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Franko Montoya Becomes The First Piston Apprentice

Although Franko Montoya had a budding interest in cars while in his teens, his true passion for working on them didn’t surface until he began attending McPherson College, known for its outstanding car restoration curriculum. He didn’t realize that his passion could turn into a career. Today, at the age of 25, he is The Piston Foundation’s first Piston Academy apprentice.

By Judy Stropus

December 13, 2023

From History Buff to Car Tech Stuff

“I was a history major in a community college in California, and I bought my first car, a 2008 Nissan Altima,” he said. “I started having issues with the stereo and then went down the YouTube rabbit hole to try to fix it. On YouTube, I also saw someone drifting a car. So, I sold the Altima and bought a 1992 Mazda Miata. From then on, I was hooked, learning how to drift and building my car at the same time.”

He was soon introduced to McPherson by a high school friend who was a student there. “She was like, ‘hey, you like cars, don’t you?’ ‘I’m like, yeah, I love cars’,” he said. “Well, her school had this program where they work on classic vehicles. And, I was like, ‘oh, that sounds cool’. I wanted to transfer over to university and get my bachelor’s degree and I applied and they accepted me.”

A Passion for Painting

Following graduation in 2022, he began his search for a job in the industry. After applying at a number of shops, his path took him from his home in Fort Stockton, Texas, to Ayer, Massachusetts, where he was offered a job at KTR Racing. “It was a great first job because they were kind enough to teach me everything,” he explained. “I was doing mechanical work, machining work, fabrication, welding, electronic work, engine work. But the one thing I really wanted to do was painting. And that’s the one thing I didn’t do there. It was a great job. It just wasn’t what I was passionate about.”

Before landing at KTR, Montoya’s quest for a job at a car restoration shop was not an easy one. “So many shops were wanting so many years of experience, at least five, and the only good experience I had was during my college time, and they didn’t see it as actual work time,” he said. His internship work at some shops helped, he continued, “but after applying at probably 10 different shops around the U.S., KTR was the only one that got back to me.”

A Golden Opportunity

While living and working in Massachusetts, Montoya continued to seek a position where he could pursue his dream of working as a painter of classic cars. He was then offered a job at Paul Russell and Company in Essex, but found that due “to some financial difficulties, I didn’t know if I could take this opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “I really wanted to work at Russell’s and keep learning and doing what I’m passionate about.” He applied for an apprenticeship with The Piston Foundation, and was accepted as the Piston Academy’s first apprentice.

The training grant Franko received made his apprenticeship financially possible. “I am very grateful. Paul Russell’s is an amazing shop,” he said. “And the people are amazing. They do only the best work. It’s very different going from a racing shop to a very high-end restoration shop and the minute details they look at. They overthink and overdo the work because they just want to do the best work they possibly can. Their standards are high. It’s a great place to learn the high quality of paint work because Paul is very demanding and his clients expect the best.”

The Power of the Piston Academy

The Piston Foundation awards grants to qualified candidates to provide financial support that allows an apprentice to develop their skills through on-the-job training in a full-time position at a Piston Academy-approved auto restoration shop.

The Piston Academy, with the employer, will develop the list of job competencies for the apprentice to achieve during the grant term. The apprentice reports their progress to the Academy each quarter and the employer provides their assessment as well. The Academy and the employer work together to coach and mentor the apprentice as they develop their skills. At the end of the grant term, the Academy will complete a 360º review and will consider renewing the apprenticeship grant for another term.

“The Piston Foundation is very well connected and very helpful,” he added. “I’m often asked how one gets into the automotive industry. I tell them going to McPherson College is a good start. But, then there’s The Piston Foundation, and their whole goal is to help younger people find a job, and then help them financially. And I tell them if you contact them they’ll help point you in the right direction. It’s a great source.”

Students Need a Helping Hand

Franko is concerned about the future of graduates who wish to get into the car restoration world. “When I was in college, a lot of the other students really wanted to work on cars,” he said. “They really want to learn the trade, but the industry has also taught us that it will be difficult to find those jobs. It’s a niche market and hard to get into, but my generation wants to learn and work. Finding the right shop is difficult. If there were more opportunities to find more shops, I think that would help a lot.”

Franko’s Favorites

As for his favorite vehicles to paint, “I really love the Japanese vehicles from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. lIke the RX7s, the Gen 4 Supras, the GTR, the GTR R34 Skyline. They have this color called midnight purple. It’s beautiful and it changes between orange, purple, teal depending on how you look at it. I would love to spray paint on of those that color. That would be an awesome goal,” he said.

So, with drifting cars as a hobby, and painting cars as a profession, if Montoya had his “druthers,” what car would he want to have today? “It’s going to sound weird,” he said, “but I’d love to have a 1967 Fastback GT 500 Mustang, with a [Toyota] 2JZ engine inside of it, with a [Nissan] 350Z transmission. That would be my ultimate drift car.”

And what color would he paint it? “There’s a color called midnight black, and that’s a very pretty color.”

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