The Eleven Percent: Faye Hadley, ASE Certified Master Technician

Updated: May 28, 2024

A Harvard grad and former therapist who now wrenches on cars shares her wild journey, her new favorite auto tool, and more.

Faye Hadley carved out her space in the automotive world as a master technician, television personality and DIY automotive instructor — a unique combination she feels she was made for.

Hadley has loved vehicles and creative self-expression as long as she can remember. On her second birthday, her favorite presents included a dump truck and a frilly fairy dress. But her book-smart, artistic family never presented a future in the trades as a viable option.

“When I told my parents that I wanted to be a mechanic, they did not support that path for me,” Hadley says. “And I never wanted to disappoint my parents, so I tried really hard to live the life that they wanted for me.”

To do that, she earned a psychology degree from Harvard in 2010, then landed a high-paying job as a therapist. But after giving it a year, she didn’t feel like she was on her true life path. So she finally started wrenching on cars professionally.

Today she lives in San Antonio, where she operates her own repair business, Pistons & Pixie Dust.

Hadley is also a TV celebrity, starring in dozens of episodes of All Girls Garage and Motor MythBusters. She runs a popular YouTube channel that highlights little-known repair solutions. And she maintains a significant and loyal following on Instagram (@pistonsandpixiedust) where she shares a range of automotive content.

We asked Hadley for her thoughts on the state of the auto mechanic world.

Q: How did you learn to fix cars?

Girl repairing the engine of a carTina Stiff/Courtesy Faye Hadley

A: I spent a semester driving across the country in my old 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit. It was a total mess and broke down multiple times, then my engine blew up. In order to fix it, I took an unpaid internship in a shop.

While the lead mechanic taught me how to rebuild my engine, I tried to make myself an asset by doing everything from sweeping the floors to organizing parts. Then I got my first paid job in 2012 at a Toyota dealership. I knew I had finally found the career where I belong.

From there, I made up for lost time, learning the trade as quickly as I could, while also navigating my fear of failure. I had to learn that any mistakes I made didn’t mean that I was unfit for the job, but rather view them as opportunities to ask questions, learn and grow.

Q: Why do you put so much effort into your YouTube channel?

A: My first video, “How To Jumpstart a Smart Car,” was a surprise success, garnering 11,000 views in just a few weeks. I had so many comments from people who were grateful for the information.

As I posted more automotive DIY videos, I started realizing that I was teaching life skills that many in my generation, millennials, are missing. Understanding basic vehicle troubleshooting and maintenance actually fosters independence, which is so important to me.

If you can fix your car, you can get to work. You can get to school. You can ask the right questions at the repair shop to make sure you’re not overspending. All of this contributes to a person’s autonomy and freedom.

As a mechanic, I can end each day knowing that I’ve contributed positively to people’s lives and made a difference, which was hard for me to know as a therapist because you aren’t able to physically see the results of a hard day’s work.

Q: What drew you into being on TV?

A: It was a total fluke. I grew up without television and my first bumper sticker said “Kill your TV.” I even have a tattoo of that. So when I was offered the role, it was a hard choice whether to accept it.

Ultimately I decided to because I could have a positive impact on people, especially younger women, by teaching them there is honor in the trades, that you can make good money, and that you get independence from being able to fix stuff by yourself. Not needing a guy to do it for you is a powerful thing.

I like being the person who changes the paradigm, so that in the future, little me in high school will have their guidance counselor tell them, “Oh my gosh, you are really good at math and science. You’re a great problem-solver. You are physically fit. You would be an excellent fit for the trades. Let’s help you find a trade school that works for you.”

Also, through my personal image, I want to show women they can be successful in this industry without posing in a bikini in front of a car. And I get letters from young women telling me I’ve inspired them, which means I’m reaching my goal of being a positive force in people’s lives.

Q: What’s it been like being a woman in a male dominated trade?

A: When I first started, I didn’t want anyone to know that I was a girl because I did not want to be treated differently, and because for a while I wasn’t sure I was going to be good enough for the job. I wanted customers to trust my work, so I did not let them see who had repaired their cars. I stayed behind the scenes.

It wasn’t until I was working at an independent shop in Portland, Oregon, when my boss told me that being a woman in the industry is actually an asset. He convinced me to teach a women’s-only class for basic hands-on automotive maintenance, like how to change a spare tire or check your oil level.

It was a huge hit. Next thing you know, we had people coming to the shop just because they wanted a woman to work on their car.

Funny enough, at first that boss didn’t want to hire me because I was a woman. He ended up hiring me through a temp agency for almost a year, which meant I did not get health insurance and other benefits. But he told me later that because of the impression I left on him, he’s gone on to hire two more women.

Q: What is your advice for young people who want to be mechanics?

A: It’s impossible for every mechanic to know everything about a vehicle. So I encourage people to find their own special skill set and run with it. That will make you invaluable in a shop.

So for example, you might first choose to specialize in Toyota. Then when you’re working at the dealership, think about how you can specialize even more. Am I going to specialize in interior work? Am I going to specialize in air conditioning systems? Am I going to specialize in electrical? You know, find your niche. Creating a niche for yourself really sets you apart.

Q: Have your parents now accepted your career?

A: When I was still a therapist, my mom finally told me that if I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a mechanic, it would not disappoint her. Her giving me that permission really meant a lot, even though I was a grown woman in charge of myself.

Today my parents know that I love my work and that it demands a high level of skill. In fact, I just visited my dad, and he showed off his hybrid Camry to me, because he’s so proud of his daughter, who’s a Toyota mechanic.

I’m not so into the whole Disney princess idea of following your heart and that’s what’s going to make you happy. But sometimes you do have to go against the grain to do what you think is right, and the people who are truly your supporters will come back around.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

A: One of my favorite shop tools is a tiny handheld pneumatic belt sander. That thing is magical. I just started using it, and I honestly don’t know what I’ve done all this time without it. I also have a couple of magnetic-based flashlights that are invaluable for doing electrical work, and work that’s underneath the dash, and other places where it’s hard to see.

One thing I’m trying to make cool again are kneeling pads. We have to protect our knees, and older mechanics tell me all the time how they wish they’d done that sooner. I use some made by Ergo Kneel, which are resistant to oil and brake fluid.

And then my favorite and most-used socket set is Matco 3/8-inch wobbly impact sockets. I held off on buying them for so long because they’re expensive, but once I finally bought them, they were a total life changer. Now I’ve had them for so long that all the little writing has long since worn off of them.

Finally, I subscribe to the dealership software Toyota Tech Stream. That’s paramount for me being able to do the high-end work for my customers, be it working on hybrid or electric vehicles, programming modules, doing recalls or programming new keys. There are a lot of scan tools that do some of that as well, but I think being able to do dealership-level work sets me apart.

Faye Hadley Bio

Portrait of a Mechanic GirlLisa Blaschke/Courtesy Faye Hadley

Faye Hadley is an ASE Certified Master Technician specializing in Toyotas. As a TV personality, she’s starred on more than 40 episodes of All Girls Garage and Motor MythBusters. She’s also taught tens of thousands of people how to fix their own cars through her YouTube channel.

Her happy place is wrenching on cars and tending to her chickens at her repair shop, Pistons & Pixie Dust, in San Antonio.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to Family Handyman. She spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. Eberl has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.