- At age 12, Kathryn DiMaria began to rebuild a Pontiac Fiero to drive when she's 16
- The project has inspired her family and the online auto community that's guiding her
- Fiero enthusiasts have followed her project online for years, offering advice, sending gifts
- "It's a project that me and my dad and everybody's worked on together," Kathryn says
A couple years ago, Jerry DiMaria signed up for an online forum and started a new thread: "A few months ago," he wrote, "our 12 year old DAUGHTER came in and said, 'Dad, Mom, can we talk for a minute?'"
Kathryn had a proposition for them: She wanted to build a car, a Pontiac Fiero.
They live in Michigan. Her dad is a Corvette guy, and the Fiero wasn't produced in her lifetime, but she'd seen the little sports car at an auto show, and knew it was the one for her. She could buy it with her babysitting money, she said. She'd have four years to restore it, to learn how to budget and build -- and drive -- before she was 16. It'd get good gas mileage. They'd never fear a breakdown or a crooked mechanic. She'd do it all herself.
Caught off-guard, they agreed, DiMaria wrote. Maybe she'd forget about it with the start of soccer or a new "Hunger Games" book, but she'd never come to them with an idea like this before. Why not try?
They found a 1986 Fiero for sale about 40 miles away, a four-speed with a rattle-can paint job. But it came cheap -- $450 -- and they could drive it home. Sold.
"Lots of miles, but solid chassis and a few spare parts," DiMaria posted to the Fiero forum. "I just thought a few of you might be interested..."
"Is it just me, or do I have a really cool daughter?"
Welcome to the madness
So that's how it started -- a proud dad sharing a story with other Fiero-heads online. Two years later and 22-pages deep, Kathryn's online thread is a build book and love letter, a safe place to share youthful enthusiasm and grown-up wisdom. Her project has gotten international attention -- Jalopnik dubbed her "The Girl Who Plays with Fieros" -- and put her on display at events like Maker Faire, a festival of DIY ideas.
Now 14, she's done most of the work, but it turns out she hasn't done it alone. Every member of her family has been there to teach her how to handle tools or sew the interior fabric. Math and science learned at school are really clicking in the garage. And then there are the hundreds of Fiero lovers helping her to finish the project by 2014, when she'll turn 16.
After her dad's first message in the forum, they wanted photos of the car and updates on the project. They've all got a car in the garage, or a car in their head, but nobody could remember a build sparked by a 12-year-old girl with wily curls and a wardrobe of oversized Central Michigan University shirts.
Yes, they told DiMaria, his daughter was something special.
"Great story," one wrote. "Welcome to the madness."
When the first Pontiac Fieros hit the road in late 1983, they drew a lot of stares. They were small -- just two seats -- with a sloped hood and pop-up headlights. The engine was tucked in the middle of the car. They were marketed as sporty commuter vehicles that were good on gas. Critics' reviews were mixed, but they outsold expectations right away.
But by 1988, sales were dwindling. Good mileage wasn't a consumer priority after years without fuel shortages, and the car was plagued by engine fires and mass recalls. Just under 400,000 had been built when production ended in 1989.
Still, the Fiero was the beloved first car of a new generation. Pennock's Fiero Forum, where Kathryn's dad started the online thread, claims to be the first and largest online Fiero community; people have been posting projects and swapping parts there since 1999. These are people who couldn't give up on a project just because General Motors had.
James Schulz is one of them. He's been working on the cars since the late 1980s, and he checked in on Kathryn's build a couple times per week after seeing it in the forum. When the DiMarias ran into some bumper trouble, Schulz introduced himself -- he's part owner of a side business, Fiero Fiberglass. The DiMarias weren't asking for help, but Schulz sent them some parts. They keep Kathryn's thank-you note hanging on a wall.
"Kathryn helps motivate things. We think, 'She's gonna need this. Let's make her something,'" Schulz said. "When she's done, she's got bragging rights: 'I built this car.' I'm 44 years old and I tell people, 'I built this car.' It's something to be proud of."
It doesn't matter that he's never met Kathryn or her dad, or that Schulz is in Florida and the DiMarias live in Michigan. There's nothing you can't find out on the Fiero forum, he said.
"People have contributed money, parts, knowledge. It doesn't surprise me that it's happening with Kathryn," he said. "The Fiero community is very helpful. They always have been."
He's seen it before, with guys like Tyler Shipman. A few years ago, the 18-year-old Fiero owner was diagnosed with cancer. The disease wasn't responding to treatment, and he posted on the Fiero forum, asking for parts to get his car working "before I'm gone." Three weeks later, dozens of Fiero fans from around the country descended on his Minnesota town, CNN affiliate KARE reported. They got the car working during a one-day auto-repair binge. They painted it yellow -- Tyler's choice.
Tyler died about in February, 2010, four months after his diagnosis. He left the car to his kid brother, and another one for his little sister. Now, there's an annual car show in his memory. Kathryn and her family don't know the Shipmans, but they plan to be there next year. The hood badge on her finished car will be in memory of Tyler, a teen who didn't get enough time with his Fiero.
"When [Kathryn's dad] started that thread, she wasn't asking for help. It was just something he thought would be cool. Next thing you know, it's branched out into this major project with national attention," said Schulz, the fiberglass guy. "A bunch of strangers came together to help her. It sticks in people's minds."
David Lee, e-business manager in 3M's automotive aftermarket division, saw Kathryn's story, and thought he could help, too. His company doesn't sponsor projects, he said, but there was no harm in gathering up extra sandpaper, masking tape and grinder wheels to help a good cause. During a trip to visit relatives in Michigan, Lee drove his family to the DiMarias' house to hand over the supplies. He hardly knows them, he said, but he knows what it's like for a family to take on a project: When he was in high school, he rebuilt a 1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia with his dad.
"We painted it, we sanded it, took it all apart and put it together, nights and weekends," he said. "It's such a breath of fresh air to see her generation wanting to do this. I have not mentioned this to anyone that's not all smiles."
A family effort
Schulz and Lee say the same thing as many others on the Fiero forum: They've got kids, nieces, nephews. Maybe if they see Kathryn, they'll want a family project like hers, too?
"It's the thing that gets the family to spend some time together, real quality time," said Bob Erekson, Kathryn's uncle. He works on cars as a hobby, and gave the rusty old Fiero a once-over before she bought it. He offered up his garage for some parts of the project and taught her to get over the fear of sparks and heat when welding.
"It's really getting me excited about my own car," he said. "It's a hobby that gives the family the opportunity to spend time on it. I'm glad to have it in my garage."
On the forum, she just goes by Kathryn. She didn't know the online community existed until months into the project, after her 13th birthday, when her dad revealed the community supporting her. Among gifts of movies, books and nail polish that year, she'd gotten new carpeting, caliper paint, tools and a toolbox, some of it provided by people she'd never met, who just wanted to pitch in.
"I truly had the best b-day EVER thanks to all of you who are supporters to me and my project!" she wrote in her first post to the forum. "i also wanted to thank those of you who have offered me support and wished me luck, thank you! and last but not least to those of you who wished me a happy 13th...thanks i had a wonderful day and was surprised to see how many people around the globe still liked the little fiero!"
When Kathryn first read all the well-wishes and advice online, she said, "I felt kind of amused, and a little baffled," she said. "It was strange to see how many people I can actually inspire. I'm a 14-year-old girl and already I've influenced hundreds of people?
"The people on the forum have definitely been a really big support, probably the second-best to my family. When you get stuck, they're all 'Where've you been? Where'd you go?' I hope to keep the car for my whole life. It's a project that me and my dad and everybody's worked on together."
'I hope he can turn a wrench'
Sometimes, Kathryn and her dad are on the forum every night, updating their progress or asking questions. Sometimes, weeks will go by without much to report. It means she's sanding -- a tedious, necessary task she counts as the toughest so far -- or just catching up on her homework.
Lately she's been focused on rebuilding a 3.4-liter Camaro engine to replace the 2.8-liter the Fiero came with. She's done with the sanding and is starting to piece together the body. She is cautiously optimistic of meeting her sweet 16 deadline.
She's busy, too, sharing what she's learned. Last month, Kathryn was short on time for posting, but her dad shared photos of the car maintenance class Kathryn taught for girls at her church.
There was another photo, too: Kathryn, her long curls straightened, a red rose on her wrist, a young man's arm around her shoulder.
The forum seemed to let out a sigh. They're excited for her to start driver's training in the next year, but how could their Kathryn already be heading to a homecoming dance?
"This is pretty hard on Dad," DiMaria wrote.
"Daddy to Daddy," one member wrote back, "I feel your heartache."
"I hope he can turn a wrench!" another joked.
Another: "If he can't, she can teach him!"
Nobody needed to worry. A few days later, Kathryn was back online. The dance was fun, she said, but she'd been de-rusting the horn and cleaning the water pump.
"Just little things but I suppose," she told the community around her car. "They are still progress."