By Syed Ali
Bud Martinez comes to work most Monday mornings at the garage at the Shell gas station at California and Steiner Streets, just as he has for more than 50 years — and more than a decade after he sold the station and vowed to retire.
In 1952, he started working at the Shell station. Before long he took a former employer’s offer of help and, for $4,000, bought the station. In 1996, after decades of long hours and hard labor, Martinez decided to sell the station and retire. But just when he thought he was done, the station pulled him back. “The fellow I sold it to made some mistakes, so I came back to help him,” says Martinez. “Things didn’t work out, so Shell Oil Company took it over and hired a management company. I’ve been here ever since and there have been four new owners. I’m still here, but not as the boss.”
Martinez’s honesty and charm have been a magnet not only for the locals, but for many of the city’s notables as well. His customers have ranged from department store magnate Cyril Magnin to basketball hall of famer Nate Thurmond, with plenty of corporate chiefs and the occasional 49er and Raider.
One of the most beloved of Martinez’s high-profile customers was Herb Caen, the Chronicle columnist who would bring his Jaguar — he called it the White Rat — in for service. “Herb was a prince,” says Martinez. “He put me in his column four or five times, and every time he did that, this place would get stacked with cars. I got a lot of business from him — I couldn’t buy that kind of advertising. He was a wonderful man.”
Martinez says one of the most unusual cars he came across was basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain’s pink Mercedes convertible. “He was so tall and his seat was so far back that I had to scoot all the way down just to reach his pedals,” says Martinez, laughing at the memory. “I could barely see above the steering wheel.” Chamberlain and Raider Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw would leave their cars at the station and walk over to eat at Thurmond’s soul food restaurant on Fillmore Street.
Martinez has been servicing the community for so long that he’s seen several generations of customers. Many of his regulars eventually brought in their children, and many have brought their grandchildren. “Customers come in all the time and say, ‘You know my mom and dad!’ ” he says. “It’s unbelievable I’ve been here that long.”
Douglas Fredell, the current owner of Shell Auto Repair, asked Martinez to stay on when he took over the garage. “Many, many people who live around here know him,” says Fredell. “People stop by several times a week just asking where he is, or if he’s still working.” Fredell says Martinez, at 78, is an ideal employee. “He’s a hard worker and he’s super reliable,” Fredell says. “He’s got that old-fashioned sensibility about him of how to treat people and how he carries his work ethic. Then, of course, he wants to keep working. Even if I told him not to come in anymore, he’d still come in.”
Martinez says it’s the customers who keep him on the corner of California and Steiner. “I enjoy working on cars and fixing problems, but it’s mainly the people,” he says. “It’s been my life for 57 years and we’ve got the best customers in the world here.”
Now Martinez works at the station only three days a week, Mondays through Wednesdays. “Right now, I’m going month to month,” he says. “The only thing that’s going to stop me is arthritis.”