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.
The signs are everywhere, but they might as well be nowhere. Yellow markers, warning against trespassing, that violators will be prosecuted. They no longer serve as deterrent, if they ever did. As Detroit’s once-proud Packard assembly plant continues its slide into ruin, interlopers have turned the automotive landmark into a giant dump. The buildings, or their remains, hold unwanted junk of all sorts—as large as cars and boats, as small as household waste.
Now it appears the brick and mortar will soon follow suit. After a foreign developer abandoned his redevelopment plans for the plant, the City of Detroit was given permission to level the place in the name of public safety. The wrecking ball could get to work any day. When that happens, a hundred-year-old landmark and long-contested symbol of a struggling city’s glory days will be gone for good.
Detroit being Detroit, the Packard plant is not alone. Eleven miles to the west, the former American Motors Corporation headquarters will also meet the wrecking ball as part of a redevelopment costing $66 million. Other historical industrial/transportation buildings are also undergoing change. In the Corktown neighborhood, the 18-story Michigan Central Station, opened in 1914, is receiving the finishing touches of a reported $738 million makeover. (USA Today says the number is closer to $1 billion.) Like the Packard plant, Michigan Central has been deserted for years. Unlike that plant, it is on the way to becoming the centerpiece of a new high-tech campus for the Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile, the long-vacant Fisher Body Plant 21 on Piquette Avenue is set to be repurposed as Fisher 21 Lofts, a $134 million project.
Detroit has been a home of “ruin porn” since the tail of the last century—these buildings are but the four most visible and well-known. Depending on where you stand, their diverging futures are either exciting or tragic.
“I grew up in the city. I know all these buildings well, and yeah, you’d like to preserve them, but it’s a balance,” says Tim Conder, vice president of acquisitions for NorthPoint Development, which is redeveloping the AMC site. “Sometimes you can preserve them, sometimes you can’t. People compare Central Station [which is essentially an office building] with AMC, but you’ve seen AMC—that’s not an office market out there … It just wouldn’t work.”
The problem with saving these buildings, Conder says, is the cost. And there are other considerations with structures like these.
“If you want to maintain the historical aspect of it, you want to get tax credits,” he says. “That’s a long process, it’s a tedious process, and it’s not an easy process. It’s like restoring a car; do you want to do it halfway? Maybe there’s adaptive reuse, and you can include portions of a façade, but that still costs money. That wasn’t factored in at AMC. That building is just too far gone.”
The Motor City is a place both shackled and bolstered by its past. These four buildings are a tangible version of Detroit’s complex relationship with history, but they’re also deeply representative of how the city operates and has always operated. How optimistic plans born of good intention can repeatedly stall. How tradition matters, but long periods of decline can bring too much entrenchment in the past. And how the city’s very strengths can stand in the way of it becoming the best modern version of itself.
The undeniable truth is that things in Detroit are changing, and not always as everyone would like. So, we went there to see the condition of these historic for ourselves.
One: The AMC Headquarters
The former American Motors Company headquarters and factory sit at 14250 Plymouth Road, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Detroit. At 95 years old, the AMC complex is the youngest of the four sites in this story. It is also the only one not built from the start for the transportation industry.
Designed by the city firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, and built under the direction of architects Amedeo Leoni and William E. Kapp, the facility’s administration building and factory were completed in 1927. They were constructed for the Kelvinator Corporation, which made home refrigerators. Originally 1.5 million square feet (later expanded), the park included a tall office tower facing Plymouth Road. Behind that building sat a huge, three-story factory in multiple sections, plus a self-contained power plant. Kelvinator’s name was chosen to honor the British physicist Lord Kelvin, who developed a scale for measuring absolute temperature. A Kelvin quote was once engraved above the doorway to the plant’s administrative entrance: “I’ve thought of a better way.”
For Kelvinator, the better way involved a merger with Nash Motors in 1937. In 1954, the resulting company, Nash-Kelvinator, merged again, this time with Detroit’s Hudson Motors, forming the American Motors Corporation. When AMC relocated its headquarters to suburban Southfield in 1975, the Plymouth Road facility refocused on Jeep. In 1987, when Chrysler bought AMC, the complex was renamed the Jeep and Truck Engineering Center.
Twenty years later, in 2007, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. The Plymouth Road complex closed in June 2009.
Drama began soon after. In 2010, the AMC facility was sold to Terry Williams for $2.3 million. (The original ask was $10 million.) Williams announced that he was going to turn the facility into a school for autistic children, but he began stripping the factory of scrap metal, which authorities said “disturbed asbestos-containing materials and released ozone-depleting substances.” In 2014, Williams was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and sentenced to 27 months in prison. The AMC property, seized by the court, was transferred to the Wayne County Land Bank. It wound up as property of the City of Detroit in a 2018 land swap. A subsequent environmental-cleanup operation included demolition of the power plant and much of the rear of the factory
After the property sat vacant for more than a decade, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan held a press conference on December 9, 2021. NorthPoint, he announced, would demolish the remaining buildings and replace the complex with a $66 million warehouse development.
“One by one,” Duggan said, “we are taking down the massive vacant buildings that for too long have been a drain on our neighborhoods and our city’s image, and putting something new in their place … (and) I expect we will be announcing plans for other such sites in the city very soon.”
Not everyone was so excited. Because NorthPoint pursued public incentives (the firm eventually secured $32.6 million in brownfield TIFs), the Missouri-based developer was required to hold public meetings about its plans for the site. Those meetings resulted in “a ton of pushback” from preservationists, Conder says, and a December 2021 editorial in Crain’s Business News—the headline was “Detroit needs a plan to save its industrial history”—advocated saving the historic structure. The Crain’s story immediately prompted an open letter to the editor from neighborhood residents, who were thrilled that something was finally being done with the abandoned complex. It was an eyesore near a public park, they claimed, one with racist ties to the area.
“The joy in our neighborhoods was indescribable,” the letter read. “For many years, that monstrous abandoned AMC site has devastated our community, driving down the home values of those who stayed, crippling any effort to rebuild commercial businesses on Plymouth, and permanently affecting our children’s view of the neighborhood where they are being raised … We won’t sit by while outsiders, who couldn’t find our neighborhood without a map, presume to tell us how much we should value their precious ‘Art-deco neighborhood landmark.’”
NorthPoint’s Conder, despite his admitted affection for historic buildings, agrees: The time to save the AMC facility has come and gone.
“Do you know how long that building has sat there untouched?” he says. “The moment someone is interested in the site, all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘You can’t do that …’ No one cared about it until we got it under contract. Talk to the community; they’re happy to see it go. Hey, I love historical buildings and want to preserve as much history as we can, but again, you have to balance that with economics and business going forward.
“The problem with Detroit is, there are not enough readily available sites to develop. So, when requirements come out for space in the city, they quickly realize there are no sites available, so they immediately look in the suburbs. And there are sites available in the suburbs, so none of the business stays in Detroit. What we’re really trying to do is help the city of Detroit create developable sites that are readily available … We’re trying to remove blighted properties, bring in new projects, bring in new jobs to the area.”
Northpoint says the plan to build a 794,000-square-foot warehouse or light industrial space on the former AMC campus at Plymouth Road will create 350 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction jobs. Demolition is expected to begin this month. Conder says it will take approximately six months to “prepare the pad” and 12 months to complete construction.
“We approach these as spec developments, meaning we don’t have a tenant,” he says. “We buy the property, tear it down, clean it up, and go vertical—all while talking to prospective tenants.”
In addition to cost, Conder says, the number-one reason NorthPoint never considered saving even a portion of the AMC structure is that every bit of the 50-acre site is needed to deliver adequate warehouse space.
University of Michigan’s Zimmerman has not visited the AMC headquarters recently, so she admits that it might be too far gone. Regardless, she says, the facility never should have reached this point. On historic Detroit buildings in general, she reasons, “The City of Detroit is not thinking about the city’s heritage here; they’re thinking about the city’s budget … (but) once these things are gone, they’re just gone. You can’t recapture them.
“I think it’s a little bit of a failure of the public realm not to have some provision to guard the history of the city and its significant buildings. Yes, they require some maintenance, and you’d have to do serious work to bring them back up to a usable state, but what do we have city governments for? We have them to keep law and order, and to preserve civic identity.”
It was two years ago that Ford Motor Company began the painstaking process of converting Michigan Central Station into office workspace. It was two years ago that Ford Motor Company began the painstaking process of converting Michigan Central Station into office workspace. READ: Ford unveils plan for Michigan Central Station Thursday, Ford showed off some surprising artifacts that have been uncovered in the 107-year-old building
When the first legal drag race in the Detroit area took place in Livonia in 1953, the Michigan Hot Rod Association began making plans for the construction of a drag strip. MHRA was started as a partnership of local hot rod clubs. As part of their fundraising strategy for the strip, they put on a hot rod show, the Detroit Autorama, in an arena at the University of Detroit.
Dave and Al Tarkanyi belonged to the Downriver Modified Car Club, one of the clubs making up the MHRA. The brothers drove a chopped and channeled 1932 Ford three-window coupe with a hopped-up Flathead engine. The car was at the 1953 Livonia race. Five years later, when the Motor City Dragway in New Baltimore held its first race, the car was there too. It also continued to show up at the annual Detroit Autorama
Manuel “Matty” Moroun died on Monday at 93 years old. That name might not mean much to you if you’re not from metro Detroit or Windsor, Canada, but around these parts, he was known mainly as the billionaire who owned, among other things, the Ambassador Bridge, which just happens to carry roughly 27 percent of all merchandise trade between Canada and the U.S.
General view of the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Canada on March 18, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The U.S. and Canada have agreed to temporarily restrict all nonessential travel across the border after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic
Image: Gregory Shamus (Getty Images)
That’s $400 billion in trade a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation with an average of $500 million in trade crossing the bridge daily. It generated $60 million in tolls for Moroun, according to the Detroit Free Press. At least 40 percent of trucking shipments into the US cross this bridge and the closest secondary crossing for big rigs is over two hours away, Forbes reports.
Not only is it the busiest international crossing in North America, but it is also the only one to be privately owned. Does it seem to you like this span is too important a crossing to be in private ownership? Because it always has to me! It spent two years as the longest suspension bridge in the world. How do you just own something so massive and crucial to the functioning of two huge economies?
I have lived with this strange fact in this strange town all my life and, no matter how it has been explained to me, it still boggles my mind. So I’m going to try and explain it to you, and hopefully, we can figure it out together.
Shot by an unknown Detroit film maker in 1928 showing Detroit police escorting new Ford cars thru the streets of Detroit to an unidentifiable location. It appears the escort went from perhaps a Ford building in Dearborn thru the streets of Detroit. Please feel free to comment if you can identify any of the streets and or buildings. historicusjoe.
Related – 1928-’31 Ford Model A ”The Start of a New Line” remains one of the most popular collector cars of all time
At one point, wrapped in a graphic depicting it sans crumbling brick or rusted steel trusses, the bridge crossing Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard served as the emblem of the resurrection of Detroit’s decayed Packard plant. Now it lies in ruins after a late afternoon collapse recently
By definition, a barn find is a car-guy’s car that’s fallen off the radar of other car guys. They’re vehicles that were stashed away in and on properties that haven’t changed ownership in decades. Of course, Detroit, AKA The Motor City, doesn’t have a whole lot of barns within its confines. But as Tom Cotter, the author of Motor City Barn Finds: Detroit’s Lost Collector Carsdiscovers, Detroit turns out to be an incredible hotbed of collectable cars in need of a new owner. One such tale from the book is the one about Sam White, the car collecting reverend and doctor.
Another excerpt from Tom Cotter this time it’s from his Motor City Barn Finds publication and it features Detroit preacher and car collector Reverend Sam White.
Interesting article on Americas first Urban Freeway, the Davison in Detroit.
Construction of the five and a half mile freeway began in 1941 and was completed by November 1942. The freeway became the first one of its kind – an urban freeway meant to connect one part of a metro area with another with as little interruption as possible