by Harriet P. Gross
If you’ve never met a female mechanic, it’s time to get acquainted with Martha Davis, who breaks down gender barriers in the car business. A fast-moving woman well into her 60s, she’s taken everything she learned as a child and rolled it into her own business: MSM Automotive Sales and Service.
Born and raised in Dallas, Martha would go from dealership to dealership with her father, an automobile wholesaler, as he bought used cars for resale.
“It’s a risky business,” she says, “because before you buy, you need to know where you’re going to sell.” She would drive his purchases to various lots, and “I learned the sounds and smells of used cars. My mind absorbed everything.”
Today, Martha is “Mother Mechanic” at 515 Interurban, Richardson, where MSM has been headquarters since 1997. From a desk in her front office that doubles as both conference center and waiting room, she takes care of business while behind her, in a huge workroom, six full- and part-time mechanics service and detail the cars that are then moved outside onto the adjoining sales lot. (Important note: MSM does not do body work.)
Success led to Martha’s inclusion on the three-season TV show “Dallas Car Sharks” (now in reruns; check Velocity for viewing information). However, the path to that success wasn’t an easy straight line. First, “I wholesaled for years, and it was a good business,” Martha says. But when interest rates rose precipitously in the late ‘80s, she started fixing up – all by herself – the cars she would usually have sold “as-is” to dealerships. Hiring someone to clean and detail them, she then began selling the finished products on her own. The old cliché fits here: “The rest is history!”
But “The car business is still in the dark ages for women,” says Martha. “You have to keep proving yourself. I’m established. I can answer all questions. But some people still only want to talk to a male mechanic. I don’t argue. It’s not worth it. I don’t buy that thought process, but it’s important to get customers.”
So when women come, “I try to educate them,” she continues. “If I sell a car to a woman, I give her a whole ‘class’ on how to take care of her car.” Martha’s happy to pass on her tips now: Never drive on empty; always keep the level of your gas tank above one-quarter. For an older car, change oil every 2500 miles; if it’s seven years old or more, check the oil regularly between the recommended change times. And add STP (“a cheap cleaner,” Martha calls it) once a month
“This is Basic Mechanics 101,” she says. “People are holding on to their cars longer now. Watch your warranties, and look out for recalls on the type and age of your car. Find a good mechanic. Call wholesale parts people and find out who they take their own cars to. Do all this to prevent problems BEFORE SOMETHING HAPPENS.” She recommends that every car owner stow a “care package” in its trunk: a quart of oil, a gallon of anti-freeze, a flashlight, a flare, and a temporary “fix-the flat” patch.
Once a divorced single mother, Martha is now married to someone who understands the business from the inside: Husband Mark Saporito has his own used car lot in Oak Cliff; her “MSM” logo surrounds the initial of his last name with those of both their first names. “We each know the stresses of the other’s work,” she says.
There’s still lots of stress for Martha, despite her business success. In addition to meeting with car buyers herself and supervising mechanics and salespeople, she keeps her own lot stocked by attending used car auctions three days a week at locations in and near Dallas. Six days each week, she works from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., handling all the business accounting herself in the cheery office adorned with large, old-fashioned metal signs for Pennzoil, Valvoline and Chevy Trucks, telling time by a wall clock set into a Ford Mustang mini-tire.
“I never thought that at my age I’d be doing this,” Martha says, “but life sometimes brings the unexpected, and survival means to be flexible and change with the times. To be a part of life now, I change my thought processes but not my values.” One value: necessary recreation. She always finds time for something physical; hiking in the Colorado mountains is her favorite getaway.
Success has come to Martha not just in business, but through her children. Son J.D., who’s worked with her for years, can be seen with her on Car Sharks. Todd specializes in boats in South Padre; Charlie, with an MBA from SMU, is an accountant in Houston. The youngest, daughter Elizabeth, graduated from UT-Austin and is now studying occupational therapy at Texas Woman’s University.
But Martha Davis hasn’t yet set her sights on retirement. “I enjoy what I do,” she says. “I like cars!”