these cars. To make it today, you have to concentrate on things like training, certifications, the technology, marketing and community involvement, for example.”

The relationships with insurance companies have changed over the years as well, according to Dolphus. “We work with several insurance companies and DRPs and it makes up around 40% of our workload, which is still too much as far as we’re concerned. We’re always looking outside the DRPs for customers that are ours, instead of theirs. DRPs changed several years ago requiring discounts on parts and paint caps and at that point we decided to cut them back to a certain degree.”

After 120 years, Niebling Auto Body is still a fixture in St. Louis and there are no plans to alter their formula for uninterrupted success, Dolphus explained. “We’re not going anywhere anytime soon. We have a few managers here that are exceptional and when the time is right for me to step back, I am pretty confident that they can take the reins and do very well. There have been numerous changes in this industry, especially within the last 15-20 years, but we’ve been able to adapt to them and benefitted from many of them. Things like personal computers, aluminum in these newer cars and other innovations have impacted this business. But in the end, it’s still about doing a good, honest job for our customers. Those types of things are timeless and they will never change.”

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