As a teenager Hilary Noack preferred to live life on her own terms. Unfortunately, her terms sometimes resulted in a good old fashioned grounding. With the punishment came restricted access to her primary means of freedom, the family car. Of course, absence only makes the heart grow fonder. To beat the system, she became determined to pick up her own set of wheels, one her parents couldn’t take away. She quickly learned that cars are expensive, at least the cool ones.
At the time, pretty much all Noack knew about cars came from hot rodding magazines. Fast forward 21 years and she is the owner of Ink N Iron Automotive, a full service auto restoration shop in Oakville, Ontario where her and her all female team are building those cool cars she once dreamed of having. It’s been a decades long journey, a journey that all started behind the wheel of a 1970 Oldsmobile.
After scraping together $1,000, Noack, then 17, had found her ride. The Oldsmobile had seen its fair share of Canadian winters. Features not found on the window sticker included rust, faded paint and pitted chrome. Yet, it was hers and nobody could take it away, unless Mother Nature turned it to dust. To prevent that, and to perhaps add some level of radness to her four-wheeled freedom, she enrolled in a high school auto shop class. Noack followed that up with a co-op internship at a local body shop. She quickly took to the trade. Yet, she started to notice a trend. In both her high school classroom and her co-op she found herself to be the only female around. That didn’t change as she moved into professional collision repair roles.
Undeterred, by the end of her 20s she earned a lead technical position at one of Toronto’s largest auto body repair shops, meeting just a handful of women in the industry along the way. Finding passion in her work, she also taught auto body classes at a local college. In class, female students again proved to be rare. Just shy of 30, working, as a teacher and a tech, she felt as if she’d peaked. Noack decided to lean into a desire she’d had for a long time: start her own shop.
“I had hit the proverbial glass ceiling,” Noack said. “I didn’t really know how I could advance any more. I was just at the point where I am like, ‘I am 29 years old, if I don’t do this now, I am never going to be able to do it.’”
She launched a crowdfunding campaign that garnered international attention. She raised just enough start-up cash to rent a space and bootstrap the rest of the operation. Never was out of the question and now had come.
Within months Noack opened the doors of Ink N Iron Auto, named in honor of the former Ventura Beach hot rod, tattoo and pinup convention she’d read about in those magazines so many years before. And yes, you can get a tattoo at Ink N Iron thanks to in-house artist Alx. But the presence of a tattoo gun isn’t the only thing that makes this shop stand out. For one, Hilary chose to focus on her passion of classics and muscle cars. Second, the shop is entirely staffed by women.
But Noack makes it known that these days gender is not the sole focus or purpose of the shop, at least not any more. Now, Noack and her team let the cars they build speak for themselves.
“My goal is to give women a comfortable working environment so they can learn the basics and go out into the industry with skills and confidence,” Noack said. “But it’s also to show the world that women can build beautiful, high-end cars. The focus of what I am building is about our work and less about our gender.”
Building high-end cars and trucks is exactly what Ink N Iron is becoming known for. Noack and her three full time employees, painter Lil’ Kim, collision tech Brianne and apprentice and estimator Nicole, have a full slate. At the time of writing, current projects include a 1952 Ford pickup, 1979 Pontiac Firebird, 1969 Dodge Challenger, 1966 Ford Falcon and a Jaguar kit car. For those into more contemporary rides, the ladies of Ink N Iron work on those too. They’re finishing up a custom wide body kit for a customer’s SRT Jeep. As things at the shop progress, Noack desires to take on more pro touring builds.
For Noack, the best reward for the work is the reaction she gets when people come to collect their finished cars. While a “Wow” and a big grin goes a long way in terms, referrals are truly propelling her business forward, she says. More and more people are showing up and calling, asking to get on their schedule after seeing another client’s finished car, Noack said. They are not coming to Ink N Iron because it’s novel to have women build a car, but because the finished products are consistently exceeding expectations.
Still, the impact that Ink N Iron is having on the industry is not lost on Noack. She says she knows that hiring women is opening up jobs and inspiring people of all — makes and models — shall we say.
“I just want to serve as an example for guys and girls,” Noack said. Don’t let your gender dictate what you can or can’t do.”
Opening up her shop hasn’t come without challenges. There’s the obvious, like learning how to bend metal and make parts that you can’t buy for certain old cars and trucks, and the day-to-day logistics of running a business. Hilary does mention she’s learned more in her seven years as a business owner than she did in her first 12 years as a technician. When working on older cars she’s also found that people have a higher expectation for results, which has only forced her to improve her skills. However, those same people, she says, appreciate that the person working on their vehicle cares about it just as much as them.
Noack recalls the stories she hears from her customers about the cars they bring to her shop. She says they’ll say it is the car their dad had, the ride they went to prom in or the vehicle they drove off from their wedding in. Whatever the reason, there’s often a strong sentimental attachment to these cars and trucks, she says. It’s her job to ensure that attachment can survive by bringing the vehicle back to life.
Then of course there are the challenges of hiring the right crew or even knowing to admit when you need help. But it’s not just the operations that prove arduous. On social media, keyboard warriors often barrage the all female crew with spiteful and hateful messages, seemingly upset that women are carving out a footprint in the industry.
“At first I took it really personally and it really hurt,” Noack said. “Now it really donesn’t phase me anymore. I’ve developed a really tough skin.”
She isn’t wrong when claiming people are brave behind a screen. Given the opportunity, she knows those same haters wouldn’t say a negative word to her face. In fact, she’s allowed their messages to become words of encouragement.
“It’s only fuel for the fire to prove them wrong,” she said. “I’ve been able to turn the negativity into a positive. Everything that I feared has already happened to me so I am not scared any more.”
And why should she be? Hilary Noack is seven years into a budding business that is growing every year. That growth has allowed her to be more selective about the work she takes on, ensuring each build is better than the next. She views each project as a stepping stone, a way to learn and grow. Every car is an opportunity to earn recognition, which drives Noack’s desire to craft the best vehicles her team can. From minor ding and dent repair, to custom metalwork, world-class paint jobs and full restorations, mechanicals included, the women of Ink N Iron do it all and they do it right.
After spending 21 years and counting in the industry, Noack could write a book on all she’s learned and all she’s taught in the industry. While she hasn’t, yet, anyway, that knowledge is up for grabs. Noack regularly invites new co-ops to Ink N Iron Automotive. She hopes by sharing her story and her skills, she will continue to inspire auto enthusiasts to pursue the career they want and turn their dreams into a reality, just like she turned her old Oldsmobile into the cruiser she craved.
If you’re passionate about something, just go for it,” Noack said. “You can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”
Ink N Iron Automotive is located at 458 Woody Rd. Oakville, ON, Canada