Behind the Headlines
In the Driver’s Seat
Photograph by Anthony Geathers
Auto expert Barbara Terry — mechanic, car racer, newspaper columnist, speaker, TV host — got into the driver’s seat at a tender age: seven. On a big ranch in Texas. Actually one of her six brothers helped her climb into the cab of a one-ton hay truck, sat her on a pile of phone books, stuck a couple of pillows behind her back and off she went, working the “four on the floor.” She was the youngest in her family and the only girl.
“Somebody had to drive it,” Barbara recalls. “I was probably forty pounds, so I couldn’t throw the hay on the truck like my brothers. Occasionally I’d run over a bale because I couldn’t see, and I’d hear this “BARBEEEE!”
A year later she was driving a tractor, plowing a field. At eleven she was racing cars on the local dirt track, “a real big thing on Saturday nights in the South” — driving old modified street cars like Mustangs, Camaros and pickup trucks. “Sometimes it turned into a demolition derby,” she admits with a laugh. Nobody needed a license.
To be involved in everything her brothers were, she had to be “very passionate about anything with an engine and a transmission.” But she ended up being more into horsepower and engines than they were. “My brothers were really into hunting — deer and raccoon. They had a bunch of coon dogs,” she says. They would all become entrepreneurs, something she credits to the work ethic instilled in them by their parents. Luckily, her mother has supported all her life decisions.
Their ranch was out in the boondocks in Springtown, an hour’s drive from Fort Worth. There were ninety-two in her high school class. “Yah, I was a tomboy,” she admits. “I always liked getting my hands dirty during the day. But you could dress me up at night, too.”
After graduation, Barbara took some business classes but didn’t get much out of them. “I’d rather have street smarts than book smarts,” she says. To prove it, she opened two corporate flower shops that served the hotels in Dallas and the Dallas Cowboys before selling them in 1998 to become a highly successful car dealer. She started an auto brokerage and wholesale house, buying and selling about 300 cars a month to dealerships across America. Her strictly male competition either loved her or hated her.
“I was the only girl brokering,” she says, but attributes her success to her accessibility rather than her gender. Whereas many gents would work three hours then take off the rest of the day, she was always there to pick up the phone or e-mail and give a manufacturer a fast answer when they asked: “We’re looking for a bunch of 2000 F-150 Power Strokes. Got any of those?”
Barbara came to New York with her then-boyfriend, a sportscaster, and met a television producer who took one look at the lady car expert and pushed her into show biz. He booked her on talk shows like the Tony Danza Show, where she discussed how to prepare for a road trip, and CBS’s Early Show, where she covered emergency items you should have in your car. She started writing car articles for the New York Daily News. Last April she got an agent who landed her the first of many TurtleWax commercials. And — big news — she’s touring the country as “Dr. FuelGood” for Shell Oil this summer, educating drivers suffering from low “Fuel I.Q.”
Barbara commutes to New York from her home in Greenwich in her Jeep Grand Cherokee that she thinks is the best SUV out there. “The 4.0-liter, your straight six, is the best motor on the market in an SUV,” she says.
Then there is her TV show In the Driver’s Seat that she hopes to syndicate. During this fun, fast-paced half hour she reviews the latest models, talks to the Miami Dolphins and other celebrities about what they drive and, in a how-to segment, teaches people about their cars. In the dizzying finale, viewers can watch her “getting beat up” behind the wheel of a race car careening around racetracks across the country, including Lyme Rock.
Barbara and cocreator/producer Anthony Geathers have turned down cable network offers for the show because they don’t want to lose creative control. “I don’t want to sell my soul for some network to tell me to cut my hair and dye it red,” she says. But with syndication, they would retain ownership.
Then there’s her new weekly reality show BT Garage to air next month. It’s about a repair shop she’s running and the conflict between her male and female employees, all real mechanics. The cameras also catch her behind the scenes on book signings, endorsements and dates.
“If I go out on a date, all the guy wants to do is talk cars, which gets old because I’m talking cars all day,” Barbara notes. “Some of them don’t believe it till they see it. Then it’s ‘Wow, if you’re a me-chanic, I’d be broken down every day.’ ”
She has been known to pull over for someone whose car is disabled at the side of the road. “I’m wiry but pretty stout when it comes to lifting,” she admits, pointing out that cars don’t have many heavy parts except the battery. “There are situations where a guy can’t fix his car, so I pop the hood and it’s a simple thing like the vacuum hose has come undone.”
She loves hearing symptoms and diagnosing the problem. Someone says: ‘My car’s going clickety-clack. What’s wrong with it?’ So I say, ‘Okay. Clickety-clack. Can you define that for me?’ ‘Well, it goes rur-rur-rur.’ ‘Okay, is the rur-rur-rur coming from the motor or from the rear or from a tire?’ ”
Or a friend calls: “You know, my car’s doing …” whatever. “I give them multiple choices. Like: ‘When you start it, is it turning over or just clicking?’ Then I narrow it down to whether it’s the battery or alternator or starter or distributor. It’s a challenge. A game.
“I love helping people,” concludes Barbara Terry, a woman of unique talent and admittedly goofy wit. “Not just being on TV. I don’t care about fame. At the end of the day, I love knowing that I was able to help people and maybe make them laugh. That’s what it’s about for me: the satisfaction of accomplishment, educating and entertaining.”