Robert Montiel admires the engine of his newly restored General Lee Friday afternoon. “There’s nothing like getting in that car. You forget yourself, your problems and you just go,” he said. (CNJ Staff Photo: Sharna Johnson)
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
He’s not a bootlegger, he’s not running from the law and he doesn’t get in through the car’s window. But Robert Montiel attracts attention nonetheless as he cruises around Clovis in his Hemi orange 1969 Dodge Charger.
The car is a reproduction of The General Lee, made famous in “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show. And Montiel has been smiling since Wednesday, the day he picked up his customized, childhood dream car from a local auto shop.
“I remember when I was 10 or 11, I’d come home every afternoon in a hurry to watch ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ I always said to myself when I was a kid, ‘One day I will have one of these cars,’” the 33-year-old Clovis business owner said.
“I can walk in my garage and say, ‘It might not be the real one and Jessica Simpson may not have sat in it but it’s mine.’”
Simpson played cousin Daisy Duke in the 2005 movie based on the TV show, which aired from 1979 to 1985 on CBS and entertained viewers with its fast cars and colorful cast of characters, according to Wikipedia.
The General Lee, with its trademark orange paint job, 01 on the door and Confederate flag on the roof, is an American pop icon when it comes to cars.
“The General Lee car is probably one of the most popular cars in America. From children to adults, that’s a car that can never be forgotten — everybody knows that car,” Montiel said.
In agreement, wide-eyed 12-year-old Max Agee was grinning from ear to ear Friday afternoon as he approached Montiel’s car in the parking lot of its re-birth place.
“Yeah,” he said when asked if he had seen the car on TV, his smile unwavering. He seemed unable to avert his eyes from the sleek orange paint.
“See, that’s what it’s about — the kids,” Montiel said as he watched Max admiring the car, his own face plastered with a wide smile. “I want to put smiles on kids’ faces like I had — I want a good thing to come of this.”
Getting his dream car wasn’t an easy route for Montiel. He turned up at Mike Muraco’s Clovis auto shop with a restored “plumb crazy” purple ’69 Charger and said he wanted it turned into a General Lee. Muraco said he was reticent to modify what already seemed like a great muscle car.
“I was like, ‘That’s an awful nice car to change into a General Lee, Robert. Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘I’m sure.’”
With the handiwork of Muraco and his team, it took about 700 work-hours to transform the purple Charger into a replica of the dirt-slinging, underdog-hero-transporting muscle car that nurtured a generation of children and inner-children alike.
Some 30 hours alone were spent researching every detail. Finding the right shade of orange and the correct wheels were some of the challenges they faced in an effort to accurately replicate the original car, the 48-year-old shop owner said.
Complete with a horn that sounds Dixie and a roll bar, Montiel’s car is the spitting image of the original, though he opts to use the doors instead of the windows for entry for fear of scratching the paint.
To see the unadulterated enthusiasm on Montiel’s face, one would not know it is actually the third General Lee Charger he has owned. He sold the previous two when personal matters arose, but this one is his, he said.
Montiel admits the urge to drive like the Duke cousins Bo and Luke has hit when he’s behind the wheel.
“I just couldn’t resist and I was like, Where can I go where there’s a nice piece of dirt where nobody will see me?” he said laughing.
Issuing a good-natured warning, Muraco said Montiel had better not get too far into character while driving the car, pointing out the stunt cars used in the show were retired after one jump.
“I’d cry — everybody that was involved in building that car would cry,” he said with a smile.