Metro Detroit hot-rod shop obsesses over Ford’s first V-8
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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.
By day, Jagenow developed and made parts for concept cars. By night, he was wrenching on his own cars and those of his friends. Before long, he found himself maintaining the private collection of former Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance chairman Larry Smith, who helped spread the word that this former Navy man was the real deal. After Jagenow was laid off during the Great Recession, which devastated the Detroit auto industry, it was only natural that he would become a full-time mechanic and hot-rodder. The enterprise started out of his home garage in partnership with his brother Steve, who is no longer involved. But the name stuck.
Although proficient in rebuilding powertrains in anything from prewar grand tourers to concours classics, Jagenow’s real passion is the flathead Ford V-8. Which explains why flathead engines and oily parts were jammed onto floor-to-ceiling shelves, under workbenches, and wherever else there was room in the Brothers shop.
Indeed, Jagenow is a flathead virtuoso, with his engines powering land speed racing cars that chase records at Bonneville as well as reliable daily drivers. “It’s a beautiful engine—nothing is hidden—and I love the sound they make,” he mused. For the land speed racers, he attends the races with spare parts in tow to act as pit crew.
In order to break speed records and provide extra oomph to street cars, Jagenow invariably turns his attention to the intake side of Ford’s first V-8.
“It’s the biggest restriction to making power with a flathead,” said Jagenow, as he showed me a cut-in-half cylinder head. He uses the half-head to visualize how much metal he can remove from the intake passages to increase airflow. Half art, half science. He also doesn’t hesitate to use go-fast bits from the likes of Iskenderian, Stromberg, and Edelbrock.
Brothers Custom does far more than hopping up engines, though. The crew is well versed in frenching taillights, chopping tops, channeling bodies, and other old-school methods of car modification, but they don’t shy away from using modern paints and body fillers or from more mundane tasks like brake jobs and oil changes.
“I care for these cars like they’re mine,” said Jagenow. “I know all the nuts and bolts on them. I show all the customers everything that I can to keep them safe and make good decisions to keep the car on the road.”
The culmination of Brothers’ skill sets is Jagenow’s ’27 Ford roadster. It’s a striking machine, wearing deep gloss black with a crimson interior. A 4-inch channel—when a hot-rodder raises the floorpan so the body sits lower on the chassis—gives the Ford an imposing posture. In 2013, the car won the Best in Show award at Autorama Extreme. The ’27 is not just a garage queen, however. Jagenow drove it to Chicago for a car show, the flathead V-8’s lumpy, unmuffled bark coming out of both exhaust pipes in stereo.
Ideal for a road trip? Not quite. “It sucked!” Jagenow said.
The vibrant car scene in Detroit runs the gamut from coachbuilt classics to lowriders and vinyl-wrapped supercars. Jagenow and Riggle are in the thick of it all. But Jagenow likes to reimagine cars through historic filters.
“Hot-rodding can be whatever you want it to be,” he said. “But I prefer what cars used to look like in a 1940s magazine.”
Brothers Custom (Troy, Michigan)
- Open since: 2006
- Cars serviced yearly: 75–100
- Crew size: 5 full-timers
- Sweet spot: Hot-rod teardowns and flathead soup-ups
- Shop vibe: Greasy Rally Rats with an eagle eye for perfection
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I’ve loved the Flathead my entire life and have as yet to own one.
I devour every article I can find on them and one day I’ll fulfill my dream
I better get to it as I’m 76 years young and times on my butt
Great to meet Brothers thru this article and trust me I’ll be in touch
They look the part for hot rodders of that kind of car. Love their work!
I am really a Chevy guy, but I am also pursuing a flat head mill. It is in a Fordson welder at a friends lot up in Idaho! Early model not seized and black oil in the pan…
Great article. Nice to read about a good shop like this, right in my “backyard”.
Flatheads are not belly button and after 60 years of owing at least 100 of them l love them they are reliable if maintained .I would would not want to drive a 100 miles to work and back in an old car ,but when it comes to fun the best thing that has happened is the rat rod movement because as long as it is safe,a lot of doors are opened to people who cannot afford a trailer queen.So get the kids and get out and have some fun as long as you are happy.