Hidden away in a quiet, industrial area outside of downtown Phoenix is a custom car shop. Out front sits an old VW Beetle, a Nash Metropolitan and a Suzuki kei truck. The combination alone makes you ponder what lies behind the doors. Inside is an impressive collection: a couple of wild restomodded vintage Chevy trucks, built for SEMA’s annual Vegas blowout, and a variety of motorcycles. But this is not your typical restoration shop.
The Snap-On toolboxes are teal and purple; the tools have teal handles. The stereo blasts a playlist of ‘90s and ‘00s pop. And one thing really stands out: Everyone working here is a woman.
This is Girl Gang Garage, a place with a mission: to welcome women into a hobby and an industry that, for too long, has kept them out.
Full Disclosure: Volvo invited me to join two other automotive journalists and two Volvo technicians on a build project at Girl Gang Garage. The automaker paid for my flights and hotel accommodations.
Girl Gang Garage is a place where women young and old can come to explore the world of working on cars, whether they’re seasoned wrenchers or taking up the skill for the very first time. The shop has all the tools, projects and people needed to teach and empower women in everything from welding to body fabrication or engine repair. There’s no cost to participate in a Girl Gang build; visitors are responsible for their own travel and lodging expenses, with some scholarships available to help. In the six years since the shop opened, a few companies have offered sponsorships on some builds, but for the most part, the whole operation is self-funded by Bogi Lateiner, co-host of Motor Trend’s streaming series All Girls Garage.
Before Girl Gang Garage, Lateiner owned her own shop, which did fairly well. But the job was less wrenching, more firefighting. “I didn’t do anything else in my business other than deal with angry customers… I was only involved when things went wrong,” Lateiner told Jalopnik. “My staff was amazing. And my customers were amazing. But I didn’t get to wrench. I wasn’t working on cars anymore. And I missed that.” That experience put her on a path to create something bigger than even she could fathom, getting her back to what she loves — working under the hood.
Lateiner founded Girl Gang Garage in 2016 as a place where women could build something cool together. It naturally became a safe environment to learn about cars, make mistakes, and have fun, free from the judgment, criticism, or toxic environments many women have found within the auto industry.
The debut Girl Gang project would be its first SEMA show car built entirely by women. Over a span of 10 months, 90 different women were involved, ranging in age from just eight years old to upwards of 70 and hailing from all over the country.
That first build, in 2017, was a beautifully restomodded 1957 Chevy pickup named Montage. The sponsor, BASF, put the Girl Gang truck in a SEMA booth alongside a show car built by hot-rodding legend Chip Foose. This was a shock to Lateiner. “So, whoa. Okay. This has to be really good,” she said. “And I have no idea what I’m doing. I was a mechanic. I wasn’t a welder. I wasn’t a fabricator, wasn’t a painter, and had never done bodywork. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But that was part of the fun of it, right?”
The experience of the build, and the SEMA debut, was grueling but inspiring for Lateiner. “It was simultaneously the best thing I’ve ever done and the worst thing I’ve ever done. And, despite the fact that it absolutely killed me and left me broke, I was like, ‘I can’t stop with this one. It has to keep going.’”
Since that first build, Girl Gang Garage completed a second SEMA truck, High Yellow ‘56, a 1956 Chevy pickup shown at SEMA in 2019. I came to Phoenix to help with the third Girl Gang build: Mating the body of a 1961 Volvo PV544 with the powertrain from a 2021 Volvo S60 T8. Project Iron Maven is set to debut at SEMA 2022 in November. Volvo, the sponsor of this build, invited me and fellow journalists Emme Hall and Kristin Shaw to take part in the project.
We were not the first to tear into Iron Maven. My small group of five joined the ranks of over 150 incredible women who have all worked on the Volvo — and put their signatures on the roof. Hall, Shaw and I discussed how intimidated we were coming in. A nervous thought kept running through my head: “I’m helping to build this car? Alongside the TV star I’ve watched and adored for years?” But Lateiner welcomed us with literal open arms and the same bubbly joy you see on her social media and on All Girls Garage.
Lateiner’s approach with visitors is not just “stick to what you know.” The moment we arrived, she asked the group what we wanted to learn. Nearly everyone wanted to try a hand at welding. Our instructor for the day was Danae Buschkoetter, who teaches welding at NCK Tech in Kansas — a true badass and a professional I couldn’t help but admire. She made a skill I’ve thought of as complicated and dangerous feel like something anyone can tackle, safely. For myself, I was really interested in interior work and fabrication, so Lateiner put me on the project of fitting the S60's instrument cluster into a new dash for the PV544.
Girl Gang Garage is a safe haven where women can conquer their fears around working on cars. You don’t have to worry about avoiding that one male coworker who follows you around or says insanely inappropriate things. You don’t have to endure someone talking down to you, or telling you you’re doing something wrong. There’s no need to prove yourself, none of the “don’t mess up because it’ll ruin opportunities for other women” pressure. You can just be you. We sang loudly, danced poorly, and exchanged high fives and words of encouragement. When I finished my full day of shaping and grinding the instrument cluster and dash, Lateiner told me, “you totally rocked that.” It felt good having someone validate my work on a car without hovering over me. It was freeing, and honestly, delightful.
Because let’s face it: As a woman, the journey to working on or with cars can be tough. During my visit to Girl Gang Garage in late July, the group talked a lot about the sexist work environments we’ve experienced in the car world. Many of us have encountered shops and businesses that “just don’t hire women.” There were numerous stories of women being passed over for promotions or new responsibilities in shops, in the media, at automakers — positions that at times were given to male counterparts with weaker qualifications. Most frustrating of all, our conversation highlighted the disgusting abundance of harassment and prejudiced attitudes toward women working in the car world. Conditions like this make it hard for women to find success or pursue a career in the world of car building, perpetuating the “boys’ club” image that has endured for decades.
Of course, this isn’t the case at every single business in the car industry, but the problem is far more common than you might be aware of. Decades of disparity often cause the women who try to enter the industry to feel alone in their struggles. Many don’t speak up, afraid of losing out on the opportunity to pursue a dream.
A young technician I worked with at Girl Gang Garage shared a story of how a former coworker, a man, groped her at work. Many of the women there, myself included, had experiences of being followed, inappropriately touched, or talked down to at car shows or racing events. A guy once told me I was “too pretty” to work in the automotive field. Another, a former boss of mine, heard about my plans to work on my car over the weekend and made a point of suggesting it was “a man’s job.”
Obviously, some of these encounters are more mild than others. But no matter the level of offense, the result is the same: Conduct like this discourages qualified, enthusiastic, hardworking women from entering the automotive field.
Girl Gang Garage exists to give women a welcoming place to practice and further explore their art. And while it’s impossible for one small shop hosting a build every couple of years to undo generations of pressure and discouragement, Lateiner’s project has been inspirational: One woman who joined a Girl Gang build felt so inspired, she opened her own restoration shop. Another individual, Barbie the Welder, walked away with so much more confidence in her welding work, she was able to turn it into a thriving business, establishing herself as a well-known figure in the world of metal sculpting.
The effect goes even further. Lateiner told me the story of Seana Caruso, who joined the first Girl Gang build while undergoing cancer treatment. When I returned home from Phoenix, I spoke with Caruso, who shared the story of how Girl Gang Garage changed her life.
She had been diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2016. At first, it looked like treatment would be easy, but several weeks later, doctors told Caruso her cancer was in stage 3, and had metastasized. The prognosis wasn’t looking promising, and Caruso admits she began to tackle her bucket list.
She followed All Girls Garage and Lateiner on social media, which is where she found out about the call for volunteers on the first Girl Gang Garage build. She had always wanted to try her hand at working on cars, having spent a lot of time in the garage with her father while growing up. Caruso reached out. If she didn’t do it now, she thought, when would she have the chance?
Caruso scheduled her Arizona visit between chemotherapy treatments. She was intimidated when she first walked into the shop, like many women who have entered Girl Gang Garage before and since. But someone asked, “Can you jump in over here?” and she found herself immediately in the midst of the action.
“It gave me some authority and power in my life,” Caruso told me. “It wasn’t just me laying in bed with people telling me what’s wrong with me.”
Lateiner described the week with Caruso as magical, “ just one of those weeks where you couldn’t duplicate it if you tried.”
When I spoke with Caruso, I found her to be a no-holds-barred kind of woman. Sure, she admits, she was intimidated, but she had spent years working in the male-dominated auto industry as a manager for a parts supplier. When it came to cars, Caruso already had the confidence and independence most women come to Girl Gang Garage to discover. Instead, what she found was humility.
“When you’re out in the world, and you’re competent in what you do, you act to your capacity level,” she told me. “If you’re in the room with someone better, you start to feel insecure. You don’t want people to think you’re not as good as you are. But there’s power in saying, ‘you are so much better at this than me. Can you help?’ Every time you add a friend or a skill set, you increase your own capacity level.”
For Caruso, the Girl Gang build was positively life-changing, outweighing the negative experience of her cancer journey. “The first thing I did after the build and recovery was quit my job. I decided I was going to invest myself [...] somewhere where I felt valuable and fulfilled in what I do,” she said. “That investment was in my quality of life.” She’s now a store manager, making twice as much money as she did before, and feeling more fulfilled than ever.
The main goal behind Girl Gang Garage is to provide a place for women to support each other, where they won’t feel alone. Lateiner knows the difficulty of being a woman trying to find a way in the world of cars. “My whole career, I felt like an ‘only.’ I was the weird kid. I was that girl that liked cars, right? I wanted to create a community where women don’t have to feel that way, because I know we all feel like the ‘onlys’ in our careers. And it became so much bigger than I ever expected.”
My time at Girl Gang Garage was powerful, in large part because of what I didn’t experience there: the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant discouragement that tells women they don’t belong in this field. Not having to navigate toxic feedback is truly freeing.
I felt empowered. Confident. This group of kick-ass ladies cheered each other on, but also lamented together when some part of the project went off the rails. There was no judgment, no frustration, no feeling out of place. It almost sounds simplistic to say it, but we just worked on the car together. Every woman in my Girl Gang group recognized how rare it was to feel that way. I’d bet any woman who spends time in car circles will understand.
Girl Gang Garage gave me and others a community of like-minded women who love to wrench. That community feeling is what keeps Lateiner going. “There’s people out there in the world who have had the same experiences as you,” she said. “You’re not alone. I think that’s a really big piece of it. It’s okay to speak up and ask for help, and it’s okay to admit that you’re not okay. And there are people out there who get it and who want to support you and be there for you.”
Which is why this garage, over 1600 miles away from my home, was so special to me, and to every woman who has wrenched there. It’s why I now have a future ice cream date with Caruso and Lateiner when they make it up to Michigan. At Girl Gang Garage, I made friends and allies for life. That’s why Lateiner keeps the doors open, keeps inviting new women to join the gang.
“The build, it’s important. But it’s also just the vehicle — no pun intended — for all of the rest of the stuff that happens,” Lateiner said. “It’s our lunch breaks when we’re sharing stories of being sexually harassed at work, or not getting the raise, or dealing with a-holes that we work with. Having younger women in the field hearing from women who’ve been in the field longer – it’s all of those stories that get shared… The women involved built this car and it is all of ours. It speaks to all of our abilities, and it’s a celebration of women in the trades.”
A few months after the 2017 build had made its SEMA debut, at a private presentation in Indianapolis, Lateiner invited Caruso to speak on stage. Caruso had endured nine surgeries, 36 radiation treatments, and six rounds of chemotherapy; she was in total remission. On stage, Caruso told Lateiner, “the doctor and the nurses may have cured my cancer, but the Chevy Montage saved my life.”
Interested in joining a Girl Gang Garage build? The shop is currently taking applications for volunteers to help complete Project Iron Maven. You can find more information or sign up here.