A Girl and her Car By Gwen Goins

Photo: Autumn's eighty year old neighbor, owner of the automotive garage, next to the car.

When 16 year old Autumn Mitchell got her car last April, all she could do was stare at the heap of trash her dad presented in front of her.

The car had no wheels, no paint, and no engine. Huge dents checkered the back quarter panel from a previous accident, and it was everything she had hoped for.

Autumn recalls attending a local car show at the speedway as she browsed through lines of fixed up cars. For her, affording a new car wasn’t a reality, but she was inspired to build a car of her own like the ones at the show. Suddenly, it seemed possible to construct a car customized by her and for her, and she knew what she wanted: a 1971 Chevrolet Nova.

The front of Autumn's car when she first got it.

After determinedly searching for two months, Autumn settled for the 1973 model, paid her dad back, and bought two engines off of a friend for a total of $1200. She also purchased the 1971 Chevrolet Nova’s bumpers to put on her car, the main difference between the two models. Using the automotive garage her eighty year old neighbor owns, Autumn began working.

Photo: the back of Autumn 's soon to be car.

Renovating the car was no simple feat. Autumn says, ”I couldn't have done it on my own," citing how her older sister, Lexi Mitchell, and her father had helped her in addition to the two eighty year old men who own the shop she works in.

She used a cherry picker to drop one of the engines in, a process that took hours, and filled it with oil, hoping the car would start. She was dismayed when the oil quickly poured out of the bottom; not only was the head gasket completely ruined, but two of the eight pistons, important components of the engine, were too.

The back of Autumn's car while she was working on it.

After a visit to a car warehouse, Autumn replaced the pistons and the rings around them, and completed a few other small replacements. She held her breath as she placed the engine back in her car and let out an excited whoop when she heard the purr of the engine beside her.

Photo: Autumn sitting next to her car.

The next few weeks involved sanding down the whole body of the car, using sheets of sandpaper to scratch all of the paint off until the remaining surface is as smooth as glass.

Autumn sanding down her car.

Once, she decided to drive it around for a bit during this process. She was surprised when the car started overheating, forcing her to pull over on the side of the road. She realized her 350 V8 engines were too big, so she stopped often on her way home, waiting for her car to cool down. Undeterred, Autumn installed a fan that generated more wind, appreciating the problem solving skills the process was teaching her.

Photo: Autumn filling the dents of her car with putty while smiling happily.

For the rest of summer, Autumn labored away on her car. She put putty on dents, re-sanded the body, added fiberglass, fixed the huge dent in the back with a hammer and wielding tools, and straightened out the body line.

Autumn's car about to be painted.

By the time school started this fall, she had finished priming it and was satisfied with her work.

Photo: Autumn proudly standing next to her car.

Since then, Autumn hasn't been able to put in as many hours in. She is currently trying to finish painting her car black and is excited to be able to drive it soon. She has always wanted to drive a unique car that she could take pride in while also learning the inner workings of engines and automobiles. She laughs as she details the time she thought she’d finished restoring her car until her transmission started leaking. In the process of fixing it, a wire got pinched, resulting in her having to remove everything to fix it.

"Just when you think you're done, something else comes up" - Autumn Mitchell

Autumn explains she would never want a job in this field because it's hard to make a living, and cars are “very frustrating.” She explained how often she would put something on and then something else would break, making her take everything off again. “Just when you think you're done, something else comes up,” Autumn says, shaking her head. Still, she hopes her project will help her in her future career of engineering.

The car receiving the finishing touches on its wiring.

Overall, the experience of building her first car has been "worthwhile" for Autumn Mitchell. She has learned to push on even when she wanted to “drive the car off a cliff.” As a result, Autumn is extremely proud of everything she’s accomplished, her face lighting up just thinking about her almost finished car and joking, “I consider my car my best trait."

Photo: Autumn cleaning the underside of her car.

All photos courtesy of and taken by Lexi Mitchell

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