Growing up in Bakersfield, I worked in the auto-parts industry for eight years between a retail store and a salvage yard. During those years, I got to meet an interesting mix of corporate executives, shop owners, car enthusiasts, mechanics, and dealership managers—all of whom were men. If I ever encountered a woman, she usually held an entry-level position like receptionist, cashier, or office assistant, with the occasional bookkeeping job mixed in. The absence of women with an active role in the automotive industry was palpable even then, and it was a standard I became accustomed to. In recent years, though, more women have been disrupting a field long (and still) dominated by men.
Recently, I was invited to moderate a panel at an event hosted by Accelerating Change, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of women in automotive. Among the women on the panel was Amber Blonigan of GI Automotive, who has owned and operated her auto shop in Los Angeles for 15 years.
If you were to meet Blonigan for the first time and knew nothing about her work, you probably wouldn’t peg her as working in the automotive realm. It’s also highly unlikely that you’d guess that a Porsche 911 GT3 RS and McLaren 675LT are in her personal car fleet, or that she just might install an exhaust upgrade on a Porsche after getting her nails done.
I paid GI Automotive a visit at its Beverly Hills location for a behind-the-scenes look at the daily operations, topping off my talk with Blonigan with espresso shots in the customer lounge.
Automobile Magazine: When did you develop a serious passion for cars?
Amber Blonigan: As soon as I could drive unsupervised. Every time I got out on the road in my Geo Storm, I was having so much fun that the act of driving slowly progressed into a car hobby. Most people buy cars and treat them as just a means of transportation, but for me cars were more than just a way to get from point A to point B.
How did driving that Storm spark the idea to open your automotive service and repair business?
In my twenties, I got into more fun and fast cars, including a couple of BMWs. I started to modify my cars—and break them as well. When I had to take my BMW 850Ci to the auto shop for service, I wasn’t enjoying the experience for various reasons. That’s when I decided I wanted to open my own shop. It wasn’t something I thought of as a career but rather a way to break even and pay for my flourishing car hobby.
You grew up in the Midwest, where you played sports and enjoyed riding horses. In those days, what did your career goals look like?
It definitely wasn’t cars and I never imagined that I would become a car enthusiast. As a young athlete in Minnesota, I always dreamed of making it to the Olympics and going into some sort of business after.
What did you do prior to opening your shop in L.A.?
I worked at brokerage firms and later in venture capital.
How did GI Automotive Group get started and when did it open for business?
GI Automotive Group got started with around $30,000, and it opened in 2004.
Launching a business of any kind is risky. Describe the experience.
People were still using phonebooks in 2004, and social platforms weren’t used the way they are today. Luckily, though, GI Automotive did really well in the first couple of years. I networked with people I had done business with before in the investment and venture capital world. They brought their cars in, and word of mouth quickly spread.
What car marques does GI Automotive specialize in?
GI Automotive specializes in the maintenance and repair of high-end cars including Bentley, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, McLaren, Aston Martin, and Ferrari.
What other types of services does GI Automotive offer?
The core of what we do is repair and maintenance. Other services we offer are performance and aesthetic upgrades, interior customization, vinyl wraps, and clear bra. We do take in some collision work, but mostly for current clients. In addition, we buy and sell cars for clients and help maintain private car collections in-house.
Does GI Automotive ever bend the rules and work on cars that aren’t European?
We can certainly work on American models and not just European. For us it’s more about the car enthusiasts and people who are passionate about their cars. We’re willing to make some exceptions.
How did GI Automotive become one of the most respected and sought-after auto shops for high-end luxury cars?
Longevity in the market, proven experience, honest work, and making sure our customers are happy with the end result. We don’t give unnecessary maintenance recommendations or inflate invoices with work that hasn’t been performed.
Tell us the story behind the customer lounge upstairs.
Most auto shops don’t provide a comfortable space where customers can hang out while their car is being serviced. [At GI,] there is a lounge room above the workshop that has a bar and retail space with car-enthusiast gear. Customers can relax, get work done, socialize, and enjoy an espresso or a drink.
Where do you stand on playing the female card in a male-dominated industry?
It’s not necessary, and it really doesn’t help. So many people use it as a crutch or as an excuse. I don’t try to highlight that I am a female in the car industry. I’m just another person doing business.
Considering you operate a high-end auto shop out of Beverly Hills, most people would assume that you drive an expensive sports car to work. What is your daily driver?
I have a few supercars in my arsenal, however, most days I drive an electric Fiat 500. It’s perfect for my dog, simple, quiet, and I don’t have to worry about where I park it.
If you could drive on any road in the world right now, where would that be and what is your weapon of choice?
There’s this long stretch of the straightest road in North Dakota. I would love to drive on that road with either an Aston Martin Valkyrie or Mercedes-AMG Project ONE. Those are two cars that I am very excited about.
In Photos: The All-Women’s Car Show
Accelerating Change at a Female-Friendly Track Day
Damsels of Design: GM’s Women Designers
Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for other women, specifically young girls, who are considering a career in the automotive industry?
The biggest advice I have is don’t sell yourself out, stay true to what you want, and do the work. If you are serious and really want to be a part of the car community, be authentic and not like every other girl on Instagram.
GI Automotive Group
195 South Robertson Boulevard
Beverly Hills, California 90211
Accelerating Change photography by Huy Tran/LesDuit
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