On Nicollet Avenue S. between 47th and 48th streets, there’s an old low brick building smothered in vines. Two garage doors suggest it has something to do with cars, and there’s an empty apron that looks as if it once had gas pumps.
You might drive past it 100 times until the day someone dings your door or plows into your back bumper. Then the sign comes to mind: New Central Auto Body.
New? It looks like it’s been there forever. And in the timeline of Minneapolis, it has. This part of Nicollet was almost the frontier when the gas station was built in the 1920s.
If the main bay door is open, you might glance inside and blink: There’s a car in there whose sleek curved lines look like it was transported from the 1930s.
“It’s a cross between a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley,” said general manager Adam Strom. Legend has it that the car was made especially for the Prince of England. No one seems to know which one.
The vehicle has been undergoing a painstaking renovation process that involves fixing up the unique details (including the special compartment in the passenger’s side door for six small bottles, in case milord wished to have a tipple). While it’s a long way from where it was made, the custom car is in a familiar cove.
Strom points to a picture on the wall. It shows a black Rolls in an old, faded photo.
“Same car. We painted it white thirty-some years ago,” said Strom. “The car’s been coming back for over 40 years.”
It’s not the only photo on the walls of the stark office. There are plenty from the shop’s storied past, which is fitting for one of the oldest, continuously running auto shops in the city.
“It started out as Rustic Lodge Motor Inn in the early 20th century,” said Paula Blumer, who has been the sole owner since her husband, Paul, died in 2018.
The name may sound like a motel, but it was named after Rustic Lodge Avenue, a short, undulating east-west street that cuts through the grid of south Minneapolis. “Motor Inn” might have been a homey colloquialism for a gas station, or a pun that described how you got there. They sold the long-gone Mileage brand of gas for a while, but later switched to Texaco.
So how did it become the New Central Auto Body?
“Paul — not my husband at the time — had a body shop that he named Central Auto Body on the other side of Lake and 28th,” said Paula. “He was there about three or four years, moved over to Rustic Lodge in the early ’80s and named it New Central.
“He had no experience in repairing cars. He’d been in the business of selling them, but he wanted to do something that would be around for his kids.”
Paula ended up running the business after Paul died. It wasn’t an easy transition.
“Oh, my gosh. Here I am all by myself, don’t have him to ask a question,” she said. “But it wasn’t as frightening as if I hadn’t been in the business.”
That helped when the going got rough.
“When the economy dropped out in winter of ’08, we thought we’d be insulated,” said Paula. “The name has been around for so long, everyone’s driving and needs their cars, but in ’09 and ’10 it was a huge struggle, because as long as cars were drivable, people were driving their [damaged] cars and pocketing the insurance checks.”
She also had a good crew, including Tom Procai, who’s been restoring bruised cars for 43 years.
Procai said he’s seen a lot of changes in cars over the years.
“Everything’s more plastic,” he said. “Everything was steel before.”
The neighborhood, however, hasn’t changed much.
Procai said he likes to help out neighbors who lost a spouse and need help around the yard. “One of the old neighbors told me a few years back, ‘Let me know when you’re going to retire, Tom. I’m going to move.’ ”
In the next few months, the vines that wreath the old building will turn brown and fall, but the south side of the building will be colorful all winter. It’s covered with a mural of a tropical sunset, complete with palm tree and a classic ’50s car, all tail fins and chrome. It’s an image of idealized Americana — with a smiling face, the face of Paul Blumer.
“We ghosted him in there,” Paula said.
It’s a friendly smile, and if you see it driving past, you might slow a bit to take a look, now that you know who it is. The shop he ran has been fixing flivvers since the Coolidge administration, and it’ll probably be around to hammer out the crumples when self-driving cars start smacking into each other.