It was thirty years ago, more or less, on a balmy evening not unlike this one, when a group of men—six to 10 of them, witnesses recall—were gathered in the Crown fuel station parking lot near Mondawmin Mall. Just the men and their custom vans.
They were coming up with a name for their club.
“I remember the meeting,” says David Jones, aka “Carpet Bagger.” “We were sitting around talkin’, people kicking out different names and what-not. I said, ‘Let’s name the club “Nomads.”’ I kind of explained it. You are a wanderer. You don’t belong to anyone.”
And so it was that the legend, which lives to this day in camping trips up and down the East Coast, was born. The Nomads, all African-American, mostly men (“Ramblin’ Rose” Pryor Trusty was a member too) formed part of a custom brotherhood animated by beer and music, crazy paint schemes, wild wheels, CB radios and gratuitous nudity.
They’re still truckin’ today, in the midst of what might be a vanning comeback.
Custom vans were the new thing in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The VW microbus—cheap, roomy, often fit-out for camping, and horrendously under-powered—inspired legions of others to grab at bigger, more muscular American-made vans and fit them out likewise.
“Back then the van, you know, it was a thing for work,” Jones says. “But you know a conversion van, the kind you can get today? That’s what we were trying to do back then.”
The men installed plush carpeting, trick lighting, cookstoves, sinks—and, of course, beds. Captain’s chairs and bubble windows, mega-stereos, TVs, bad-ass paint jobs, fender flares . . . some vanners—among them Willie “SWAT” Godfrey, the club’s current president—even put extra axles and wheels on their vans, stretching the boxes three feet and giving them a semi-truck look.
It was something like Monster Garage meets Woodstock. “We elevated what the hippies done,” Jones says.
The Nomads were a black hippie gearhead nudist club, trucking all over the Mid-Atlantic and deep into redneck white-folk territory. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“The important thing at the meeting was, people wanted to use CB handles instead of names, because we knew each other by those CB names,” Jones says, recalling one of the most important rule-setting arguments in the club’s history. “But I wanted to use real names. And I won that argument. I wanted to use our real names because if something happened to a club member, if they got in an accident or they were on the news, people in the club needed to know that ‘Carpet Bagger’ was Davy Jones.
“For the longest kind of time we didn’t know his name,” Jones says, nodding to SWAT, whose shop, Godfrey Auto Works, at 3605 Woodland Ave., the Nomads are gathered in. It’s a spare space with a desk and a small table, and a shelf of van-topped trophies lining one wall. Through a swinging door is a vast garage housing a half-dozen cars, including an old Cadillac with new gold paint, a ’72 Ford Maverick with a race motor in it, a classic Mustang, and some other customers’ cars. Godfrey still bashes panels, sands, and sculpts with metal and filler back there.
Eric Nelson walks in. He’s got a leather vest on with the name “Nasty Man” stitched on the breast.
He says he joined the club in the mid-’70s after seeing dudes roll through his neighborhoods in these tricked-out vans. “I had a car,” he says. “I always wanted a van.”
Nelson went to Lester Parker at Monument Ford and got a new car in 1975 that he needed his father to co-sign for. By ’76 he was trading it in for a Ford van. He was 25 years old at the time. “When I got it there was nothing in it but carpet. I put a sofa bed in there. I already had an ice box,” he says.“SWAT painted it for me a couple of times.”
SWAT left the fine work—the pinstripes, the murals, the flames and the wings—to others, he says.
“There was a guy back in the old times, his name was Butch; we called him Wandering Art,” SWAT says. “He’d do your bug deflector or your tire cover. He had a school bus he used to ride around in.”
SWAT’s got a box out now with Nomads meeting minutes going back 30 years or more—and a bunch of old photos. There’s a picture of one of the six-wheel vans he made. “It had four captain’s chairs, a sofa bed, TV, everything,” he says.
There’s a photo of the club circa 1975—a band of young, black men looking like they had the world by the short and curlies. “Only trouble with that picture—most of them are dead,” he says.
Lee Coleman—“Angel Wings”—is one who didn’t make it. He was president of the club in ’77. He had wings painted on his van. “He died a year after that,” SWAT says.