A Baltimore Body Shop Has Been Trickin’ Out Cars For 100 Years
“Then 6 o’clock rolls around/You just finished wiping your car down/ It’s time to cruise, so you head to the summertime hangout/ It looks like a car show,” rapped the man they called the Fresh Prince in 1991. There are very few pleasures in the world greater than rolling down your windows on the first warm day of the year and cranking the volume knob on your radio hard right. Law enforcement may not like it, and it’s, you know, rude. But cruising in the summertime is an American tradition.
Of course, it helps if you’re not driving an ’87 Hyundai with the paint flaking and mismatched wheels. Summer car worship has always been an integral part of popular music, from the Beach Boys’ little deuce coupe to War’s lowrider, but hip-hop culture has taken it beyond the dreams (and budgets) of even the most committed Kustom Kulture maniacs of the ’60s and ’70s. Paint jobs that cost two months’ rent. Rims so big they’re not only street illegal but actually damage the car. Fish tanks in the dashboard. Enough speaker wattage to level a city block.
Car customization is big business now, as anyone who’s ever tuned into Pimp My Ride, Monster Garage, or King of Cars knows. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on custom jobs may be strictly for celebrities, the rich, and lucky MTV viewers, but one of the longest-running customizing businesses in the country is right here in Baltimore.
Klein Automotive sits on an unassuming block of Sisson Street in Remington that seems to be made up of nothing but body shops. There is a door, with a rather minimalist sign, but it’s locked. You have to walk through the open garage bay to find the owner, Ted Klein, in his small and pleasantly cluttered office. Now in his 60s, Klein has the white hair and ruddy face of a slightly sauced sea captain. His grandfather started the shop nearly 100 years ago, at Hillen and Colvin streets in Oldtown, as a hardware store that grew into an auto shop as the demand for parts increased in the still-young 20th century. The shop was taken over by Klein’s father; Klein himself started working there when he was 12. (The shop has only been in its current location for a little more than a year.)
After 50 some years on the job, Klein is matter-of-fact about even the most outlandish requests he’s received. “The early customization we used to do was in the ’40s,” he says. “They used to sell coupes, and they only had front seats. So my father made backseats for them, which I still do today.” But following World War II, customization became less practical and more cosmetic, less about getting where you needed to go and more about fronting like you were The Shit.
A bit of history first. The phrase “custom car” passed into American pop culture in the 1950s along with the image of the souped-up hot rod. Hot rods were mostly pre-WWII cars that enterprising teenagers stripped of excess bulk (to make them faster) and outfitted with the oversized engines (to make them, like, even faster) made famous in the artwork of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. The drab factory colors of the original Fords and Mercurys were replaced with radiant, candied paint jobs that are echoed today every time Houston rappers like Paul Wall or Bun B talk about their “candy paint.”
Like most advances in the art of ostentatious automobile design, the hot rod was a California invention, specifically Los Angeles, where, as Missing Persons taught us, no one walks. “They’re usually the ones who get there first,” Klein says of the West Coast. Originating among California’s Mexican culture—the term “greaser” was originally a racial slur before being reclaimed by the Fonzies of the world—and then spreading to the Anglos, hot rods spawned multiple offshoots as the ’50s became the ’60s. There were street racers or drag racers, even more stripped-down and speedier, often skirting the edge of legality. There were lowriders, immortalized in that aforementioned War song and in dozens of rap videos from the early ’90s. And then there was the van.
Ah, the van. If you were a boy in the ’70s or early ’80s, it was hard not to admire these monuments to manhood, these boxy emblems of virility. You would see them parked in the shopping-mall lot, showing off in the summer heat, driven by men in David Cassidy haircuts (often well into the ’80s) with suspicious-looking mustaches. They were adorned with gorgeous airbrushing, perhaps featuring a barely clothed Red Sonja/Conan tableau, or maybe an angry-looking Merlin or a lone wolf under a pregnant moon. And speaking of pregnancy, we all knew what went on in the backs of these vans.
“I did my first one in 1960, when Ford came out with the first Econoline,” Klein says. “A customer came in and asked if you could put carpet in the van. And I was kind of shocked: ‘I guess you can.’ Suddenly I’m doing vans with beds in the back and sofas and iceboxes and sinks.
“I remember I did one with mirrored ceilings and a fireplace—a simulated fireplace,” he continues, somewhat incredulously. “There was one that had music-activated lights in the ceiling, hollow wooden beams with plastic lenses in them that blinked on and off to the music. It was a challenge, because they had that technology for home use but there was nothing available for a car battery, so I had to rig up the electronics myself.” He also installed more than a few hidden compartments, but, he laughs, “I never asked what they were for.”
But the vans Klein Automotive made weren’t just for sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Klein was involved in the early planning stages of an Army vehicle that he likens to the mobile command RV from Stripes. He’s outfitted vans for private investigators with two-way mirrors and to make 24-hour stakeouts more comfortable. And he also worked on early versions of WJZ-TV’s mobile news trucks.
But the heyday of the van was a long time ago, and today’s cars offer fewer options for customization. “Now the big market is SUVs,” Klein says. “Of course, other than some decorative things, there’s not much you can add to [SUVs]. But now they’re putting things like TVs in them. Hell, I put a TV in a car back in the early ’60s. Things that they’re doing now, that have become popular, I was doing them 30, 40 years ago. There just wasn’t a big market for it. To mount a TV, and for the converter, it was $250 or $300. People were paying $100 for a month of rent or buying a car for $2,000 or a house for $10,000.”
Though Klein once had a staff of over 30, that’s now dwindled to three. He thinks that fewer young people are getting into the customs game because there’s more stable money to be made in traditional mechanic work, body repair, and so on. But it’s more likely that customizing, once the province of guys in their garages, is now handled by shops like West Coast Customs, which employ highly trained specialists in body work, electronics, paint, and interiors. There’s still plenty of money to be made in customizing, but fewer opportunities for entry-level positions. People will always be needed to hammer dents out of lemons and realign bent axles, but the skill set required to add a cappuccino maker in an armrest is out of the hands of inspired amateurs.
The O.C. Car and Truck Show, held every summer at the Ocean City Convention Center (June 10-11 this year), draws thousands to see 21st-century custom cars, with their blinding chrome, molded grills, and hydraulic doors. As a summertime hangout à la the Fresh Prince, the O.C. Car Show is more like a three-ring circus than a gathering of friends. Last year’s show featured Ludacris, Flava Flav, Funkmaster Flex, and Cam’ron—plus bikini models and B-list cable TV celebs.
These days, rather than the beach and the flash, Klein says he gets the most satisfaction out of providing customizations for handicapped customers—adjusting seats, foot and hand controls for paraplegics, left-foot gas pedals—saying with a hint of pride that he just finished one such job last week. It’s not particularly sexy—and no one asks for a fake fireplace anymore—but Klein doesn’t seem much bothered. Even driving a junker, everyone deserves the right to front like they’re The Shit—or just get where they’re going.
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