A Crash Course in Cars |
Community Profile |
Nuts-and-bolts To Fixing Cars |
How many people begin their career at 8? Out West Garage owner Maria
DoCeu did. Her family came to this country from the Azores in 1966. Learning
English was easy for her but not for her father, who supplemented his income
buying cars, fixing them up and reselling them. So she became "Daddy’s little
helper," buying parts and handling inventory. Read More
Local Hero Maria do Céu
Best place to eat red licorice, pet the nice doggie, enjoy fine
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Do you choose your mechanic for her joie de vivre? For her sharp
sense of humor? For the candy selection in her ante room? For
the amenities of her comfortable waiting area? Isn't that crazy?
We do, too! To view the entire article click
A Crash Course in Cars
Francisco Chronicle, Friday, April 2, 1999
mechanic teaches customers how to avoid lemons.
do Céu's first car-buying experience left a bad taste in
her mouth: It was a lemon so sour that she resolved to make sure
other consumers don't suffer the same fate.
a mechanic, do Céu teaches others the nuts and bolts of
her trade at monthly seminars in her Petaluma garage, Out West.
learned about cars as a child, helping her father, an auto salvager,
buy and repair vehicles for years. Just 8 when her family emigrated
to Benicia from the tiny Portuguese islands of the Azores in 1967,
do Céu easily learned the language of her new home. Her
father, however, did not. The child quickly became adept at translating
for her dad, particularly when he was haggling the purchase of
a car to fix and sell for a profit.
did the negotiating," do Céu remembered with a chuckle,
"which worked really well because you had a little kid standing
there saying, "Would you take $50 dollars?" Few turned
she left home at 18, she confidently bought her first automobile.
Now, 40, she'll never forget that mechanical nightmare.
bought a little red pickup and it was so cute and so shiny and
had a little white camper shell, and I was going to get an Irish
setter to ride with me in it," she said, laughing while seated
in the sparkling clean waiting room of Out West.
was just perfect, everything that I wanted. I bought it at a used
car lot, and I drove it, and it seemed just fine. Two weeks later,
I discovered that it had burned valves. It basically needed an
Céu went back to the dealer. The staff just laughed. She
got a consumer-action group to write letters to the dealer, but
that didn't get anywhere. The group finally suggested that she
write with white shoe polish all over the windows of the truck,
"I Got Screwed At..." with the name of the dealer. She
drove it around and around the dealership, and they kept calling
out, "Come on in, honey, we'll sell you another one!"
It was just horrible," she said. "I ended up getting
if fixed, which cost $1,200. The truck had cost me $2,000. By
the time it was actually running OK, I had put $5,000 into it
and had traded it in for a $600 value."
was a tough lesson. She started becoming more and more aware of
how little most people knew about cars, she said.
I was with more exposure and more knowledge than most women, and
guess who got picked on?" she said. "I'm sure that they
took advantage of me being very young, being a woman. I was just
doomed. Now I would take a lot more time, poke around. But I didn't.
knew," she said with an ironic sigh, "that it was a
do Céu no longer has to agonize over an expensive lemon,
she is concerned that many of her customers do, especially those
who had a perfectly good car before they took it to a shop to
reputation that mechanics generally have is bad, and I'm afraid
that's earned," she said.
advises getting to know a mechanic through a simple job like an
oil change or new headlight.
really get a sense of who that mechanic is," she said. "You're
spending less than $40, but you get some insight into how the
place is laid out, how they talk to you, whether they give you
the respect you deserve. The best case is to have some kind of
also stresses the need to prepare for emergencies, such as knowing
how to change a flat tire.
will be that time when not even the cell phone will work, and
you should know that you have all the right equipment and that
you've at least done it once," she said. "It's like
carrying chains but not knowing how to fit them. Chances are that
you'll find someone to help you, but maybe you won't.
Kerr of Novato isn't taking chances. Kerr, who admits he's "not
that interested in cars," brought his newly purchased 1984
Honda Civic to do Céu for a how-to session.
worries me when I don't know what that thing is in my engine,"
he confesses. "What Maria did is to give a quick tour. She
told me how often to check the oil - once a month because it's
an older car - and how to check the tire pressure, especially
on the spare, which I never think about."
of the Trade
being a woman might have put do Céu at a disadvantage during
her first car purchase, it has been a plus in business, she said.
a child, she learned so much about mechanics that she turned down
a music scholarship out of high school to take a job installing
batteries and rotating tires at Sears. The job gave her independence,
money and the chance to prove her mettle.
it sounded great to do music, it would mean more years of school
and I would end up teaching, which would be satisfying but not
financially rewarding," she explained. "I knew that
if I went into cars, it happens right away. You can do it in your
driveway; you're moving and making money."
quickly moved beyond rotating tires at Sears, embarking on a series
of apprenticeships and jobs before establishing her own place,
Oakland Auto Works, in 1990. she sold it in 1995 to move with
her partner and their son to Petaluma, where she opened Out West
sure that there are many men who have shops similar to mine, but
I think that it helps to be a woman," do Céu said.
"At this point, my clientele is 50-50 (men and women). Men
can let their guard down and don't have to get all puffy and act
as if they know exactly what they're doing so that they won't
get ripped off."
added, "Women are often more relaxed to start with because
they already feel like they've got a load taken off."
quells customers' fears, she said. Do Céu tells clients
as much as they want to know about their cars.
to the Basics
found out that most people don't have even the necessary equipment
in their trunks to change a tire because they've used it to poke
a fire when they went camping one day, and it never made it back
into the trunk," she said.
makes you feel more confident if you understand the basics, if
you know where to put the oil, or, if the gas station is putting
it in, to know that they've put it in the right place. It's very
very empowering to have some reference point for cars."
care of a car doesn't have to mean putting up with grimy conditions
and cryptic people, do Céu said.
you want to know why and how, you deserve to know," she said.
"It's your money. It's your car."
KICKING THE TIRES
do Céu offered the following tips on purchasing a used
or new vehicle:
the history of a car before you buy it. "If you buy from
a dealer, it's really hard to determine, but you can still find
out," she said. "You can look at the owner's manual.
People often write their names in that. Try to find them and discover
why they traded it in."
buying, have someone you trust inspect the vehicle. "There's
a lot that can be discovered in an hour that will make your life
easier," do Céu said. "Of course, there's always
the chance that the car has something wrong that only comes up
after driving 500 miles. But most of the time we can say whether
or not it looks like a good risk. A used car is always a risk.
And a new car can be a risk."
to see the registration on a used vehicle to determine if the
car is salvaged. "That's very common," she said.
"Those cars go to auction and are often bought by people
who will make them as pretty as possible, but not necessarily
safe or fixed to last. I can't tell you how many cars that we've
seen that have been welded together with chunks missing underneath,
but the outside is perfect."
for a deal on maintenance. "There is no reason to return
to the dealer for maintenance if you have a new car unless they're
doing something for free," said do Céu, noting that
dealerships often are more expensive than small garages. "All
of the maintenance can be done by you, as long as you keep your
receipts. You have this nice new car that doesn't really need
much. You can establish a relationship with an independent garage
right from the start." Dealers may disagree, noting that
some warranties only cover work that has been done by a certified
Special to the Chronicle
Community Profile - Maria do Céu
Argus-Courier, Wednesday, February 7, 2001
native of the Azores off the coast of Portugal, she is the proprietor
of the only woman-owned automotive repair shop in Petaluma and
a supporter of women working in nontraditional fields.
Maria do Céu
Family: "My partner, Madeleine and I have been together
for 15 years and we have a ten year old son together, Leo."
Background: "I was born on the island of San Miguel
in the Azores, which is part of Portugal. My family moved to the
US when I was 8 years old, and I grew up in Benicia. When I graduated
from high school I entered an apprenticeship in auto repair. I
worked as a mechanic until I was 34, when I opened my first auto
repair shop in Oakland and moved to Petaluma in 1995. It took
me a couple of years to find a building in town to open a shop,
but it was worth the wait because I am now so centrally located.
I can even walk to work."
has inspired you? "I have been inspired by a number of
women doing this trade. My closest friend, Martha Collins, who
is now working here with me, was already a skilled mechanic when
I met her back in the early 1980s. It was so great to see a woman
who could do this work. As a business owner I have to give some
recognition to my business coach, Sunny Yates. She has really
inspired me and kept me going through these early years as a new
advice to others: "I guess I would have to encourage
any woman who is looking into a nontraditional field to go for
it. But my advice to anyone is to be sure you love what you're
doing because it is the one thing that will keep you in it for
the long haul. I love my work, but there certainly are tough aspects
to my job that I couldn't put up with if it weren't for the parts
that I love. I really enjoy getting to know my customers and being
able to help demystify the way cars work."
did you become an auto mechanic? "My father is largely
responsible for my becoming a mechanic. I was his helper when
he worked on the family cars. He didn't speak very good English,
so I was calling auto parts shops from the time I was 9 years
old. When I was a teenager, I bought a lemon from a used car dealership.
I was so furious that I became determined to learn as much as
I could about cars so that I couldn't be taken advantage of again."
has been your experience as a woman in a male dominated field?
"I have almost always been treated well as a woman in this
field. Of course, there are still times when I get call at my
shop where someone can't believe I'm the owner. It doesn't matter
to them that I've had 20 plus years of experience in this field.
Some guys just feel better talking to the male mechanic who is
working for me.
was the turning point in your life? "When I was 20 I
injured my back. That limited the time I was able to work on cars.
By the time I was 26, I was making the transition into the management
end of the business. I love working with my hands so it was not
an easy transition. Opening my own business has been a major turning
point in my life. I love the creativity and challenges of running
a business, and I love having the freedom to try new ways of doing
goals: "My goals are to spend lots of time with my family
and friends, to continue to strengthen and build my business,
and to try to have a positive impact on my community."
I love to play music, work on my Citroen 2CVs (little French
cars) and go garage saleing."
books: "I love Fannie Flag's books (Fried Green Tomatoes
at the Whistle Stop Café). She uses humor to such great
philosophy: "There is always a way to get through any
situation or problem if you have a positive attitude and keep
an open mind. Also, whatever you put out comes back to you."
accomplishment: "I am very proud of the fact that I have
a wonderful relationship and a great son. Second to that, I am
proud of having started and run two successful businesses."
thing you've ever done: "One Friday, after Martha and
I finished work, we hopped into one of my 2CV Citroens and drove
to Arizona for a "Small Little Orphan Car Meet." We
stayed about two hours and drove back. We were on the road most
of the weekend because the little 2CVs only go about 50-55 mph
in a tail wind and 40-45 mph in a head wind. They are really fun
cars to drive. Looking through their windshields is magical. The
way people behave as they approach you, people love the little
cars. It makes people very friendly."
would you change if you could? "The election! Seriously,
if I could change anything, I'd want people to be more tolerant
of each other, to be more accepting, be less judgmental. I think
that would make a big difference in the world."
Nuts-and-bolts to Fixing Cars
Democrat, Wednesday, May 26, 1999
do Céu sticks to basics in her workshop.
no! You're not going to look in my trunk?" I panicked. Why
hadn't I thought to get rid of the sack of plastic bags, the water-stained
telephone book, the rust-covered tools, or at least mopped up
the puddle under the spare tire?
I signed up for "The Basics: A Car Care Workshop (for your
Japanese car)," I hadn't anticipated that another woman would
be doing the automotive equivalent of inspecting my closets.
to worry. Maria do Céu, mechanic, teacher and proprietor
of Petaluma's Out West Garage on Second Street, makes a point
of not judging her students' maintenance records, housekeeping
standards or mechanical proclivities. She takes a "there
are no dumb questions" approach to teaching the timid and
unempowered - male and female - about their cars.
main drive," said do Céu, "is for people to feel
comfortable with their cars."
a month, car owners flock to her garage for a 2 1/2 hour session
that reveals the arcana of car innards to the uninitiated, such
as myself, a member of that class of owners whose mechanical skills
encompass checking the oil and the tires.
a Marin County car owner, unknowingly boosted my self-esteem by
revealing that she did not know how to check tire pressure.
not to worry. Do Céu treats such revelations with the same
respect you might get for confessing that you haven't quite mastered
the special theory of relativity.
round face crinkled into frequent smiles as she handed around
car parts and showed how they work.
a disc brake, she showed how its pincer-like calipers press brake
pads against the disk to stop its rotation. An axle with its rubber
CV boots, she said, were what well-dressed wheel bearings wear
to keep out the rain and dust.
visual aids included small jars of the typical car's body fluids,
clean and dirty samples of oil, brake, and power steering and
flashlights, we peered under cars up on lifts. Then she led us
on a tour of our own cars. We opened the trunk, got out the jack
and spare tire. Do Céu showed us where the jack goes and
reminded us to keep the spare inflated: There's no point in changing
a flat if your spare has no air.
showed us the easy way to loosen the lug nuts on the tire. "Push,
don't pull," she said, positioning the lug wrench so she
could bear down with her foot to break the nut loose. How to put
the nuts back? "Do it in a star pattern," she said,
as if you were drawing a star through the five points.
about tire pressure? The pressure recommended in the owner's manual
- usually lower than the maximum - gives you the best ride. But
filling the tires to the maximum gives you the best gas mileage,
according to do Céu.
my hood, she quickly spotted a loose vacuum hose. "I'll replace
this when we go back in the garage," she said, removing the
can see the light through a clean air filter," she said,
removing my air filter and holding it up to the sun. "I can
see a little bit," she said kindly. She explained that a
dirty air filter gives an engine a sort of "asthma attack,"
causing an oxygen shortage that reduces fuel efficiency.
You're buying more of that $1.55 gas than you need to.
I was trying to remember when I last changed my oil, do Céu
explained how to tell when it needs changing. "If you can't
see the marks on the dipstick through the oil, it's time to change
it." If you do lots of freeway driving, you'll find that
you can go longer between oil changes than if you drive around
town a lot.
for the coolant, it's smart to check both the reservoir and the
radiator itself - not while it's hot! - because if there's any
leak in the siphoning system, the coolant won't cycle from the
reservoir to the radiator.
maintenance is the key to longevity in cars, said do Céu.
"Honda, Toyota, Mazda and Nissan are cars that will go off
the charts if you stick even loosely to a maintenance schedule."
Consistency is more important than exact numbers." Car maintenance
advice is very much like a chili recipe," she said. "They're
all pretty good as long as you stick to them.
instance, replacing the timing belt at the recommended mileage
costs $300 to $400. But if the belt breaks, it may throw the engine
out of whack and you could face major engine repairs.
those who are tempted to skip costly maintenance as long as the
car's running well, do Céu suggest budgeting it. "Put
$50 a week away for things that come up," she said.
much you're willing to invest in parts can also make a difference.
For instance do Céu uses OE ("original equipment")
brake pads rather than cheaper "after market" parts,
which tend to be noisier and are more likely to overheat.
postgraduate studies, do Céu displays a supply of books,
such as Jim Becker's compact "Glove Compartment Car Care
Book" and "The Lady Mechanic's Total Car Care for the
Clueless," by Ren Volpe. Do Céu's own "Care Care
Workshop Reference" comes with the class and is crammed with
Céu, 40, is blessed with both an aptitude for mechanics
and the ability to empathize with those who have none. Her love
affair with the automobile springs from childhood.
family arrived in Benicia from the Azores when do Céu was
8. Her father, a pharmacist, stubbornly refused to learn English
and was forced to find work in which language was not an obstacle
- buying old cars and fixing them up. Before long he was taking
do Céu, who quickly mastered English, along as a translator
in his negotiations.
began working on cars when she was 18. She turned down a music
scholarship and instead opted for one at the local junior college,
where she took a course in homemaking and automotive skills, called
"Survival of the Single." The automotive part stuck.
her skills through a San Francisco program, "Woman in Apprenticeship,"
and on the job, do Céu eventually opened her own shop in
moved to Petaluma with her partner and their 8-year-old son, Leo,
for the small-town atmosphere, opening the shop in February. She
is assisted by Brian Curran, an old friend and coworker who responded
to her anonymous online ad ("Woman-owned garage seeks master
technician with a sense of humor") with: "Maria, is
workshop, on the third Saturday of each month, costs $25. To reserve
a space, call the Out West Garage at 769-0162.