She’s got drive
This Reno woman loves cars, and she hopes to spread her message of empowerment through car tips and stories
When Teresa Aquila was in the fourth grade, her teacher gave her a piece of paper and told her to write down what she wanted to be when she grew up. Everyone’s answers would be tacked to a wall during an open house for parents.
“Cop and mechanic,” the little girl scrawled.
“If you put that up there,” the grown Aquila remembers her teacher saying, “I’m going to flunk you.”
Young Teresa finally obliged, writing “secretary” instead. The memory cracks her up now, because when the open house came around, she approached every single guest and told them the secretary thing was total hooey.
Years later, in the late 1970s—after rebuilding and all-around cherishing plenty of cars and machines—Aquila took a job as a mechanic for Ralston Purina. Before long, she’d launch a career with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, too.
Life was unfolding just as planned, but that’s not to say the plan was easy. Take the ditch incident.
For whatever reason, Aquila and some male colleagues had to dig a ditch at the Purina site one day, and, as she drove her shovel into the ground, one of the men walked over and jammed his hand right down her shirt. It’s a story she’s happy to relay, seeing as she clocked him with the shovel. Hard.
“And I told him, ’Next time, I’m going to shove it up your ass.’”
She never had to. But the sight of a female grease monkey never stopped jolting people, either.
Not one to be deterred, Aquila is now a reserve deputy lieutenant with nearly 40 years of law enforcement under her belt. She’s also a mechanic, of course, and works in management for a transportation company.
When the day is done, she goes home to a showroom she built with her own two hands—a place for her fleet of achingly beautiful vintage cars, including a pristine 1954 Chevy Bel Air that gleams like a pale blue mirror, and a rare 1927 Willys-Knight that she swears has a living soul. The rides she’s restored share the floor with trucks belonging to her husband, Cameron Lewis.
Aquila dated plenty in the past, but relationships always ended the same way: the guy asking what he could give her that she didn’t already have. Lewis was stronger than the others, and it probably didn’t hurt that she met him in a club for auto enthusiasts.
Her cop-and-car dreams all came true in the meantime, perhaps because she never questioned them. Ever. Not even the day a trucker guffawed at her petite frame when she pulled him over on the highway.
“My, little lady,” he drawled. “You’re awful tiny.”
“Get out of that truck,” she snapped back, “and I’ll show you how tall I am.”
She’s not apt to toot her own horn, though, so to speak, and the hell-yeah stories only come if you ask for them. Aquila laughs a lot, too.Garage days
Her latest goal—which she’s almost guaranteed to achieve, considering her record and all—is to empower other women by imparting a knowledge of cars and all things mechanical.
The tangible result is a website, teresasgarage.com, which has a growing index of inspiring articles and car-care tips for readers. The rest amounts to a game plan, and a handful of female participants who are ready to publish their own stories with Aquila’s help.
“We always look at ourselves through the windshield, and not through the rearview mirror,”Aquila likes to say. But sometimes the mirror gives you reason to be proud.
One of her muses is a speedometer expert. Another is Cambria Orr, a young parts specialist at Sierra Freightliner in Sparks who once took a shop class in hopes that she’d save money by learning to do her own auto repairs. Before long, she was in mechanic school at NASCAR Technical Institute, where she graduated first in her class. She was the only woman in it.
“The more they get into [talking about their lives]—what they did and how they did it—their excitement levels just keep getting higher and higher,” says Aquila, who’s still gathering interviews and doing most of the writing for Teresa’s Garage. “In the end, I swear to god they could fly across the sky.”
Her site is unabashedly girly in some ways, but maybe a more neutral approach would miss the target audience: local women like columnist Lisa Smith, who admits upfront that she knows “diddly-squat about cars.” Smith’s first book review is on a volume she picked up at the grocery store, called What the Heck Was That!?! Scary Noises and Other Car Stuff Every Woman Should Know!
“There are a lot of reminders to be safe,” she wrote, “since women tend to be multi-taskers who are always thinking about the fifth project before the first task at hand is completed. Wear goggles, check wheels and make sure the hood’s latch is secured.”
After all, Smith writes, “You don’t want an accident where you lose a head or hand; think about all the stress your hairdresser or manicurist will go through to repair the damage.”
That, and you don’t want to fall prey to the cliché sort of mechanic who tries to take advantage of anyone with a pair of X chromosomes.
“It’s horrible to not know anything, and then to go someplace and have the men abuse you because they think you’re stupid or something,” Smith says with a little cringe.
Teresa’s Garage “is about taking a stand,” she says. “It’s saying, ’I’m going to do this.’”
Crucial as it is, “people aren’t teaching their daughters” about car maintenance, says Aquila’s niece and webmaster, Sonia Perozzi, who’s happy to report that the empowerment project has changed her own perspective.
Another Reno woman who’ll be featured on the site soon—and who’d rather go nameless until then—is letting Aquila pen her story. Decades ago, the young mother co-owned a Toyota repair shop in Houston, Texas, before she went on to become a Jill of all trades: A print model, barrel racer and tree farmer/tractor driver, among other things. So let's just call her Jill.
Back in her early 20s, though, she was behind the counter at the shop, doing bookkeeping and accounting.
One day, a female mechanic walked in and applied for a job.
“All the guys kept telling her no,” Jill remembers, “and I told them, ’Bullshit. I’m going to hire her.’ And she was fantastic. She ran circles around the guys.”
The new hire also taught her boss some tips and techniques, and before long the two women began buying and restoring junk cars for extra income. Jill is now a grandmother, and she still has a knack for diagnosing car problems.
“I just think women are more in-tune to that sort of thing,”Jill figures. “To noises, and to things going wrong.”
As for Jill's friend Aquila, “she was harassed and beat up, but she’s a pretty tough cookie. … If you tell her she can’t do something, or shouldn’t do it, she’s going to say, ’I may be small, but I’m mighty.’”