By: Darby Kendall
Sarah Tilton's latest long-term project is a '92 Dodge Dynasty, a beautiful turquoise car owned by a family friend. I arrived for our interview to find her working under the hood, then watched her for a half hour, fascinated by her concentration, before she took a break to talk with me. Though Tilton's one-woman auto repair business, Yes We Can, is less than three years old, business is booming; Tilton barely finds time to sleep. This is partially due the fact that Tilton provides 24/7 on-call service and a solid “no mansplaining” policy. Each time I expressed interest in what she was doing, from the headlights to the antique hubcaps, she happily explained every step in her repair process. Tilton describes cars like the Dynasty as “onions;” each layer needs work, and after uncovering one section of metal, there's often another job underneath.
From pulling a jackrabbit out from under the hood of a Prius, to women trying to pick her up as she fixes their cars, Tilton has seen some interesting stuff on the job. As a former tattoo artist and an impromptu manager for her friends' bands, the 35-year-old has met all kinds of people, and has some great anecdotes to share. We talked about being a woman in the auto industry and her long term plans to open a brick-and-mortar shop, as I watched her fix up the Dodge during sunset in a scenic Bee Cave neighborhood.
Why did you first create Yes We Can?
When I started it around three years ago, I had just graduated and gotten my associates in automotive, and I worked at a couple of auto shops and really, it was horrible. They make you do things that aren't very ethical. They make you basically rip people off, and they pay you the tiniest fraction of what a job would actually make. But more than that, it was being a woman working at an auto shop. A call would come in for a diagnosis, and I'd tell the customer what's wrong with it. They'd say 'Oh, it can't be that.' After 20 minutes I'd know what was wrong, but then they would rip it apart for 4 hours and come back with the same diagnosis. It was just basically men not trusting my abilities, and it was really frustrating.
Starting up a new business can be hard; how has Yes We Can been doing over its first couple years?
I haven't had a day off in two months. The last couple weeks I've stayed out on jobs way after dark. After this I'm going to work out here until at least after dark, and then I have three other people that I have to go help.
So when do you sleep?
I barely do! I'm actually about to hire someone to do some office work for me, just because I'll get home from a super long day and then I'm on the computer looking up parts and answering emails. It's been nonstop, but I'm not complaining.
How do all these people hear about you?
A lot of times it's through the queer community. I've posted on Queer Exchange Austin, so when anyone needs a mechanic they're like, 'Oh there's this queer woman mechanic!' I also get a lot of referrals because I don't do any advertising. This year has definitely been busier than last year. It grew slowly, but recently it's been more and more. I just looked at my schedule on my phone and it's like, blue blocks everywhere. But it's awesome; I like it.
What made you get into fixing cars?
I got sick of going to auto shops. I'd be sitting in the lobby and the worker would come up, and to the guy sitting in front of me they'd be like 'Oh Mr. Smith, come to the back and we'll show you what's wrong with your vehicle.' Then they come back up to me saying 'Oh sweetheart, come on back.' And it's like, that's not the name I put on my paper. They thought they were being nice or whatever, but it's condescending. And they would tell Mr. Smith what was wrong with his car, but not explain anything to me. I really hated it.
Also, I was working as a tattoo artist for seven years, and I got kinda burnt out on that. Tattooing is good money, but it's hit or miss. Some days I would make two grand, and some days I'd make nothing. This work is definitely more steady. Basically through the apocalypse, and regardless of the economy, cars are gonna break and people are gonna want to have them fixed.
Where did you get your automotive degree from?
I got it from Austin Community College. They actually have a really great program, and there's a tons of scholarships and grants for women who want to take the automotive program. They have so many scholarships, and they'll like buy your tools and pay your rent. They want women in this industry. Actually, when I went to ACC on the first day of my intro class, I didn't even know how to change oil. I was just gonna take the classes to get a motorcycle repair certificate, but my advisor was really cool, and she told me about the automotive degree and all these grants that came with it. And I was sold.
What is it like being a woman in this business?
It's hard, but it's also really cool. I'll fix guy's cars, their big trucks, and they don't even know where their oil is. Or I'll be out on a job, and guys will try to mansplain what I'm doing to me, and I can be like, 'Oh, do you have your degree in this? Because I do.' Unlike the auto shops I used to go to, I'll actually explain stuff to every customer and tell them what's going on. I definitely don't ever want to be condescending.
Living in such a liberal city, do you ever feel that there was some sort of void for a woman-owned auto business that you're filling?
There really was a void! There's nothing like this here, and there are maybe just one or two woman-owned automotive businesses in the country. I also have a lot of women customers who hear about me from other people that I've helped. I think that's because I'm not going to talk to somebody like they don't know anything.
What's your favorite part about fixing cars?
I really like that I can help people. When someone's car breaks down at four in the morning and they just got off after working all day, and they call me, I can go and save them. Even if they need a jump but they can't afford it, I'll go help them. When I open my brick and mortar shop, I want to do a program where I can help out people that really need it, like single mothers driving around with their air conditioning out and half of a working brake. I want to be able to get them the brake pads and get their a.c. charged. Also to be able get them to where they can pass inspection, so they're not racking up tickets and spending their whole paycheck on that. I would love to do that; I really like being able to help people.