Car repair for women, by women: a tune-up, a mani, a blow-dry

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Patrice Banks left a job at DuPont to take up the auto-repair trade. "I was tired of being an auto airhead and feeling taken advantage of," she says.

At the moment, the only sound in Patrice Banks' auto repair shop in Upper Darby is the click of her trademark strappy red heels across the floor. Soon, though, if her plan pans out, the place will resound with revving engines, lug-nut guns, and blow dryers, while in the air the scents of 10W-30 motor oil and fresh nail polish commingle.

Garages, almost always, are shrines to the Y chromosome. But Banks' vision for the Girls Auto Clinic and So Clutch Beauty Bar is XX: car care for women, by women. Get a tune-up with a wash and a brow wax, a lube with a mani and a mimosa.

Banks, 35, already has hired four female mechanics. She took out a $550,000 bank loan. By October, she projects, the 46,000-square-foot former Speedway Auto Repair on West Chester Pike will be recast as a "clubhouse for women," with purse hooks fashioned from wrenches, a license-plate chandelier, an old gas nozzle for a faucet, hair supplies in toolboxes, and a large mural of a garage door.

In her long view, it could be the template for a national chain. There are a few other garage/salons around the country, but the market can accommodate a newcomer: Each year in the United States, women spend $200 billion on car purchases and repairs.

"Women have a lot of buying power, so this is something that makes the shop environment more comfortable," said Timothy Hatcher, a manager of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association, acknowledging that among life's unpleasantries, getting a car serviced is second only to going to the dentist.

Banks herself is a mechanic, although the job description sells her short. She's a car-care diva, a persona just five years in the making.

Abandoning her career as a DuPont materials engineer, she trained as an auto mechanic and went to work in the trade. Meanwhile, she launched repair clinics for women, wrote a female-centric fix-it guide, snagged a contract for another book, and drew the attention of O, the Oprah Magazine.

Friends who have watched her reinvention say they don't doubt the venture will pay off. Jasmin King, a classmate at Lehigh University in the late 1990s, felt trepidation over Banks' career swap, then admiration. She invested $17,500 in the start-up.

"You have to have a certain fortitude and strength to do what she was setting out to do," King said.

That mettle, Banks says, came from her rugged childhood in Phoenixville - growing up poor with a single mother who couldn't afford a car.

"Seeing my mom, how much she struggled, made me think I didn't want to have that life," Banks recalled.

By 16, she was working three jobs, and making enough to buy a brown 1988 Chevy Cavalier.

Far more impactful, she earned a scholarship to Lehigh, becoming the first person in her family to attend college. She studied engineering and was on the crew team. Next came the job with DuPont, analyzing system failures. At 23, she bought a home in Delaware.

Something more

As she entered her 30s, however, her career no longer satisfied her.

"I was going through the motions, looking forward to Fridays and vacations," she said. "That's no way to live life. I wanted to be excited and motivated. I knew there was something else out there."

One day, she took to her personal blog - Banks On It - and asked female readers what they wished they knew that men already seemed to know. The most popular response: auto repair. That resonated with Banks, who also dreaded dealing with car problems and had tried in vain to find a female mechanic.

"I was tired of being nickeled and dimed," she said. "I was tired of being an auto airhead and feeling taken advantage of."

In typical fashion, Banks put the pedal to the metal and took a detour.

In 2012, she enrolled in night classes at Delaware Technical Community College for a degree as an auto mechanic technician. In early 2014, she turned away from corporate America and went to work in the world of camshafts and clutches - first for free to get experience, then for $600 a week at Keller's Auto Repair in Roxborough.

Banks also started holding monthly clinics for women in the parking lot of the Crest Auto Store on Lancaster Avenue in Overbrook, teaching them such basics as how to change the oil and the air filter - all while wearing her signature red heels.

The clinics "empowered women," she said, "because we're the ones who feel most disadvantaged."

Banks self-published her Girls Auto Clinic Glovebox Guide. That led to a contract with Simon & Schuster for a book that will tell her broader story; it is due out in 2017. She also did a video TED Talk in Wilmington billed "How I Plan to Disrupt the Auto Industry in Red Heels."

Guys, too

For the Girls Auto Clinic and So Clutch Beauty Bar, she enlisted interior designer Sabine Guillaume Hayes to create an elaborate scheme for five blow-out stations, eight manicure and five pedicure spots, shampoo bowls - all without trivializing the mission, to fix cars.

Males will not be barred at the garage door. In fact, Banks has hired a West Philadelphia man in whose auto shop she worked for free while a student.

She and her female mechanics know their way around the male-dominated profession.

Colleen McClure, 38, of Horsham, decided to get a mechanic's degree in 2012 after an auto shop tried to charge her $300 for spark plugs she didn't need. In her new career, she found that "either the boss screamed and hollered, or I was picking up all the slack," she said. "And when I wanted to be compensated for it, I wasn't."

She added: "It's a very hard industry for women to survive in. I felt my back was against the wall everywhere I was at."

Banks is counting on girl power as she goes up against male-run repair shops. She can see some of them from her rooftop.

"You won't find one with a female mechanic," she said, navigating the roof in her red heels. "We're going to take all of their business."

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella