W estville Village has its share of mainstays. House of Chao and New West Cafe have called it home for over thirty years. Delaney’s Taproom and The Frame Shop & Westville Gallery have stuck around for over a decade. But few businesses have demonstrated the staying power of the humble, hard-working Aquila Motors, which, in 2014, will celebrate its 50th year at 6 Fountain Street and 56th year overall of fixing New Haven’s cars.
After graduating from the now-defunct Boardman Trade School, which stood downtown on Broadway, William “Bill” Aquila honed his automotive repair chops at car dealerships and service shops around town.
By 1958, at the age of 32, Aquila felt it was time to rev his own engine, opening a small shop on the corner of Orchard and Henry Streets in the Dixwell neighborhood. By 1964, the enterprise was ready for more space, more gas pumps and better visibility. Luckily, the owner of an automotive repair shop at 6 Fountain Street—with more garage bays, more gas pumps and a prime location, jutting out prominently where Whalley Avenue and Fountain converge—decided to call it quits.
Aquila snapped it up, and in doing so created a legacy for at least three generations of Aquilas. Today, the business is run by two of those generations: the husband-and-wife duo of Tom Sr. (Bill’s son) and Maurna, and their son Tom Jr.
“It was kind of mandatory that you came [to the shop] and learned,” Tom Sr. recalls of the way of life for himself and his three siblings. Bill’s fellow mechanics used to set up Coca-Cola boxes so Tom Sr. could stand atop them and reach an engine.
“In the old days, engines were much bigger. I could sit, literally, inside the engine cavity,” Tom Sr. says with a laugh. After years and years spent around the garage, he started his own, albeit related, business with Maurna, selling automotive lifts, compressors, oil systems and other machinery. Meanwhile, in 2002, Tom Jr. began an apprenticeship alongside his grandfather. He was only 14 at the time but had always shown a deep interest in cars and the way they worked. “I had go-karts and ATVs as a kid,” he says. “As I grew up, the toys got bigger.”
In July 2006, at the age of 80, Bill Aquila passed away and the family had a decision to make. Things were going well with Maurna and Tom Sr.’s garage-parts business, and Tom Sr. hadn’t worked on cars professionally in a long time.
Ultimately it was Tom Jr. who tipped the scales. He was 18 by then and well-versed in the garage’s goings-on. “He just said: ‘Why don’t we do this together?’” Tom Sr. recalls.
That was enough. Maurna and Tom Sr. left their business behind, Tom Sr. re-took ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) certification courses, and the couple joined their son and two other shop mechanics, Joe Calandro Jr., and Joe Calandro III—another multigenerational automotive repair team—at Aquila Motors.
Since then, the trio of Aquilas and the Calandros have tried to keep Bill’s business and philosophy intact. Tom Sr. says the shop’s central customer approach is based around something his father always used to say: “Treat people fairly, and you’ll never have to lie to them.” According to Tom Sr., Bill was gregarious and enjoyed getting to know people on a personal level.
Tom Sr. seems to feel that way about Westville and its artsy residents. He rattles off the names of local artists he’s met and how much he enjoys hearing about their work. The garage even participates in the Westville Artwalk each year. In the past, Aquila has let potters use the space to throw pots, and hung work from local artists on the garage’s doors. For the 2013 edition, the Aquilas donated a garage bay where local poets and musicians performed. “They said they only needed it for an hour and a half, but they went on for three. It was great,” Tom Sr. beams.
Community has always been important to the Aquilas, and the feeling is mutual. Last year, Maurna says she received phone calls and visits to the shop from “very concerned” Westvillians who noticed or heard that Willie, Maurna’s small white Bichon Frisé, was absent from the garage one day. Willie had been a fixture at Aquila, often lazing peacefully in front of the reception desk, greeting customers with a wagging tail and tongue, but his arthritis was bad enough that day that he had to stay home and rest. Maurna was touched that people cared so much, and when Willie died at the age of 15, that was a source of comfort.
You might wonder what’s next for Aquila Motors given its own long life. The business’s future, Tom Sr. says, is “up to him,” pointing to Tom Jr., who’s processing invoices at a computer in the reception area. Maurna looks over to their son as well, trying to catch his eye.
I prod: Perhaps there are some grandchildren in the future?
At that, Tom Jr. grins, shakes his head and keeps his eyes focused on the screen. The family chuckles together, then gets back to work.
6 Fountain Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.