Just a few years ago, a student at McPherson College in Kansas found a 1971 AMC Javelin languishing in a barn. The project spiraled into a full-blown restoration that took multiple semesters to finish but, hey, what else is there to do when your college is, literally, in the middle of nowhere?
The restoration was completed just in time for the college’s annual car show in the student’s senior year.
The restoration involved everything but paint — rebuilding the engine, conversion to electronic fuel injection, replacing and updating the transmission, rear end, and suspension, even the dashboard, which had been cut up, apparently when someone removed or replaced the factory radio.
The student’s mother posted a video of the project on social media. The video attracted more than 90,000 views, led to the car being featured in Hagerty’s magazine, and people restoring similar cars reporting they were using the student’s project as a baseline.
McPherson, a school famous within the collector car hobby for its 4-year automotive restoration major, is an equal opportunity educator, and Julia Berger was one of the few but growing number of young women in the program, which basically puts students through what amounts to a double major — auto restoration and business management, for example.
Female graduates of the automotive restoration program currently work as archivists, private collection advisors, editorial directors, and even as restoration shop owners, and one has worked on orbital spacecraft.
In addition to workshop and classroom education in Kansas, the school emphasizes summer internships and has relationships with major collectors and museums. Berger did internships at the Cobra Experience in California and at the Brumos Collection in Florida.
Her first job after college was with Barrett-Jackson. And now, soon-to-turn-24-year-old is trying to find time to launch her next automotive project. She recently acquired a 1998 Toyota 4Runner she wants to get ready for exploring off-road opportunities throughout the desert southwest.
“She’s bright and knowledgeable, knows cars and understands people,” said Amanda Gutierrez, the McPherson vice president who oversees that restoration program.
Berger grew up in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Her father had a couple of Ducati motorcycles, and he would take his daughter to watch races at Summit Point.
The high schools in the area allowed students to participate in tech programs as electives, and Berger did. She wanted to pursue a career in an automotive field, and in her senior year, one of her teachers said, “You like cars, have you looked into this school?”
The school was McPherson. She applied, and took her first trip to the Midwestern plains, where the topography is, as the dictionary suggests in the various definitions of “plain,” “a broad, unbroken expanse” and “free of extraneous matter.” For Berger, it was what she termed “a bit of a culture shock.”
Settled into her sophomore year, Berger gained one of the two inaugural McPherson internships at the Cobra Experience, a museum and restoration shop in the Bay Area of Northern California focused on Carroll Shelby’s historic roadsters.
During the summer, the interns’ assignment was to turn the 1,000-page Cobra Registry into a searchable on-the-web database. For good measure, “we did a timeline for the cars, and for all the races that Cobras were involved in,” Berger said.
Not only was it “a great way to learn about Cobras,” Berger learned. “It made me realize there was a different side to the automotive world. It wasn’t just about working in a shop.”
Berger also learned that sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone, and that led to her next internship. During her junior year, she did a spring-break trip to Florida, just not the typical sort of fun on the beach. Instead, McPherson organized a visit for restoration students to collections and museums in the sunshine state.
While visiting Dano Davis, who was preparing to open The Brumos Collection as a full-fledge museum, she overheard Davis tell Gutierrez that he wanted to digitize information on the collection in conjunction with the museum opening.
Later, as the students were in a van and ready to leave for their next visit, Berger took a leap of faith, left the van and told Davis she was interested in helping with the project. Two months later, she was offered an internship.
Fast forward and Craig Jackson, chief executive of Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions, visits McPherson as a featured speaker at the student-organized car show. He hears about Berger’s experience and offers her a position in Arizona after her graduation in 2019, working on the auctions and helping to manage his own car collection and all the materials that go with such a collection.
After working at Barrett-Jackson, she moved to her current a position at ClassicCars.com, where she part of the new AutoHunter auction team. Her duties include building the listings for individual vehicles approved for the auction docket, collecting photography, and assisting the seller while the car is up for bidding.
“For me it is a nice balance,” she said, adding that she enjoys learning the stories of the cars and helping people sell their cherished possessions, for whatever reason.
Berger went through that experience herself a little more than a year ago, selling her Javelin after she “fell out of love” after completing the project. Out of love, perhaps, but she still is in touch with the buyer and keeping track of the car.
“Julia is the total package,” said Roger Falcione, founder and chief executive of ClassicCars.com. “She knows cars really well and she has great people skills. We are glad to have her.”
Although the collector car hobby has traditionally been, and continues to be, male-dominated. Falcione noted that nearly 40 percent of ClassicCars.com‘s full-time staff is female, and that includes people in key positions within the company.
As far as being a woman in a traditionally male enterprise, Berger said she prefers “just to be another person in the field.”
“I encourage girls to explore all fields that aren’t necessarily the first ones that come to mind, but it’s the same for guys,” she said.
What she does lament is the loss of technical education classes at the high school level.
“We’ve lost touch,” she said. “People aren’t getting that experience (in high school), so (technical) careers don’t become a choice for them.”