The ideal family structure is a picture seldom seen these days. In fact, it is more likely that most people today only visit their family once or twice a year, around the holidays, weddings or so forth, which brings up the question of what constitutes family. Being brought up in a strong traditional Hispanic family, the idea of familia has always been a staple in our lives. I have fond memories as a child spending my summers with my nieces, nephews, tias and tios at the Garcia ranch in Fresno, California.
My great-grandmother Savedra and great-grandfather Cheuy had a small two-bedroom, one-bath ranch house. It had a tiny kitchen that creaked when you walked upon its old wooden floors and faded blue paint. There was no air conditioning, cable TV or Internet, and the summers were dry with blistering heat. Yet each summer 8 to 10 grandchildren and great grandchildren would occupy that house for a month. The mornings were spent harvesting the family grapes before the late summer heat would roll in. By afternoon we would swim in the arroyos to cool off or ride bikes around the California fruit orchards. Every evening my great-grandmother prepared dinner for the whole family, usually beans and rice with homemade tortillas. The summers were simple and meager in comparison to today, but we always had food on the table and a huge family to keep us entertained. Sadly, I am one of those individuals who only travel home to see my family in California once or twice a year. Even so, there are still families that hold the common thread, that see each other regularly and have not moved on to chase a dream or better life.
As I ride out towards Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on this hot summer day, the sun is beating on my back and I am eager to hear the story of one of those long lost families – the Montoyas. After walking up to Susan’s father’s house, I am sweaty, a little tired and really hot. Their home is located on the far northern edge of Rio Rancho, not far from where the dusty dirt roads and wide-open vistas begin. It’s the kind of suburban sprawl where each home looks very similar, as houses were built and painted in the typical southwestern design, beige and brown stucco and Spanish tile. There garage is far from ordinary and is the kind of spotless garage that you can eat off. There is a half-dozen vintage Honda CBs mixed with a few modern Harleys and a Triumph Speed Triple. Tucked in the corner is a spotless ‘62 Impala, candy red restored to its original form. Close to the entrance are Susan and her father, Gene, tearing into an old CB500. Their hands are greasy and it is warm on this summer day, but they are working in perfect accord like a father and daughter ought to. Susan is a kind young woman who has a gentle nature to her and a smile on her face. After meeting Gene, it is evident where her traits and personality are derived from. Her father is one of those guys that wears a permanent grin as if he can smell the fresh air, even in New York City.
Gene was a natural gear-head from a young age. His first job was at a gas station in Albuquerque as a parts boy during the American muscle era. His youth was spent changing oil and helping with minor tune ups. It was the coolest place on earth, hanging out with older car guys and working on muscle cars, like a scene from American Graffiti. The apple did not fall far from the tree with Susan. As a child, she was often tied to her father’s hip, watching him wrench on his vehicles in the front yard, always willing to lend a hand. When Susan was old enough to drive, she inherited her first car, a 1967 VW Beetle, which would be easy for them to work on. She figured her father would help her along the way and it would give them a chance to spend time together despite their hectic schedules. It was Susan’s and her father’s first vehicle restoration together but not their last. As a young hip college student at the University of New Mexico, Susan opted for something a little more rugged, a 1982 Jeep CJ-5, before deciding to buy her first two-wheeled vehicle a 1965 Vespa scooter. Like most two-wheeled enthusiasts, she quickly realized the Vespa was not fast enough. She set her eyes on something stronger and ventured into the vintage motorcycle world. Susan’s father and mother had been driving by a local motorcycle shop called Crossroads and happened to spot a vintage Honda CB500 sitting out front. That was almost a decade ago, when the café racer craze was in its infancy here in the U.S. and there were still vintage Hondas around for a decent price. The CB was completely original with one owner. It previously belonged to an older man that had ridden it for decades and added plenty of open-road miles to it. Being that the bike was stock with quite a few miles, Susan paid $2,000 for it. After the shop ensured it was road-worthy, it wasn’t long before she rode it home. This would be their first of many bike builds together.
Susan to this day has the bike builder eye and can look at any bike and envision the concept before a single wrench has turned. Her father, on the other hand, can take a bike apart and put it back together to a better functioning form. The two form a well functioning team. Her bike was built within nine months of their purchase. The concept was a clean, custom CB with modern functions, a solo seat with a café-style hump and a paint scheme of candy olive green on black with cafe bars.
The first step was to go through the bike, from front to back, starting with the controls, the fuel, electrical and so on. With this being their simplest build, Susan was already thinking of something more complex. Before the build was complete, she was starting to explore Craigslist, looking for something similar that needed to be rescued. She figured they had one build under their belts and had firsthand knowledge of just how expensive a build could be, why not go at it again. After a few months of looking, she found their next project bike in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a 1978 CB750 with many miles but in stock condition. Again, they wanted to keep the original character of the bike, but with modern functions. This build would only take seven months to complete and consisted of a sleek black and silver look with black head covers, a cafe seat and hump, stock air box, Norman Hyde bars and original grips, along with new Dunlop tires making this bike look magazine worthy.
Their second bike was much quicker to complete and again halfway through the build Susan was already thinking of her next project. To raise money for their next bike, she listed the black CB750 on Craigslist. Just as quickly as she put the bike up, Gene asked her to take it down. He wanted the bike for his own as it would serve as a catalyst for the two of them to attend bike events and shows together. With Susan and her Dad inseparable, the rest of the family, Susan’s husband Zach and her mother Debbie started to take an interest in vintage motorcycles and wanted to get in on the action. Around that time, the motorcycle shop down the street, Crossroads, had a small fire and lost a few motorcycles. One of the bikes that had been in the fire, but not badly damaged, was a ‘76 CB750. Rich, the owner, had moved a few of the damaged bikes to the bone yard outside, not thinking anyone would be crazy enough to buy them. However, like most builders who often drool over old rusty gold, Susan was just that crazy and saw that diamond in the rough. After a year of pestering the guys at the shop, in mid December during their slowest part of the season, they cracked and gave Susan a phone call to come pick up the CB 750 Super Sport and another 750 as a parts bike in the deal.
Once Susan and her father got the two bikes home, she was ecstatic to discover that the bikes were not hopeless and only had some soot and fire extinguisher spray on them. They immediately started working on the Super Sport. Luckily it had stock duel disc brakes and a decent motor, but the bike would need to a full restoration from the frame up. Susan and Gene had started to become connected in the vintage scene and had met a metal worker out of Austin named Junior Burrell at the Barber classic bike show in Alabama. With just a concept in mind, she sent Junior the dimensions and ideas for a custom tail section that would give her Super Sport that low custom look while keeping the stock shocks. They also went with internal turn signals in the handlebars and a sleek raw metal finish.
But they still needed bikes for her mom and husband. Susan found a ’73 CB500 in Roswell, New Mexico. She and her dad turned it into a day trip, traveling to eastern New Mexico to pick up a basket-case that would eventually be restored and give her mom the chance to be part of the wolf pack.
Then came her husband’s bike, another running CB750 that they purchased for a decent price. They all spent the weekends on Zach’s build. The only problem was that the Barber bike show was just six months away, not giving them much time for completion; and for the first time, Susan envisioned the whole family bringing their bikes out to Barber to experience the show firsthand and show off their work.
Instead of getting together on just the weekends to wrench, they had to wrench after work too. But this was not a problem for anyone because it was family. After months of late nights and hard work, they made their deadline and Zach had his vintage CB750. The circle was now complete and they as a family could ride, wrench and turn heads together.
With twenty years of experience and several customs builds to their names, their bikes have received a ton of local recognition, and had they been in the scene in a more hip city like Venice or Portland, they would have a cult-like following. That has never fazed the Montoyas though, and I find that refreshing. Instead, they continue to carry that grin with them from show to show, build to build, and through it all remain humble, which is exactly what keeps them going. They have built a few more bikes since the completion of their own family builds, from another CB750 to a ’79 Harley Sportster and a couple of newer BMW R9Ts. Each one of their bikes remains spotless and flawless, and is just as complex, with details not seen to the common eye. In fact there is not a machine around that Susan and her father could not build together as he has the quiet confidence gained from his youth during another time. He enjoys explaining to Susan that with a little bit of time, the right tools and patience, they can build anything. Between the years and the builds, Susan approached her father with the idea of building her own custom home; from the ground up and with her father’s help, they plotted the layout, figured out the engineering and built Susan a custom home.
It is not always a walk in the park for them, as every builder knows, that with each build it can be as simple or complex as your vision allows. There is always the unforeseen hiccups that arise once you crack the heads or start to chase those electrical demons. Again, it is that strong work ethic and confidence that gets Susan and Gene through each build and their bond strengthens like their bikes. That idea of taking something old and restoring it to its glory while spending time with a loved one is gift that the two have created and the rest of us are still searching for, which is organic and beautiful on so many levels. Perhaps they stumbled upon this initially, or perhaps they have quietly known it the whole time, but what they have is worth keeping and they are not letting go. Gene is a few years from retiring from his construction business and envisions himself becoming a handyman for his neighbors and the elderly, not for pay, but because that is what a good man is supposed to do. Susan continues to work with The Associated Press as a correspondent, and as a family they all continue to ride and wrench almost daily. As I wrap up the interview and ride home, I can’t help but be a little green with envy; the idea of family, dependability, someone to call on not only when help is needed but just to check up on before bed must be a soothing and rewarding feeling, a sense that isn’t made with money but real time, sweat and tears.