WINTERSVILLE — It’s time to hang up the tools and the spray gun for Spike Sterling, who, at age 71, is retiring this month from the business he and his wife, Christine, built from the ground up beginning in 1987.
Sterling Autobody is being sold to a new owner and eventually will move from the Sterlings’ garages next to their home on Bantam Ridge Court. The Sterlings last day in the shop will be Sept. 28.
They’ve done little advertising through the years, relying on word of mouth to build the business. They are thanking their customers who made the business what it is today.
Sterling said he always had an interest in cars and motorcycles.
“When I was 12, I built Whizzer motorcycles and painted gas tanks,” he said. (Whizzers are motorcycle engines fitted to a bicycle to create a small motorcycle.) “My dad always worked on cars and I followed in his footsteps. He was a jeweler and he wanted me to be a jeweler. I couldn’t see that stuff. It was too little.”
Sterling said he started building hot rods in high school, and continues to build them today. He started drag racing when he was 15, without a driver’s license, in his father’s Studebaker.
“He didn’t know it at the time,” Sterling said.
Sterling started his first job at Reichart’s in Wheeling, as an over-the-road TV repairman.
“Remember when TVs still had tubes in them and the repairman would come to your house?” he asked.
Eventually, he worked for 15 years underground in the Franklin Mine, as a mechanic and welder. When the mine closed and he figured it wouldn’t be coming back, he moved to Arizona to work in a friend’s body shop, but he was spending more to live there than he was earning and Christine told him it was time to come home.
“We started the shop here in a two-car garage and built it to what it is now,” he said.
His son, Cale, is the painter, who, like his father, started working on cars at age 12.
“He’s 48 now,” Sterling said. They’ve had employees who have worked for them for years, some for more than 30, and four employees retired from the shop.
Christine worked at Trinity Health System and was director of environmental technology. At Sterling’s she did the book work and managed the shop. She noted they’ve used accountant Dana Joyce for taxes for years, and recalled him telling her, “If you’re paying taxes, you’re making money.”
The Sterlings are known for community generosity, helping others and organizations.
“We helped Big Red, the sheriff’s department, the Little League and we didn’t even want a sign put out,” Sterling said.
Customers would regularly stop by to talk and eat popcorn (“Putting in the popcorn machine was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Sterling said) and when they needed some easy, small thing done, he did it on the spot, no charge. The returns for kindness were thank-you cards, cookies and cakes and pies and the occasional six-pack.
“I feel sorry for older ladies. They get taken advantage of. If I do something free for them one time, they tell 50 friends and you get at least five new customers out of that,” he said.
Christine said retirement is bittersweet, but it’s time.
“It has to end sometime. He can’t work his whole life,” she said.
They’ll travel as snowbirds and Spike will keep working on street rods for fun. He’s sold his drag race car. And, even in Florida, he’s known to his neighbors for his body work.
A neighbor with a Porsche racer asked him to repair and paint the car just before just before the Sterlings were ready to head back north. He told her to mask off the car and have it jacked up in the driveway and he painted it in the morning before leaving for home.
The downside to being well known is the pony-tailed Sterling is something of a local celebrity, unable to go anywhere in town without being stopped by friends and customers, and there are lots of them.
“We have to go out of town to get dinner. Otherwise, there are five people who want their cars fixed,” he said. Christine said they were waiting to get on a ride at Disney World once and someone yelled, “Hey, Spike!”
“It happened to us in Mexico, too,” Sterling added.
Christine said, “They call him the mayor when we go camping. He can talk with anybody. It’s what you have to do, to be good with customers and talk with them.”
He recalls the loss of his friend, Wintersville businessman Clarence West.
“I did his limos for years. When he died, a little bit of me went with that. I missed doing them and we’d go to concerts and other events,” he said.
Sterling said all his employees got jobs when the shop was sold and the new ownership will be working out of the Bantam Ridge Court shop for awhile before moving.
“It won’t be Sterling’s. We sold everything but our garages,” he said.