How many people begin their career at 8? Out West Garage owner Maria do Ceu 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.
She didn't intend to be a mechanic, though. She already knew that she wanted to be a musician.
"I started playing drums in sixth grade, sang in church choirs, Episcopal, Catholic, I didn't care."
She taught music as well and got a full music scholarship to college. But she decided that if she became a musician, she would probably struggle financially. So, in 1978, do Ceu went to work for Sears, mounting tires.
Was it difficult to be a woman in a very traditional man's job?
"That was the time when everyone had to hire a woman or a person of color," she says. "So they hired a black man, a black woman and me. We had each other, so we didn't have too hard a time. Also, my attitude has always been pretty light-hearted, so it was fine."
She did her apprenticeship in a San Francisco auto repair shop working on diesel and American-made cars.
"I'm small, and I had to climb in and wrestle with these big pieces and vehicles," she says, shuddering. "After two years, I switched to a shop that worked on foreign cars, and my hands fit. I never went back."
Flash forward to 1999, when the stars finally aligned and she found the perfect place for her garage, behind Barber Signs at 321 Second St.
The "cowgirl-owned and family-friendly" garage was a success from the beginning, even with cash flow problems and being a relative newcomer in town. Guided by a business coach, she pushed on, and Petaluma was ready for an alternative to the male-dominated field.
do Ceu believes in customer empowerment. If you just want to drive your car, that's fine. But she's eager to pass on basic knowledge and offers car care workshops on request.
She is backed up by a solid team of six men, although for some years she employed another woman mechanic and friend, Martha Collins.
From the beginning, Out West has serviced only five types of cars — Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Subaru, the Japanese cars that not only fit her hands but also gave the consumer the most for their money. She says a number of customers, "family" as she calls them, won't buy a car she won't work on.
Out West is a place where do Ceu gets to play the game her way.
"It's my workshop, my club house," she says. The front counter is littered with a changing assortment of toys for all ages: small cars, rubber duckies, magnetic poetry. There's a tub of red licorice to snack on, cartoons and jokes to read.
The bathroom is always clean and tidy. And, instead of an oil-stained waiting area with stale peanuts in the vending machine and grungy chairs sprouting greasy stuffing, Out West has a waiting room that may be nicer than your living room, with comfortable couches, a variety of current magazines, framed vintage cowgirl art, a children's corner and an assortment of musical instruments.
You didn't think do Ceu just gave up on her dream, did you? The music was always there, but she kept postponing it, thinking "I'll take it up again when I retire."
Then a medical emergency made her realize how important music was. She changed her diet, increased her exercise and picked up her guitar and mandolin. Now the waiting room is home to a weekly jam session, and HomeBrew, the five-piece group that has formed around her, plays a variety of places.
"The music brings good energy," she says, and it's not uncommon for customers to play while they're waiting for a tune-up.
The majority of folks have embraced this garage concept, but she does sometimes get a new customer who's suspicious. In that case, she works "super hard, until I feel I've done my best showing it like it is. We know what we're doing; we just happen to be nice and clean."
Even after 13 years, do Ceu enjoys her job, she says. "I love every minute of it. Every Monday night, I pull out my clothes, set everything up and smile, because I'm going to play in the morning."
By Katie Watts / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, April 2, 1999
Petaluma mechanic teaches customers how to avoid lemons.
Maria do Ceu'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.
Now a mechanic, do Ceu teaches others the nuts and bolts of her trade at monthly seminars in her Petaluma garage, Out West.
She 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 Ceu 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.
"I did the negotiating," do Ceu remembered with a chuckle, "which worked really well because you had a little kid standing there saying, "Would you take $50 dollars?" Few turned her down.
When she left home at 18, she confidently bought her first automobile. Now, 40, she'll never forget that mechanical nightmare.
"I 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.
"It 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 engine."
Do Ceu 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 promptly did.
"I 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."
It was a tough lesson. She started becoming more and more aware of how little most people knew about cars, she said.
"Here 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.
"I knew," she said with an ironic sigh, "that it was a great truck."
Although do Ceu 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 be serviced.
"The reputation that mechanics generally have is bad, and I'm afraid that's earned," she said.
She advises getting to know a mechanic through a simple job like an oil change or new headlight.
"You 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 rapport."
She also stresses the need to prepare for emergencies, such as knowing how to change a flat tire.
"There 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.
Neil 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 Ceu for a how-to session.
"It 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."
Tools of the Trade
Although being a woman might have put do Ceu at a disadvantage during her first car purchase, it has been a plus in business, she said.
As 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.
"While 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."
She 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 this year.
"I'm sure that there are many men who have shops similar to mine, but I think that it helps to be a woman," do Ceu 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."
She added, "Women are often more relaxed to start with because they already feel like they've got a load taken off."
Knowledge quells customers' fears, she said. Do Ceu tells clients as much as they want to know about their cars.
Back to the Basics
"I've 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.
"It 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."
Taking care of a car doesn't have to mean putting up with grimy conditions and cryptic people, do Ceu said.
"If you want to know why and how, you deserve to know," she said. "It's your money. It's your car."
KICKING THE TIRES
Maria do Ceu offered the following tips on purchasing a used or new vehicle:
Learn 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."
Before 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 Ceu 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."
Ask 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."
Shop 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 Ceu, 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 dealer.
By Gretchen Giles Special to the Chronicle
Petaluma Argus-Courier, Wednesday, February 7, 2001
A 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.
Name: Maria do Ceu
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."
Who 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 business."
Your 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."
How 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."
What 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.
What 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 things."
Your 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."
Hobbies: I love to play music, work on my Citroen 2CVs (little French cars) and go garage saleing."
Favorite books: "I love Fannie Flag's books (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café). She uses humor to such great effect."
Personal 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."
Greatest 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."
Craziest 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."
What 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."
Interview by Lois Pearlman
"Oh 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?
When 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.
Not to worry. Maria do Ceu, 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.
"My main drive," said do Ceu, "is for people to feel comfortable with their cars."
Once 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.
Sara, a Marin County car owner, unknowingly boosted my self-esteem by revealing that she did not know how to check tire pressure.
Again, not to worry. Do Ceu treats such revelations with the same respect you might get for confessing that you haven't quite mastered the special theory of relativity.
Her round face crinkled into frequent smiles as she handed around car parts and showed how they work.
Displaying 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.
Other visual aids included small jars of the typical car's body fluids, clean and dirty samples of oil, brake, and power steering and transmission fluids.
Wielding 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 Ceu 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.
She 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.
What 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 Ceu.
Under my hood, she quickly spotted a loose vacuum hose. "I'll replace this when we go back in the garage," she said, removing the offending piece.
"You 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.
Translation: You're buying more of that $1.55 gas than you need to.
As I was trying to remember when I last changed my oil, do Ceu 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.
As 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.
Regular maintenance is the key to longevity in cars, said do Ceu. "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.
For 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.
For those who are tempted to skip costly maintenance as long as the car's running well, do Ceu suggest budgeting it. "Put $50 a week away for things that come up," she said.
How much you're willing to invest in parts can also make a difference. For instance do Ceu uses OE ("original equipment") brake pads rather than cheaper "after market" parts, which tend to be noisier and are more likely to overheat.
For postgraduate studies, do Ceu 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 Ceu's own "Care Care Workshop Reference" comes with the class and is crammed with useful information.
Do Ceu, 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.
Her family arrived in Benicia from the Azores when do Ceu 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 Ceu, who quickly mastered English, along as a translator in his negotiations.
She 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.
Honing her skills through a San Francisco program, "Woman in Apprenticeship," and on the job, do Ceu eventually opened her own shop in Oakland.
She 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 that you?"
The workshop, on the third Saturday of each month, costs $25. To reserve a space, call the Out West Garage at 769-0162.
By Bonnie Allen Correspondent - Press Democrat