Photos and words by Nick Miramontes Photography
Rick Monahan “a real airhead”
When telling Rick Monahan’s story I find it only fitting to associate with a bit of nostalgia; for those of you unfamiliar, BMW officially began to produce motorcycles in the 1920’s; mainly because of the post WWI armistice, the Treaty of Versailles, which banned the German Air Force. Let’s suppose that would have never happen and BMW would’ve continued to manufacture aircraft engines instead of getting into the manufacturing of air brakes, industrial engines, agricultural machinery, toolboxes, office furniture and then on to the motorcycles and cars we now know. What a different world we may live in. We’ll never know, which probably is for the best considering what other changes we may have faced. All that presupposing aside, you my ask "Why mention it when doing a piece on an American mechanic?" Well, they would have a direct correlation and share a symbiotic relation because if BMW wouldn’t have produced motorcycles than Rick would not have fallen in love with his first bike, a 1960 R50/2 and I may never have met him myself. Who knows what would’ve happen?
But fortunately, they did make motorcycles and he did buy his first BMW brand new at age 16 from a shop in his hometown of Redding, Massachusetts for $300 plus tax and six years ago I did happen to walk into, his then shop, in Inglewood enquiring about some parts for my, at that time R90, and later to cultivate a friendship that has lasted to this day.
Although, what I find to be the greatest comparison to these coincidences is not by the chance encounters and parallels of time and life but by the way we face adversity. Take BMW, a business forced to work around guidelines that would prohibit them and one man who’s passion lead him to knowing everything he possibly could about these particular bikes. He could’ve taken many different paths from the mid to late 60’s to present day; from being drafted in to the US army during Vietnam (which he was but got out of it, that is a story for another time) to working on boats to working at an aircraft company in Torrance and finally deciding at age 55 to follow the passion and devote his time solely to the one thing that had shaped his life so long ago and accepting that the R series “airhead” BMWs were truly his calling.
To Adapt, over come adversity, face challenges head on, accept failure along with fortune and continue to follow your passions no matter what; does this sound familiar? Seems to be a mantra of the modern day “millennial gen” and who would have thought you could learn a lot about it from a 68 year-old man?
We had the pleasure to sit down with this “Airhead” Rick Monahan and pick his brain about bikes, babes, the 60’s and everything Rick. Along the way we got a life lesson or two and all we had to do was sit back and listen. If you don’t know Rick Monahan than you are in for a treat as he drops wax poetic and gives us some cleaver insights in the form of “old-timey” sayings and analogies on life as he sees it.
Where are you from?
Rick Monahan, I’m originally from Redding, Massachusetts I came to California in 1968 on my first cross country bike trip which was also on the first bike I ever owned a 1960 R50/2 little 500cc.
What made you stay in Southern California?
Well after coming here in 1968 and going back home to Massachusetts after a summer of exploring all of California I just didn’t like what I was seeing back home, it was the late 60’s a lot of my friends were either messed up on drugs or not returning alive because of the “conflict” in Vietnam. I decided to head back to Los Angeles and give it a shot; I mean, there wasn’t any drugs in California, right? Eventually I met a girl and she convinced me this is where it’s at and after a lot of convincing I got her into liking motorcycles which wasn’t easy because she had a horrible story of a friend of hers who was involved in a motorcycle accident that had depleted him to the IQ of a small dinner salad but eventually she became converted and I got her to even do a cross country trip from Boston to LA by way of Canada on my sidecar outfit. That relationship lasted awhile.
Were you a motorcycle mechanic from day one of being here?
My god no, before I decided to venture into doing my own thing and devoting my time to BMW motorcycles I did all sorts of odd jobs to make ends-meat; from working on boats to stretching helicopter propellers at an aircraft company in Torrance which was a really interesting job. Then after numerous jobs I decided at age 55 I had to give my true passion a shot and start a motorcycle repair shop; I found an add in Cycle Trader magazine advertising BMW parts for sale; so I called the guy up after waiting about two weeks to build up the nerve to accept that this was something I had to do. So I called the guy up turned out he was an ex WWII German mechanic of Italian birth, I guess he must’ve liked the more organized Nazi military than that of the Italian army. So, I went to visit him up in the valley where he lived and worked; after he was released from a POW camp he made is way here and used his expertise as a BMW guy and making the rounds at various dealers until he was 83 and now wanted to get rid of the remaining projects that were left in his garage along with some very BMW specific wrenches and specialty items that I could use to really specialize in this and get started fast. He wanted $40,000 for the lot and after a few weekends in a row visiting him; I decided I’m gonna be straight with the guy and let him know I’m interested but don’t really have the 40 large all at once. He couldn’t have been nicer and he seem to respect my honesty and appreciate my understanding of what he really had here; parts I hadn’t seen in years, multiples of things that you couldn’t find anymore he really had gold here. He told me since I was the only guy who came to see him without haggling him down in price he’d let it go for $20,000 all-in. So some good fortune and generosity had found me with two van loads of stuff right where I needed to be to really make a mark in this concept of becoming a real BMW motorcycle repair shop.
From what I know of the R series “airhead” vintage BMW motorcycle market it is very niche, particular and specific clientele, why these bike?
Well, here’s what happen. I need to backtrack a bit before my trip in 1968; back in Redding Mass in the mid ‘64-’65 there was a Bridgestone dealership, back then the people who use to make tires made small displacement motorcycles, like 50cc something like that and this dealership would rent them for $2.50 an hour so me and my friends around the age of 16 at the time would go down and rent them for an hour or two take them out the local forest area and beat the hell out of them then return them. Back then a sportster or triumph bonnie were the biggest bike you could get besides a Harley dual glide but one day while I was working as a car detailer after school to make extra cash my buddies came up and told me I had to go to Ken’s place, the Bridgestone dealership, and check out this really weird German bike; I knew I wanted to buy a bike at that time but wasn’t sure it was between that and a old ’50 Plymouth Cranbrook car that I had a hook-up on from a co-worker, it was a real stogie republican car but hey wheels are wheels when you are 16. So I went up to the Bridgestone dealer and saw this bike I had never seen anything like it in my life it was so different I had to have it; with Massachusetts tax the grand total was $381.00. So, despite a little opposition from home not so much my father who had an Indian in the late 30’s but my mother of course knowing I was a bit of a maniac falling out of trees breaking stuff you know the usual kids stuff so I went through some hoops before I was allowed to have it. Eventually I bought it; it was a 1960 R50/2 500cc little number. And of course a few weeks later showing off for some friends the old no hands, no helmet, standing on the seat one-leg style trick; I dumped it (this little mark on my arm is the remnant of that). Any way I had to return it to the dealership a defeated moment for sure but eventually I convinced my parents that I was responsible enough to have it again, just in time because as I was on my way down to buy it back the dealership was about to sell it. And I still have the bike to this day 50 years later it’s in pieces around here but it’s still all here. That gets us to the niche and particular type of people who get into these type of bikes; I would say I am a nostalgic guy for sure and I think most people who are into these type of bikes are. I guess initially before I even started to wrench on them I could relate to that. It was really my father who got me into the idea of working on these bike; he was a structural engineer very mechanically inclined and a constant tinkerer he bought a service manual for the bike and started to force me to try and do the work on the bike myself. Although, I was a bit apprehensive at first thinking things like valves had to be done by the local shop he always said “it’s not a person you aren’t performing surgery if you mess up you didn’t kill someone just take your time and if it doesn’t seem right try it again.” I guess his encouragement really sparked my interest in how things worked I can remember countless Sundays having it in pieces in the driveway when my dad who would want to take it for a ride all the time; he’d always be frustrated as to why I wasn’t out riding on a beautiful day. Obviously, I still wasn’t a mechanic but I need to know what I was riding my plan was to leave town and I wanted to know what the hell I was doing. I guess, the long-short answer as to why these bikes happened on May 16th 1968 when I decided to take that bike from Redding, Mass. via route 66 heading to Los Angeles that it was clear I would always have a fondness for these bikes and was willing to devote the time it would take to know as much as I could about them so I guess that is ‘Why these bikes’ for me.
So, California in 1968 traveling across the country at that time. Man, how was that?
Wow, traveling down route 66 I met some really amazing people had a real blast for sure. I remember finding refuge for the night in small towns in places like Oklahoma by camping in cemeteries, to avoid people and cops mostly, figuring who’s going to bother to go in there at midnight, right? You’d be surprised but it was a blast and of course at 18-19 years old as I reached Los Angeles I was hard pressed for cash so I took a job at a Aircraft factory in Torrance it was the crappiest job stretching these helicopter propellers mixed alloys for a whopping $2.48 per hour I worked there for a few months so I could save up and continue my travels and head North to Haight-Ashbury. And I eventually went up there and saw nothing but a bunch of drugged out pimply faced runaway kids and thought this isn’t the utopia I was expecting; share and share alike became nothing but a commune in the middle of the city maybe not that bad but not my thing. So I split and went back down the coast to Big Sur area met a well connected guy, Tom Crow, young guy who’s parents had a guest house so I stayed there he was really great guy who knew all the right people all the cute girls all the great parties; it was pretty amazing his dad was a WWII vet who had no problem showing you all his battle wounds the guy was shot up like swiss cheese but really generous people so I spent the remainder of my time up there it was a crazy 1968 summer it was really fun. See back then you could find stuff like that I met Tom in a connivance store while buying supplies for a night of camping it was just that way. So in 1969 I set back east but that trip is when I really bonded with my bike the nostalgia factor goes so deep, I’m a nostalgic guy as it is that’s why I still have it.
Back then what did your friends think of this bike?
Well back then everyone was really into Harley and smaller British bikes at least where I was from the Japanese market was there for sure; but there was a cool factor that my friends always took into consideration. I was really into reliability and going places; there’s and old saying ‘chrome don’t get you home’ and that’s really what the BMW was about for me getting to and from where and whenever I wanted to go. I wasn’t an ace mechanic yet so having the shaft drive and boxer engine to help keep the cylinders cool that was really key; Harley’s had a tendency for the rear cylinder to wear different because it wasn’t evenly cooled one behind the other. You could get 9,500 miles plus out of a set of points on these bikes those British bikes a couple thousand and that was pushing it that’s bragging rights on those bikes. These bikes just made sense to me there is something about these bikes you get enough gasoline in your veins and it’s all consuming; trust me they cost me some good relationships and some friendships along the way but they just couldn’t hang with the bikes they either felt is was dangerous or I was just too into motorcycling.
Where do you see these bikes in today’s modern culture of motorcycling; with all the different trends from Japanese and British custom café to the chopper scene to adventure riders and beyond, where do you see these bikes fitting today?
Some people want a warranty on their bike some people just want it for a few years and trade it in on the next new thing. But there is enough young guys out there now who real have no interest in the rolling computers of today and fancy themselves minor mechanics who would like to have something they can understand and get the pleasure out of working on with just enough customization that it becomes theirs. And if they need to take it to a proper mechanic they can at least talk intelligently about it enough to understand and communicate. And a lot of people just realize they don’t need to go 140 MPH to really enjoy what I’m doing. I think there are enough people out there who just want something they can really enjoy in the canyons and anywhere with a classic look that is reliable and that’s where these bikes fit. I’m sure even these younger guys get sick of rolling through the city and having cops just waiting for them to open it up or rattle the windows of every car with the aftermarket pipes. But these bikes really dredge up that nostalgic gene in younger guys something that tells them these 60’s to 80’s BMWs are worth preserving. I think the market today still lends itself to the quality of great bikes and this younger generation seems to see the value in quality and if the right people maintained them three or four owners before them there is no reason it can’t go 100 to 150 plus thousand miles. I knew a guy out of Vancouver who got 600,000 miles out of his bike, four wives one engine; this guy Philip still has that bike and I met him in 1970. It’s like appreciating high quality furniture; dove tail assembly instead of just gluing and slapping something together. I’ve taken a lot of these things apart and every time you just get the sense that even the people who manufactured these bikes back then really cared about what they were doing it wasn’t just a factory job I mean it use to be that BMW only hired women pin stripers exclusively obviously on decaf only, ha ha. But you just see the attention to detail all the way through the process. I think I’ll always want to swing my leg over one of these bikes even well into my twilight years somehow even if I have to pay the newspaper kid to start it just to hear the motor.
I’d say in this day and age you are a dying breed; that old school mechanic who has devoted themselves to this one particular thing, that’s rare. I would view what you do as an art form and you as an artist, you think that’s a fair assessment?
You know people say that but I never think about it like that, I mean to me, I just fix things. I view artists as those who master a perfect brushstroke or have a higher understanding of how to execute something from nothing. I just don’t see it but I guess when you consider it as a craft and you get to a point where you know it so well it’s second nature, I mean if you put it in the context of striving to be the best you can be at it and show attention to detail, than I guess; I just never think of it that way.
I mean, I still look at parts catalogs on paper I just have that kind of background. To your point of an artist to craftsman, I always look at the appreciation one takes when doing something and the time and effort they’ll put in to it so I guess that is an art form in itself I just never thought about it. I started looking at these things in 1966 and from that moment on I wanted to know more and more. I mean you can play a musical instrument well or play it forever, right? One can learn it and the other can never stop learning.
Success, what does that mean to you?
Well, from a business standpoint I can say success wasn’t going to smile on me I just didn’t have what it takes my mind just doesn’t work like that and I need to be ok with that; you aren’t human if you can’t accept failure and I didn’t fail as much as from a business standpoint I didn’t see success in the fiscal sense. I have had a lot more success at life by the relationships I’ve had and by what doing what I love and how it’s brought me closer to everything in my life. I was fortunate enough to have a strong family, six kids large Irish family, I had a great childhood and two loving parents never motivated by fear and violence it was always done through voice control when my father lowered his head and his voice you did your homework and verbal encouragement which I will always feel lucky to have had I was always told ‘yeah you can do that’ so I always had confidence. I still feel that to this day I mean I’m considering doing a cross-country walk when I turn 70 I’m just not afraid to through it out there. From the people I’ve known since grade school literally still keep in touch with to those who I’ve met through my travels on these bikes to the people who have walked through my doors like yourself I have cultivated life long friendships. As far as success goes, I always felt that I was successful in life that way more than anything but I guess I have been successful to have never have been in jail… That’s a major I mean trust me there were times I got close. No, all kidding aside success is for me what you take from the people you surround yourself with and the times you enjoy with one-another. It’s not a matter of money to me when running a shop I don’t mind showing you how to change a tire, do your oil, points, valves, change a light etc. I mean you should know how to do some of those things if you are traveling it’s important. I always felt if you need something major done you come back to me; there is plenty of work out there I’d rather you be happy with the bike and come see me when you don’t know what is wrong rather than for every little problem. Back in the day motorcycles were a cheap mode of transportation and what helped them stay cheap was doing some of the work yourself; nowadays you have these bikes with the fold out tennis courts and a smoker on the back it’s crazy the luxuries we don’t want to leave behind I don’t need to watch TV while camping in Yosemite, I think it’s ludicrous that a new BMW adventure bike is $25,000 dollars that doesn’t make sense to me that can’t be what makes you successful every nickel and dime and share nothing with anyone, I mean motorcycling has always been a culture of sharing.
Finally, what is your dream bike? And what is the strangest thing or fix you’ve ever seen come to you?
Well my dream bike is the bike I still have; my 1960 R50/2 and someday I’m gonna get her running again, I will. As far as strangest fix; man I’ve seen so much it’s hard to think and if I told you them all you’d probably run out of tape on the recorder but something recently… Oh, I saw a guy came to me and he had bypassed his headlight switch because of some malfunction with the switch or something and it was fixed by one of those pull chains you’d see on old wall-mount light fixtures, literally like you’d have in your garage or something; I just thought that was pretty wild, something straight out of Cuba, but hey, it worked.
We'd like to thank Rick for sitting down with us, telling stories and sharing his passion for these old bikes. He's still working old airheads so if you want to get in contact with him, hit us up and we'll connect the dots.