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On the Lot With a Female Car Iconoclast


Published June 20, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.

Amy Mattinat’s not your stereotypical haggler o’ the fabled used-car lot; she is so beyond that. Sure, the 48-year-old co-owns Auto Craftsmen, an independent repair shop and used-car dealership on Route 2 in Montpelier. But this gregarious guru is also one of the most prolific female-car-owner educators in the nation. Her 2005 manual, How to Buy a Great Used Car, offers innovative insider tips. For the past two years she’s penned a column called “Under the Hood” for the monthly newspaper Vermont Woman, deciphering such nuts-and-bolts topics as the “check engine” light and air filters. Recently, Mattinat joined the advisory crew at http://www.askpatty.com, an all-purpose car website catering to women. And as a board member and education committee advisor to the national Women’s Car Care Council, she travels the country for conferences and trade shows.

Translation? With these impressive credentials in her tool belt, Mattinat offers a fresh, female-centric perspective on one of the most male-dominated industries in the world.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mattinat greets a reporter in the Auto Craftsmen waiting area. Settling in here to kill time, wheel-less pilgrims might reasonably think they’ve died and gone to customer-service heaven. Many comparable spaces feature half-decomposed couches, weak instant coffee and an insufferable parade of scratchy Meatloaf albums. But this room, with its classical music, spider plants and toddler toys, seems more like a pediatric office.

Mattinat, who is also Auto Craftsmen’s office manager, is slender and petite, and has a squarish face and short brown hair. Today she’s dressed in business casual: dangly earrings, polka-dotted, short-sleeved shirt, and jeans. After a glimpse of the front room, it’s no surprise that her back office exudes serious Nurture Instinct. Mattinat’s screensaver streams the phrase “Visualize your goal . . . allow yourself to receive!” A pink tote bag hangs in a corner. And behind her hangs a poster about . . . uh, cooking demos.

Turns out the image isn’t just filler décor but a window into Mattinat’s past. Back in the early ’80s, after earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management, she worked as a crunchy caterer, helping people plan “healing diets” — an occupation as far removed from Honda Civics as shoeing horses. Still, suggests Mattinat, the foodie biz taught her the invaluable skill of turning “techy talk” into everyday language.

Twelve years ago, this licensed caterer dropped her parsley garnish for the metaphorical wrench. The decision wasn’t totally random, though: Mattinat had always loved cars — or rather, anything with a motor, including bulldozers and tractors. Luckily, her knack for layman’s ed proved invaluable when assisting a certain kind of client: the vehicular know-nothing.

Soon after she started bookkeeping and customer-servicing at Auto Craftsmen, Mattinat began to notice curious patterns emerging from the daily herd of needy, oft-disgruntled used-car owners. Chief among her observations: Customers were placing too much faith in slapdash used-car appraisals. According to Mattinat, the only way to properly evaluate any car — whether beater or Beemer — is by thorough inspection. “Yes, you can find a reliable $4000 car,” she notes, “and, yes, you can find a $12,000 car that’s unreliable.”

Her customers appreciate this type of counsel. In the Auto Craftsmen waiting room, a plastic binder overflows with rave reviews. One of them, written by Montpelier resident and VPIRG staffer Andrea Stander, reads, “You’re expensive, but like fine wine or well-made furniture.”

When reached by phone, Stander, 55, elaborates that Mattinat’s prices are a fair trade for her unmatched customer service. Though “knowledgeable to a point” about cars herself, Stander notes that she’s been rooked by mechanics in the past — all the more reason to approve Mattinat’s candor. Auto Craftsmen employees are “very straightforward about telling you what you need,” she attests. “And they don’t give you a lot of mumbo-jumbo.”

Stander confirms that Mattinat’s shop isn’t just consumer-oriented; it may be the most female-friendly in the area. “I think Amy’s done amazing things for raising the conscience, and the confidence level, of a lot of women,” she suggests.

Mattinat says the automotive industry is ripe for a genderized tune-up. Today’s “old-boy network” of car buffs has more to do with ingrained employment patterns than anything else, she opines. “Ten years ago, nobody told a girl that [working in the car industry] was an opportunity for her,” Mattinat notes. “But they’re telling them now.” She’s aware of about 50 women nationally who run their own shops and 200 who work in prominent management positions. She also knows a couple of female mechanics in Vermont. “Our voices are getting stronger, and they can’t ignore us,” Mattinat contends. “We’re gonna hold guys accountable, and we’re gonna make this industry better.”

Perhaps no young person better personifies Mattinat’s prediction than Demeny Tollit. The 28-year-old graduated last year from Vermont Technical College with a degree in automotive technology — she chose a career in car maintenance over one in psychology. Like Mattinat, she’d never had much previous experience with automobiles. “I was a social worker for years, having no money,” Tollit explains. “The only thing I thought that could keep my attention for more than six months was working on cars.”

In July, Tollit will start a new job as a service writer at Berlin City in Williston. But her vision stretches farther down the road: She wants to own an all-women’s shop that would incorporate a holistic, Mattinat-esque approach to car ownership. “I’m really interested in creating a welcoming environment that people trust,” Tollit notes. “It’s exciting to think of having a place that would be a different kind of shop, sort of like what Amy does.”

Meanwhile, as Tollit racks up experience and street cred, Mattinat continues to help drivers — especially female ones — become informed and assiduous squeaky wheels. Earlier this month, she appeared on a National Public Radio segment called “The Road to Better Gas Mileage.” She expects her second book, tentatively titled The Fab Women’s Guide to Owning Wheels, to come out next spring. Fortunately, Mattinat’s husband is a stay-at-home dad, so he’ll be around to watch their 13-year-old daughter in case mom has to work late. “He’s not automotive anything,” she says with a laugh.

Fortunately for Mattinat, though, the Auto Craftsmen garage is something of a home away from home. Around 5 o’clock, she steps out of her office to check in with her “boys” — a team of hearty-looking technicians and service dudes. Instead of naked women, the sales office calendar features Labrador retrievers.

Mattinat strolls around the shop as if she owned the place — which she does, with Chip Tremper. In each room, her employees look up from their tasks to greet her with a grin. In addition to professionalism, Mattinat radiates a boundless, youthful enthusiasm about cars that, if you didn’t know better, would pass for naiveté. It’s as if she were touring a candy store. “Tools! Tools! Tools!” she exclaims at one point, opening up drawers in a metal cabinet. “I love it! There are so many little parts and pieces.”

It makes sense that Mattinat understands the minutiae of the auto biz: Over the last several years, she’s done almost everything at this establishment, from bookkeeping to marketing. But she’s never worked as a mechanic. Why not? “It’s not like art, or cooking, where you can throw in oregano or basil,” she explains. “I know I don’t want to be a mechanic, ’cause it’s dirty.”

But that doesn’t mean other women shouldn’t muck it up. “The true masters and fixers are a breed of their own,” Mattinat asserts, neatly placing the tools back in their respective compartments. “It’s not a male-dominated skill by any means.”

The original print version of this article was headlined "Roll Call"