Caroline Lake talks about how she set up her own garage and training school and about her new book which aims to demystify car mechanics for women.
When Caroline Lake was a teenager, she spent a lot of her time reading car magazines and helping her dad tinker with the family car. For her 16th birthday she was given a 1970s Triumph Dolomite as a minor restoration project, and with her father’s help she managed to get it on the road. However, despite her enthusiasm, she did not consider mechanics an option when she left school. “I was steered to girl-type jobs at school,” she says.
She started working in marketing. She was 21 when she had her first child and soon after she set up her own business importing cars from Japan to order, but she had to close it down due to currency changes. She started teaching trampolining and gymnastics and managed to convince a local garage she knew through the business to let her come in as an unpaid apprentice for a few hours a week. “I think they took me on as they thought it was a joke,” she says.
She did as many hours as she could while her two children were at school, clocking up four years of unpaid apprenticeship until she was offered a paid job. “It took a long time to win the garage round,” she says. “There was a lot of meanness and sexual comments. It made me more determined not to give up.” Her parents helped with childcare as by this point she was a single parent.
Eventually she asked to be able to take the MOT tester examination. Her boss put her forward for it. “I think he thought I would fail and that it was a joke. It’s a difficult exam, but I studied hard to pass it,” she says. The lack of support and constant undermining of her ability made her angry. She would sometimes go home and cry, but she didn’t want to let it get the better of her.
Some friends who worked for Lotus helped to coach her. She passed in 2003, becoming only the sixth female MOT tester in the UK. A pay rise and more hours followed. Women started coming to the garage to get their MOTs. “I saw that there was a market for a female friendly garage,” says Caroline.
Starting a business
She had to take time out from work when her son was run over and she had to nurse him. It was then that she wrote her business plan for setting up her own garage, Caroline’s Cars in Norfolk. Not all her employees are female, but she has set up her own training school for – mainly female – mechanics. She approached local colleges to see if she could encourage more women to take up mechanics. For the first five years she taught mechanics alongside her day job building up the business and spent her evenings on administrative matters. She admits it was hard work, but says she looks forward to coming into work every day. “Every day is different,” she says, adding that it is good to see her female customers not being scared of coming to a garage. She talks them through their MOT in words that they can understand. “Women shouldn’t be scared to take their car for a service, but the patronising and intimidating environment of many garages makes them an uncomfortable place for women to be,” she says.
“Men make up around 99% of staff and will often use jargon that can make women feel uncomfortable, so they are understandably keen to get out as quickly as possible and don’t feel in control of the decisions they make, which can prove costly.
“We’ve all heard stories of garages pouncing on this vulnerability and charging women more because they know they can get away with it and those sorts of practices have to stop.”
Her desire to demystify mechanics and the fact that female mechanics are still such a rarity brought her to the attention of the media and to publishers. A publishing house, Haynes, was looking for a woman to write a car book and read about her. They contacted her. “I was very keen to be able to empower women and explain that mechanics is not rocket science,” she says.
Writing the book, Haynes Women’s Car DIY Manual, was hard work and she had to employ a manager for a while to take the strain at work. Her eldest son, now aged 22, helped out too. It took Caroline nine months to write the book and a couple to do through the editing process. The aim is to explain mechanics from the basics of checking the oil upwards in a way that women can dip in and out of. The book was published last month and the feedback has been very good so far. There have even been some male buyers. “A lot of men don’t have a clue about cars these days, though it can be hard for them to admit it,” says Caroline. “I want this book to not only give women the power to make educated and informed decisions about their cars, but to also get their hands dirty and get under the bonnet.
“Cars aren’t rocket science and it is about time that women realised that they have all the necessary skills to do it well, but they are discouraged from entering the profession.” Caroline is determined that the trail she has blazed will not be as difficult for future female mechanics.