‘Grease Girl’ Kristin Cline builds community among women who love cars

By Stephanie Case

Gasoline Girls cofounder Kristin Cline shows her ’55 Studebaker some love outside her home garage. Photo by Ted Soqui

Kristin Cline can pinpoint the moment her husband realized she was serious about cars.

While scrolling her online dating profile, he was struck by one picture of her: decked in overalls and gripping a metalworking tool as her instructor, world-renowned hot rod customizer Gene Winfield, looked on with a smile.

Long before the couple first met in person (on their way to a Long Beach car show) and years before they wed (with a reception in their garage), Cline was wrapped up in a different love story.

It all started with “Stude”: a coral-colored 1955 Studebaker that Cline’s father spotted in the classified section of a Las Vegas newspaper in 2009.

“It was love at first sight,” she recounts in her blog, “Grease Girl.”

Over the course of a year and a half, Cline struggled to get the car up and running, learning from scratch how to make repairs and even taking on a second job as a waitress to pay for a much-needed new engine.

When she rolled up to her first car show, Viva Las Vegas, a mere 18 hours after Stude was deemed ready for the road, it was a moment of elation.

But as she stood amongst a sea of car buffs, it dawned on her: Where were all of the women?

Since that show, Cline has sought to bring together ladies who, like her, have a passion for working on automobiles. In 2010, she co-founded the Gasoline Girls Car Club — a small organization of women, spread across the Los Angeles region, who all find joy repairing their own vintage rides.

This Saturday, Cline and the Gasoline Girls will be driving their cars to the Automobile Driving Museum’s Girls in the Garage All-Girl Car Show — an event where car-loving women of all ages can meet and mingle, their chance to connect as fellow outliers within a subculture largely dominated by men.

The idea for the show came from Pati Fairchild, a member of the Gasoline Girls and founder of “Girls in the Garage,” a free monthly women’s automotive workshop at El Camino College, where she’s also employed as an auto instructor.

Beginning in her days as a teenage art student, Fairchild saw classic cars as big sculptures, abundant with impeccable detail.

“The attention that they used to put into old cars —the chrome, the engraved handles, the beveled glass — they don’t do that anymore,” she says. “[Twenty-first century cars] are boring to me. Some people think they look like exotic space pods, but I prefer antiques.”

To get a more hands-on understanding, Fairchild signed up for technical courses at Cerritos College, where students used their own cars as a palette to work on.

“I had this ugly, rusty, beat-up truck” — a 1979 Chevrolet Blazer — “that I absolutely loved,” Fairchild recalls. “There were holes in the floor big enough that I could lay underneath the car and reach my keys into the ignition.”

Restoring the Blazer was a mammoth task, as are most classic car projects when you’re still learning the ropes, Fairchild attests. “There’s a lot of swearing, and some tears, and some thrown tools,” she says.

“It’s frustrating,” says Cline, “but it’s also so exciting when you figure [a problem] out, when you get to that next level. After six months of elbowing your way through your first project, you see all you’ve accomplished.

“The great thing about working on and driving a classic car,” she adds, “is that it turns everyday life into an adventure. If you break down on the side of the road, you can think about it as, ‘Oh, this sucks,’ or ‘Who am I going to meet this time? What new skills am I going to gain? What new story am I going to get to tell?”

As for stories, Cline and Fairfield have dozens of them: running out of gas on deserted mountain roads, or in the middle of a parking garage, minutes before a job interview; overheating and breaking down in the left lane of the I-5 — situations that would give the average car owner a panic attack, but make these women grin ear to ear.

“It makes for the best stories, because you know you conquered it,” says Fairchild. “There’s so much pride in owning and driving one of these cars, especially when you do it yourself.”

Looking back, the admittedly shy Fairchild says working on cars has given her confidence, especially around guys in the garage.

“I feel like I can speak men’s language in this particular area,” she says. “This thing that is supposed to be a ‘guy thing’ isn’t intimidating to me at all.”

Now, Fairchild is able to stand up to the automotive “boy’s club” mentality, which she’s noticed at times throughout her years in the industry.

“One time, I needed a carburetor. When my male teacher called a shop and asked for the price, he was told $60,” Fairchild says.

When she went to the same shop to buy it, the price was $200.

“I was livid,” Fairchild remembers, laughing. “The guy ended up being so scared of me that he scurried behind his little counter, into his back room, and left me standing in the lobby.”

According to 2016 data Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 1.7% of automotive service technicians and mechanics in the U.S. are women.

“Even though I was never told I couldn’t be in the garage, I didn’t see anybody like me in the garage,” says Cline. “And people tend to do what they see people like them doing.”

Cline drove her Studebaker on the roads of Los Angeles for a full year before she met another female car buff. Co-founding the Gasoline Girls Car Club gave her not only a solid group of automotive sisters, but also a platform to inspire others to join her.

“Being a visible female in the automotive world is going to encourage more women to become involved,” Cline says. “For me, this world has been such a great experience that I want to encourage more women to be a part [of it].”

On Saturday, any woman can drive her automobile into the All-Girl Car Show, where she can sip mimosas, shop for vintage clothing and compete for awards. Ladies are encouraged to dress in the year of their car — which means a ’50s outfit for Cline to match her Stude, and a plaid Pendleton 49er jacket for Fairchild to complement her midcentury Chevy pick-up.

Inside the Automobile Driving Museum, attendees can check out “A Woman’s Touch,” an exhibit highlighting the oft-forgotten historical accomplishments of women in cars, from Bertha Benz’s record-breaking long distance drive in 1888 to Alice Huyler Ramsey’s famous cross-country road trip across wild American terrain, before maps and paved roads, in 1909.

Stories like these — of adventurous 19th and-20th-century ladies charting new paths, unafraid of a challenge — prove that while car-loving women like the Gasoline Girls are exceptional, they’ve never been alone.

The Girls in the Garage All-Girl Car Show and Vintage Fashion Exchange runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at the Automobile Driving Museum, 610 Lairport St., El Segundo. Registration is $15 for any female-owned (or co-owned) car, truck or motorcycle. A $10 donation is suggested for spectators.

The “A Woman’s Touch” exhibit runs through May 31. For more information or to register, visit automobiledriving-museum.org/girlsinthegarage.

Ladies Car Care 101

Before restoring her 1955 Studebaker, Kristin Cline was entirely new to auto mechanics. Looking for advice, she went to her grandfather, an Early Ford V8 Club member.

“It started with me asking him, ‘How does an engine work?’ I had no idea where to start,” she recalls.

Now, Cline is passing on basic car knowledge to new crops of female beginners. Any woman who wants to feel more comfortable in the garage — whether it’s learning to check her tire pressure or discovering the mechanics behind her breaks — can attend one of her “Ladies Car Care 101” workshops at the Automobile Driving Museum.

“With all ladies, there’s something to showing up in all your ignorance and it being okay,” Cline says.

In each class, she runs through many of the questions she first had:

•    Car Basics: Why are tires important? How do you properly check your oil? What should you do if something goes wrong on the road?

•    Under the Hood: How do your engine and brakes work?

•    Garage Confidence: How can you be assertive and feel empowered when taking your car to a shop? What questions should you ask your mechanic? How can you start a career in the automotive field?

Cline’s next workshop at the Automobile Driving Museum is from 10 a.m. to noon on Sunday, May 7. Tuition is only $5. More classes, including a hands-on tutorial on how to change a flat tire, will happen on a quarterly basis.