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At home with Ruth and Ron, Bobby Boy and Porki-plug

I'm not sure what to expect

June 2013

At home with the family (left to right) Martin Stumpf, mechanic; Stewart "Screwy" Felix, electrical specialist; Mike Cavender, machinist; Mark Hatfield, welder; Ruth Finch and Ron, with Double Cross. Looking on: Bobby Boy (back wall) and Porky-plug (foreground). Floor to ceiling, Ron's creative touches are everywhere.

I've just flown into Detroit, Michigan for a photo shoot with Ron Finch, the chopper-building genius of "Biker Build-Off" fame and cover star of biker magazines back to the 1960s. Finch's Custom's is located in Pontiac, just outside of the City, and I'm running late.

With five bags of lights and cameras crammed into the rental car's trunk I head north to Pontiac. It's a town that shows the wear and tear of the industrial heartland.

Discovery Channel called Finch a "madman metal magician." As I drive I imagine a deranged artist holed up behind a corrugated steel door in some abandoned warehouse, the room lighted only by his acetylene torch.

OK, here's North Sterling Drive. That's Ron's street, and here's his house. And it's sure no warehouse. It looks like any other house on the block, except for the custom flame paint job on the mail box. Dead giveaway! In fact, Ron's home and shop are located on three acres in one of Pontiac's nicer family neighborhoods.

It's 7 p.m. when I pull into the driveway. The first thing I see is an enormous motorcycle only Paul Bunion could ride. There's also a six-foot-tall fiberglass mascot from "Bob's Big Boy Restaurant." I know they asked me to come and eat dinner, but what have I gotten myself into?

Pros. Ron Finch has been a creative force in motorcycles, sculpture and painting since the 1960s. Old friend and right hand man Screwy spent years on the road as lighting specialist with performers Vince Gill, Mariah Carey, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Def Leppard and the Grateful Dead. The Fluke 88V automotive digital multimeter too has lots of experience.

Steve and Marty, two of the Ron's crew, greet me at my car door with a cool drink and a friendly handshake. Not what I expected at all. Inside, Ruth Finch, Mrs. Madman Metal Magician, has dinner waiting. I now meet the Man, Ron Finch, who is tending to the BBQ that Steve and he had started the night before, in anticipation of my visit. How cool is that? They made me feel like I was one of the gang.

And this, I learn during my visit, is life at Ron's place: Quirky creativity, an eye for found art, a family. One that happens to build some of the world's wildest custom bikes.

His shop and studio are back behind the house: studio and paint booth upstairs (Ron is famous for his psychedelic paintwork) and workshop below.

From floor to ceiling, the studio is decorated as only Ron Finch could do it: a bouncing steel figure called "Bobby Boy" looks out over such wild creations as "Loophole," a Harley with exhaust pipes routed through the frame, and "Trilogy," a BSA Triple-based three-wheeler with triple everything. Don't stumble over "Porki-plug," a hedgehog welded up out of spark plugs. He's heavy - and prickly.

Outside there is a meticulously maintained yard and gardens, that wrap around the shop and down to a pond. The landscaping is Ruth's artistry and escape. She is up early and hard at it before the guys roll in at 9. But nothing escapes Ron's creative touch. The pond has a giant, half submerged, skeletal fish in it, welded up from steel. Steel flowers with custom paint jobs decorate the yard. The stairs from Ron's studio into the backyard are made of street grates and manhole covers. And no sanctuary is complete, in Ron's eyes, without a 10-foot, fire spewing, yellow motorcycle made out of junkyard scrap.

Ready to ride! Screwy uses the Fluke 88V Automotive Digital Multimeter to check the vital signs on Double Cross. The bike is typical Finch: almost nothing is off the shelf. Looking like the eyes on a praying mantis, PIAA driving lights serve as headlamps. Triple trees carved from billet aluminum are extra wide to clear the frame tubes. Twin Webers feed mixture to an S&S motor. In the background is Ron's propane-fired giant display bike.

Then there's "Double Cross," the bike Ron built to compete against Jesse Rooke in the Discovery Channel's chopper building contest. First impression: it's huge. The frame extends between the fork tubes, so Ron had triple trees cut extra wide to clear. It's long and low, with twin Weber carbs sticking up over a frame of curving tubes. There's almost nothing straight on the bike. Bars, frame and exhaust twist and crisscross. Gas tank and oil bag are built into the rear fender.

You won't see a bike like this on your drive home.

I also meet Ron's bike-building crew, specialists who help out with welding, mechanics and electrical systems. Not exactly employees. More like a family. I want to get some shots of Double Cross and the other bikes in action, and this is where the Finch Family really kicks into the gear. In particular, I want to include Steve's bike, The Web, in the shoot. Steve Dulek is the general handyman and heavy equipment operator for shop operations. Problem is that The Web is still getting a new rear wheel and axle. The torque from the S&S power plant bent the last axle. Marty Stumph, the mechanic, tries to fit the new wheel that was machined from a solid block of Billet aluminum and realizes that the new race axle doesn't marry up to the wheel just right. A quick call to Mike Cavender, Ron's custom Machinist, will solve the problem. Mike drops everything to come over to the shop and take the precise measurements it will take to get the wheel and axle to fit inside the custom frame.

You bet she runs. Ron Finch gives Double Cross a workout, accompanied by Steve Dulek on "The Webb" and Screwy on "Beg, Borrow and Stole."

Screwy Felix, Ron's electrical specialist and painter assist, also gets Mark Hatfield, Ron's one and only welder, to help him on a hair-line crack in the gas tank. Any one that knows about welding around gas vapors knows this is no small task, and Mark is the man for the job. Mark and Screwy pull off the delicate weld and not only save the gas tank but the very intricate paint job Ron had done on it.

Steve's bike rolls off the rack and is ready for the ride and the Bay City Show coming up next week. So we head out on the road. It is hard to keep up with these guys. They are pros in the shop and on the bike. They use the bikes exactly for what they build them for: to show off.

We're barely into it when Ron pulls over. Double Cross has called it quits. Screwy heads back to the shop to grab the Fluke 88V automotive multimeter to find the problem: a broken fuel pump wire. That fixed, we're back on the road. After getting some great shots of these guys and their wild creations, we retire the day on a great note.

Later, heading back to the airport, I think about Ron and his crew. The madman I'd been led to expect, I didn't find. But I did see a unique and restless creativity in action. And I saw an incredible family.