A gated neighborhood in an upscale Tampa suburb is a strange place to send your carburetors for rebuilding. The shop sits in the three-car garage of a lovely home, alongside a similarly lovely turquoise 1957 Chevrolet Nomad wagon. There is a long table with some chairs, and a workbench is parked next to a couple of soda blasters. All is lit by florescent bulbs overhead.
This the modest domain of Riley’s Rebuilds, a carburetor rebuilding service headed by Riley Schlick.
Riley is a 17-year-old girl: A surfing, skating, soccer-playing, Jeep-driving high school senior. Four of her high school friends, all girls, have learned to rebuild carburetors too, rounding out the staff of Riley’s Rebuilds. Ship them your worn-out carburetor, and they’ll ship it back soda-blasted, ultrasonic-cleaned and rebuilt to original specifications.
On what planet is this happening?
Here on Earth, actually, where a girl with a screwdriver, a drill, and some wrenches can earn “really good money,” Riley says. Her father, Dane, is an amateur mechanic. That’s his Nomad, which he’s had for about 15 years, and he also has a much-modified Dodge Little Red Wagon pickup that he drag races. He’s the one who taught Riley how to rebuild carbs, and she taught her friends, and now they all have part-time jobs “that pay us well,” Riley says. “For teenagers, anyway. So much better than minimum wage.”
Riley has always been interested in cars, starting out “holding the flashlight for my dad.” When she was 14, she told her parents, who are both in the medical field, that she wanted to buy a car that she could rebuild, getting it ready for when she was old enough to drive. Her parents said it needed to have a manual transmission, not go above 80 mph, and have a real roll bar. The logical answer was a manual-transmission, four-cylinder Jeep.
To buy it, she needed a job, and the only place that would hire a 14-year-old is a local grocery chain. No, her father said, we’re going to go out in the garage and figure out a way to make money. Hence the carburetor rebuilding operation, which has been in business for three years.
“I made the money to buy the Jeep in three or four months,” Riley says. They bought seats, wheels, tires, a new transmission, and had it painted in a “Jurassic Park” livery. She kept rebuilding carbs to pay for all that, and when it was done, she kind of eased off on Riley’s Rebuilds. But then she totaled out her friend’s Honda Civic, “and I had to pay for that—$10,000.” So it was carburetor game on again, and it hasn’t slowed. She’s saving money for college, even though she already has a scholarship offer to play soccer, which she does three or four nights a week.