Three vintage Volkswagen Bugs are lined up on the blighted corner of Chester Street and North Avenue. Across the street lies an avalanche of bricks, spilled from half of a crumbling rowhouse. Just east on North Avenue, some demolition genius has sheared the porches off several buildings, leaving only stumps, between which lie the abandoned pelts of a teddy bear memorial. And yet, the Volkswagens appear every day in a dainty line behind a pickup truck, like well-dressed church ladies rallying to canvass the neighborhood.
The source of this mystery stands in high, fluorescent contrast behind the garage door, somewhere between shadow and gleam. This is where you find the auto alchemy of Montez Jordan, the restorer of all things Volkswagen-as in the original air-cooled wundermaschine.
The humble shop is part of a collective known as Empressions Autos, which Jordan shares with three other mechanics, each of whom has his own niche, ranging from Cadillacs to towing.
But it's Jordan's pristine work that immediately barks like a junkyard dog when you see the shiny, clean engine he built glowing up under the open hood of a 1965 Beetle. The interior betrays a combination of tinkerer's hustle and craftsman's finesse. The seats were lifted from a Toyota Solara; the wood paneling fashioned from a lacquered-up roll of linoleum; and the plush carpeting cut so Jordan could tuck it deep under the dash.
"I have carpeted cars, and I have people say they can't wait until they take their shoes off, run their toes through it-leather seats and carpeting in a Volkswagen, oh my God," Jordan says.
Normally such restoration could range between $18,000 and $25,000, but nobody is "gonna put that kind of money in a Volkswagen." So if Jordan can get four cars done in a year, then he's done good.
Restoring Volkswagens, then, has never been Jordan's livelihood. But it has been his life.
"I should have bought a garage a long time ago. Now all I do is rent, rent, rent. I never thought I'd still be doing this," says Jordan, 57.
Actually, his first artistic pursuit was music. Jordan took to the trumpet and played in bands for decades while he worked as a printer for 26 years. But ultimately it was his love of Volkswagens that gave him the artistic outlet that he needed. Music and the grind of touring turned into a hassle, and his profession as a printer, doing everything from typesetting to book-binding to fixing the massive machines, well . . .
"I don't think God put me on this Earth to be a printer. I was a good printer, but, man, you can't express yourself through printing. You pick up a book and read a page. You don't feel the printer's emotions coming through the color of the ink."
Jordan got his start with Volkswagens when he bought a '72 Bug, which eventually needed a new clutch.
"I started thinking, I need this tool and that tool," he says. "But I realized the biggest tool that I lacked was the confidence in myself." Once he installed the clutch and drove to work, it was literally off to the races. Jordan began customizing his engine, adding air intakes and disc brakes, and redoing suspensions.
"On the weekend, I would take my Volkswagen out to the drag strip and race," he says. "I was knocking off some V8 cars, and on Monday morning, I would have five or six people out there [at the garage] waiting for me. And I would get off my print job at 3:30 or 4 o'clock."
From his curbside workspace in front of his mother's house, Jordan moved to a series of garages: first, a storage spot on Eager Street, then to Central Avenue, then to Bethel Street in Fells Point in the '90s, and finally-10 years ago-to this corner off of North Avenue.
All the while, Jordan was cultivating a niche for what he calls "daily riders," cars that you can drive both to the work and on the drag strip, or even (ahem) the occasional impromptu quarter-mile race down I-83.
"In the city, I was considered the fastest," says Jordan, who only broaches the topic when prodded. "There were a lot who wanted to be fast. But I was doing my own work. That gave me the edge."
Jordan's Bug was also well-known in the Northern Parkway and Wabash cruising scene, although he wouldn't get much action because people would say "stay away from the Bug."
Today, a clutch of loyalists gather around a red 1965 Beetle that a longtime customer willed to Jordan when he died. They all praise Jordan, who stands bashfully to the side.
"He would polish the washers and I would say, 'maaaaan,' and he said, 'that's what I do,'" says Stonewall Newkirk, who first met Jordan in the 1970s when they would go to drag races. Newkirk, looking esteemed in a fine trench coat, hat, and gloves, points to his own 1968 Beetle, packing a four-cylinder, 180-horsepower engine in the back.
"When I come in with this Bug," says Newkirk, "I'm not bragging, but it makes a statement."
Looking around the shop provides a glimpse of Jordan's work, ranging from Newkirk's understated cornstalk-green Bug to the Volkswagen Trike that sits bedazzled in bumper-car purple. Jordan built the Trike-fusing a Volkswagen with a chopper fork-for a 79-year-old founding member of the Bandoleros Motorcycle Club in West Baltimore. The bike now awaits a rack for the man's walker.
Jordan says he likes to restore the car to match his customer's personality. There was a woman from Virginia who wasn't sure what she wanted, but Jordan noticed her meticulous sense of fashion. Her hair, her jewelry all bespoke elegance. For her, he laid in a thick rug, wood paneling, and subtle LED lights along with a stunningly plush stereo system. "When she drives up somewhere, it will reflect her as well as the outfit she has on," he says.
Ultimately, Jordan looks to share the awe he felt when he first laid eyes on a Bug back when he was a kid visiting his grandparents in Virginia. This was back in Jim Crow days and he was sternly warned not to act out or touch anything. But when he hit Main Street and saw this outer-space vehicle parked along the curb, he broke away from his grandparents' grasp and pressed his face to the glass of the Volkswagen.
He figures the closest he has come to that moment is when his Kool-Aid purple Bug-with its tiny Hot Wheels split window-provoked a kid to say, "That looks gangsta."