This siding's made for riding Custom car offers tribute to Formstone with Baltimore flair

October 16, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Phil Minion has turned his 1969 Plymouth Valiant into a Pigtown rowhouse on wheels.

It's got Formstone siding, a pressed-tin ceiling and classic painted screens in the windows. Not to mention an artificial grass lawn on the hood and a white picket fence on the front bumper.

Mr. Minion is not an artist by trade. He laminates menus for a living. But three years ago, while drinking at a Hollins Market gin mill, he was suddenly and inexplicably inspired.

"I was sitting in Scallio's Tavern, drinking tequila and 'Natty Boh,' and I decided to do it. I told my friends I was going to Formstone my car," said Mr. Minion, a 36-year-old who once helped make the world's largest painting of Elvis on black velvet.

"Formstone is what's around. It's Baltimore. And I like doing things that are Baltimore," Mr. Minion said. "I tried to make the car as tacky as possible."

So, in the alley behind his Hollins Street rowhouse, Mr. Minion worked for two days turning the car -- once owned by an elderly woman who went blind -- into something horrendously Baltimorean, a veritable Hon-mobile. He glued Styrofoam and latex concrete to the sides (not recommended for those worried about gas mileage).

He made painted screens showing pastoral scenes with red houses. He took 80-year-old ornate tin ceiling tile from an old West Pratt Street rowhouse and pasted it to the roof's interior.

In short, he gave it all the classic Baltimore trimmings, then threw in a couple of Norman Rockwell extras: white picket fencing and grass.

"I tried to make it as much like a Pigtown rowhouse as I could," Mr. Minion said.

OK, so latex concrete is cheap imitation of the cement found in the Formstone so familiar to Baltimore rowhouses. But concrete would have been just too heavy, explains Mr. Minion.

"It's faux-Formstone. It's fake fake stone," he says.

Formstone, essentially artificial stone siding, was invented in 1937 and boomed as a home-improvement technique shortly after World War II. Today the siding covers thousands of Baltimore rowhouses, making it a city trademark of sorts.

"I've never heard of it being put on a car," said Dean Krimmel, curator of the City Life Museums, which has chronicled the history of Formstone. Mr. Krimmel has seen Mr. Minion driving the car around town.

"The first time I saw it, I said to myself, 'Oh my God, it could only happen here,' " Mr. Krimmel said. "Personally, I love that thing. It's well done. It's a genuine article, a real part of Baltimore."

The car may end up in the museum someday. But for now, it's Mr. Minion's only vehicle, and he drives it nearly every day, listening to his Donna Summer and "Jesus Christ Superstar" albums on the car's eight-track tape player.

"One time someone broke into the car and tried to take that thing," Mr. Minion recalls. "But when they realized it was an eight-track player, they just left it on the front seat."

Another time, during the exceptionally cold winter two years ago, someone broke into the car and stole his 21-by-14-foot black velvet Elvis painting he kept rolled up in the back seat.

Mr. Minion and his friends made the painting for their 1992 masquerade ball that raised money for the Enoch Pratt Free Library. They had called Graceland to verify that their black velvet painting was the largest of the King, and after the ball, Mr. Minion stored it in the car.

"I guess they thought it was a blanket," recalls one of Mr. Minion's neighborhood friends, Brian Morton, as the two sat drinking beer at Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe. "Somewhere in Baltimore, a homeless guy is sleeping with a black velvet Elvis painting keeping him warm."

But for the most part even the thieves and vandals seem to appreciate the car. It's never been vandalized, except for a few picket fence slats someone once ripped off the bumper.

Mr. Minion rides public transportation to his laminating job in Owings Mills and leaves the car parked each day in the 1200 block of Hollins St. There, onlookers peer in through the windows, looking at the strange mess inside.

Cluttering the back seat are Tupperware bowls, eight-track tapes, mechanic's tools, rumpled blankets (a homeless man slept here one winter) and painted screens.

The dashboard is lined with crushed red velvet with little white tassels -- "my sister's old drapes," Mr. Minion says.

The car hits a Baltimorean nerve on every street corner it passes, from Pigtown to Roland Park.

"It's Formstone," exclaimed Anthony Gary, moments after Mr. Minion parked the car at Carroll and West Ostend streets, in the heart of Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown.

About a dozen people came out of their rowhouses -- many of them Formstone -- and gathered around the car. Some laughed, some shook their heads in disbelief, and some stuck their heads inside to look around.

"Look at that tin ceiling. It's just like one of them rowhouses," said Pigtown resident Ronald Smith. "I imagine there won't be any problems finding this car at a crowded mall."

Mr. Minion and a reporter hoped to travel to several neighborhoods Thursday evening. But the car's brake pedal fell off during the ride, and the car shot downhill in the 400 block of West Cold Spring Lane, sending the reporter vaulting into the back seat while Mr. Minion desperately tried to slow the car while avoiding collisions.

After about 15 to 20 seconds of downhill coasting that reached at least 50 mph, the car began traveling uphill again and came to a stop, much to the relief of the driver and passenger.

"I would have hit a pole to slow down but I didn't want to damage the siding," a visibly shaken Mr. Minion said as he reattached the brake pedal with a wrench he kept in the front seat.

For his next project, Mr. Minion says he's going to make a Formstone gazebo for his back yard.

"I love the stuff," he says. "I don't know why it hasn't caught on more. It seems so much better than stucco."

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