Robert Escalante and the soft-spoken boss of the road
Once designated as The Golden City by its civic leaders, Santa Ana was among the first municipalities to be incorporated as part of California’s sunny Orange County, back in 1886. Located just 10 miles from the Pacific Coast, it is a place of many historic landmarks for both visitors and local residents to enjoy.
But Santa Ana also has its share of less apparent treasures that bear witness to the passing of time. One of these is a discreet restoration shop modestly called Custom Auto Service, located at the corner of Third Avenue and French Street, right in the heart of the city’s downtown heritage district.
Stepping into the building that initially served in 1919 as an electric car garage and now houses Custom Auto Service feels like the proverbial blast from the past. There is a definite aura about the edifice which, over the decades, morphed into a shrine honoring America’s very own and forever prestige automobile: the Packard.
For nearly three of those decades, Robert Escalante has been the driving force behind Custom Auto Service and ambassador emeritus of the marque. By his admission, this soft-spoken boss of the shop has managed to turn his play into work and his work into play. Can there be any better philosophy of life? The man’s warm smile, affable demeanor and enthusiastic personality say it all.
Flanked by his 87-year-old father Alfred, a former paint specialist, brothers David and Sandy, his cousin Toby Deleon, and Cal Soest, who’s been with the company since day one, Robert runs a family enterprise in the truest sense of the word – one where the art of conducting business is predicated on family values only matched by superior quality standards, where authenticity is central to all things.
As destiny often has it, Robert’s big love affair with the Packard began in the simplest of ways. At age 17, his daily driver was a 1941 Model 110 Touring Sedan that he would go to college with. One day, a broken taillight in need of replacement brought him to Bill Lauer, the original owner of the shop and founder in 1963 of the Packards International Motor Car Club. In exchange for the much required taillight, he traded a car radio. “Not the best of deals,” he recalls, “but one that changed my life forever.” But then, a funny thing happened: Lauer (who passed away last year), offered Robert a part-time job as a rookie member of his team. The learning experience proved profoundly transformative. In 1983, when his mentor retired, Robert assumed ownership of the company and made it his own.
When dealing with a car whose brand name is quasi-mythical, one needs to master multiple skills at the highest level. But he admits that the most challenging of these remains, in the end, the art of actually doing business. “People will usually refer to TLC as ‘tender loving care.’ Yet, there is another side to those three letters that I call ‘time, labor and costs’ – always a delicate equation with clients who may have purchased a Packard with the intention of fully restoring it, only to find out what TLC can really mean,” he says. “This being the case, it is your responsibility as the guy in charge to ensure the right balance between client satisfaction and financial viability for your company.”
Custom Auto Service, which could well be called “Packard Palace,” is one of very few such full-service dealerships in America. Behind the venetian blinds lies a showroom filled with stunning models of the make and mementos of all kinds; next to which sits, in its original spot, the office of the Packards International Motor Car Club. The organization is headed by Don Hull who serves jointly as president of its Board of Regents and editor of the club’s handsome quarterly publication, the Packards International Magazine. This creates the environment in which Robert’s team of highly specialized mechanics rebuilds, restores or maintains Packards of all models, colors and ages. With hundreds of jobs to their credit over the years, it is hard to single out any particular one that stands out since each comes with its own unique story. In fact, each has become a special source of pride for the guys in the garage whose sense of purpose stems from a genuine mix of passion and compassion.
While many of his oeuvres d’art have earned prestigious awards at various concours, for Robert, there is one trophy that makes him singularly proud – and interestingly, it has less to do with the cars themselves than with the building that houses it all. Back in the mid-’80s, soon after he had taken over Custom Auto Service from Bill Lauer, the City of Santa Ana wanted to bring in the wrecker’s ball to tear down the structure and replace it with a modern shopping center. Based on his long-held belief that the dignity of yesterday deserves to be protected, Robert was able to mobilize both public opinion and local business folks like himself around the importance of saving Santa Ana’s architectural heritage. The civic operation proved so successful that many similar buildings in the neighborhood stayed alive as a result and, to this day, stand as beacons of his hard-fought mission. History prevailed.
It is in this very spirit that Robert Escalante thrives doing what he knows best: safeguarding the noble beauty of the Packard and its legacy to the world of the automobile. And should there ever be any doubt about it, just ask the man who gives new life, and a soft spoken voice, to the boss of the road!