If the matte black Cadillac hearse hadn’t been parked outside the row of beige concrete and brick buildings, it would have been easy to miss Brothers Custom Automotive, a mecca of hot rods, customs, and Ford flathead V-8s in an industrial park in suburban Detroit.
Rosie the shop cat, who presides over the front office, demanded belly rubs from us before we continued into the 8000-square-foot shop. A sweeping glance took in a shark-mouthed land speed racer, a slammed two-tone Lincoln Premiere, modified Fords from the ’20s through the ’50s in various states of repair, a royal blue Mercedes 190SL, a flared Alfa Romeo GTV, and a primer-coated 1965 Bentley S3.
The cars and parts were interspersed with machining equipment, some as old as the cars being serviced, like a Bridgeport mill and a Sun engine tester straight out of the Truman era. The shop’s playlist was as eclectic as the cars, ranging from Sinatra’s “My Way” to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.”
Over by the trio of two-post lifts, owner Bill Jagenow was under the dashboard of a cream-colored 1952 Ford Vicky sedan, attempting to diagnose faulty turn-signal wiring using an original factory service manual. Middle-aged, with short, blond hair styled somewhere between rockabilly and military, he was wearing a button-up shirt emblazoned with the Brothers logo. Eventually, he found the electrical short in the Ford, and the Vicky was back to blinking.
Across the garage, Autumn Riggle, Jagenow’s partner and the shop’s manager, meticulously wet-sanded Alfa body panels fresh from the paint booth. Her jet-black Bettie Page bangs complemented her Dickies work shirt. Two other full-timers were hard at work, one welding up a set of seat rails for the Alfa and the other adjusting the carburetors on a ’35 Ford.
Riggle met Jagenow in Detroit through the local car and music scene. She was working in the fashion industry, but as their relationship progressed, she became more involved in the shop’s operation. “I went from selling shoes and coats at Gucci to ordering spare parts on my lunch break,” she recalled. She eventually joined full time to run the business side of the operation
Jagenow and Riggle are fixtures on the Detroit car scene, from concours to cars and coffee. Due to its community presence and reputation for winning shows, Brothers doesn’t have to advertise for business. Patrons include C-suite execs from the Detroit automakers, professional sports figures, celebrities like Eminem, and average Joes. The reach of Jagenow’s reputation is not limited to Motown, though. At one point during our visit, he had to excuse himself to take a call from a German collector regarding a potential job.
Jagenow had a circuitous journey from being a kid on the east side of Detroit to his current role as an automotive magician for the Motor City elite. He discovered his natural mechanical skills while keeping his first car, a 1972 Cadillac, running in high school. Then he joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego, where he got caught up in the hot-rod scene. “I was drawn to the way the people in Southern California changed how the car sits,” Jagenow said.
He made friends with hot-rod legend Gene Winfield and other devotees to the discipline. After the Navy and a stint at the California outpost of Mercedes tuner Brabus, he drove his 1949 Ford back to Detroit to work for an automotive supplier.