While he was growing up in Rapid City, S.D., Cliff Davis used to set up an area in his mother’s back yard where he could paint vehicles for the men from the nearby Ellsworth Air Force base.
“I used to set up a bunch of two-by-fours and put up plastic and paint cars. She never said I couldn’t do it,” he said.
The love of fixing up cars never went away. It became more than a hobby. It has been his career for over 45 years and started as a five-brother operation until Roy, Terry, Orrin and Robert moved on to try new things and the business name changed from Davis Brothers to Autobody & Sunroof.
Davis himself briefly retired when a major customer closed its doors, but he eventually got back in the business. His wife Carrie has remained by his side in 52 years of marriage and helps out in the office and on the shop floor. They have three daughters, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“Cliff is a good ol’ boy, very down to earth, where a handshake is as good as a document,” said longtime friend Terry Gerhardson, who owns Advanced Automotive Care in St. Francis.
Autobody & Sunroof has been based in Blaine the last 10 years after stints in Ham Lake, Maple Lake, Lino Lakes and Circle Pines. The business started off in Circle Pines as a body shop doing custom painting.
In 1966, he met Leo Martin, who ran executive leasing for Anderson Cadillac, and he attended training classes in Michigan and Texas on installing power sunroofs, t-bars and vinyl roofs. After installing these items for a couple of years, Martin offered to sell his sunroof business to Davis Brothers.
Davis’ list of clients and contacts have come from all over the world. He has painted taxi cabs that went to Alaska. He worked with a former business neighbor to refurbish four or five former NASCAR vehicles that were being re-sold to tobacco growers in Argentina planning to race them.
A Holland businessman once paid Davis Brothers a visit to find out about the glass sunroofs they were installing. At the time, Martin Potts told his American counterparts that he was installing metal sunroofs.
A business partnership was formed and the Davis Brothers manufactured and shipped glass sunroofs over to Holland, Davis said.
Even if Davis is busy, Gerhardson knows Davis “always drops what he’s doing to take time for that person.”
Some of the best business years were when they painted and added the hi tops, which were a type of roof covers to the Grand Prix conversion vans. They were working on about five vans a day and even did interior wood board work and fabric for customers.
“Things were rolling at that time,” Davis said.
But when Grand Prix stopped manufacturing these conversion vans, Davis’ brothers left to try different jobs and he decided to take some time off. He some time later began helping out a friend who owned a similar business and eventually agreed to accept an offer to buy the business after his friend was in a car accident.
Today, Davis said Orrin lives near San Diego, Calif., and was a deep oil well driller. Before joining the Davis Brothers business, he was in the Marines and was aboard one of the ships off the coast of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Robert lives in Keystone, S.D., and runs a pizza restaurant. Roy works for 3M. Terry is retired, but does some work on the side.
Davis is the oldest brother. They all grew up on a farm near Aberdeen, S.D., before they moved to Rapid City after his father had heart problems.
Although he has helped fix and customize a lot of vehicles, one of his favorite projects was a 1948 Pontiac owned by Gerhardson.
Gerhardson said the vehicle was on the property of a guy who picks up scrap metal at his shop for his own projects. One day, he mentioned he was looking to fix up a 1940s or 1950s vehicle.
Gerhardson visited the man’s property and saw a tree had landed on it, denting in the roof about 14 inches, but he knew the vehicle was still valuable and offered $1,600.
The man said he would think about it and stopped by days later with the title paperwork and an offer to give Gerhardson the vehicle for free.
Gerhardson said it took two-and-a-half years to get the vehicle to a show presentation condition and it has done well every place it has gone. It has won first place at about 30 shows, including the Gopher State car show and the “Back to the 50’s” car show at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Rather than hammering under the roof to get it to pop back up, Davis slightly heated it with a blow torch before popping it back into place and cooling it off with cold water.
Gerhardson was a mechanic at an Amoco station when he first met Davis about 25 years ago and they have become close friends. He opened the Advanced Automotive Care business 18 years ago and has referred customers to Davis when he does not know the answer to a question because he knows Davis is resourceful mind and knows so many people from all over the country with different expertise.
“If he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll find someone who does,” Gerhardson said.
Gerhardson said he just started working on a 1959 Cadillac and looks forward to working with Davis again when his schedule frees up.
To find out more about Autobody & Sunroof, visit www.autobodysunroof.com or call 763-434-7678 or 763-260-6648.
Davis transferred the “434” when the business moved from Ham Lake so loyal customers would not have to learn a new number.
The business is located at 9903 Xylite St. NE in Blaine. The website is www.autobodysunroof.com.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]