Pretty Pink Mazda RX-7

March 1, 2008
People still ask about the 1979 trophy magnet.

Tara Lee Strom just wanted a nice car. Little did she know that her $1,000 1979 Mazda RX-7—known as the Barbie Car to auto rebuild enthusiasts—would be her ticket to a prize-winning, car-loving life.

Back in 1988, Strom was a senior in high school. All of her friends in the tony Bainbridge Island community of Seattle, where she still resides, drove BMWs or Mercedes. But Strom’s parents told her she’d have to pay for her own car. She drove her affordable Mazda find for all of a month before its engine blew up.

When offers of help from her guy friends didn’t materialize, Strom realized she was on her own if she wanted a sweet summer ride. Strom had already shown a knack for tinkering by taking apart the seats and dashboard “just to see how they worked.” But true passion bloomed when she bought a copy of the rebuild DIY bible, a Haynes manual. “It told me step by step how to do everything,” she says, “with diagrams, pictures and numbers.” Her dad warned her, “If you take apart that car, don’t expect me to put it back together.” Three days later, Strom had a completely rebuilt engine.

Strom repainted the car a couple of times and outfitted it with a whale tail and fancy front valance. But people continued to think it must be a guy’s car, even when it was nail-polish magenta. In 1990, when someone suggested she enter the Mazda in a car contest, she decided to paint it a girly pink (with silver flakes), and install a matching crushed velvet interior, complete with 12 mirrors. “I even made the engine compartment look girly,” she says, “with light pink spark plug wires and chrome engine.”

The Barbie Car took first place at the Seattle Autorama that year—and the next two—in the sports car category. It won the Portland Roadster show three years running, too. Strom says she had to deal with some resentment from the mostly male car show crowd. “I don’t blame them, knowing what goes into building cars,” she says. “My RX-7 didn’t cost much, and some spend many thousands.” But Strom says she got more encouragement than criticism. In all, she took home more than 100 trophies for her handiwork. “I drove the car to shows all over Washington, and into Portland and Canada, until 1994,” Strom says. “It was so much fun.”

Inevitably, Strom found love at a car show, and married Aaron Strom in 1999. He paints cars at a rebuild shop, and builds street rods. “I had five cars when we got married, and he had four,” Strom says. “We always said we’d build a little house and a big garage.”

Busy raising their three boys, ages 6, 4, and 2, Strom hasn’t had as much time to devote to rebuilding cars. Still, she recently rebuilt and sold a 1970 MG Midget she found for $100 at a garage sale. After a three-year search, she also found a jewel blue 1961 Corvette, refurbished it, and won a regional and national top-flight award for her work at the National Corvette Restorers Society competition. “It all has to be original—every bolt, nut, and thread,” Strom says. “So, for me, that was a huge accomplishment.”

Strom is sure she’ll get back to working on cars. But her family’s immediate priority is selling some of its two-seaters (but not the Barbie Car!) for a vehicle that can fit all five. She’s not sure what that will be. But a smart bet would be on something with style. Right now, picture this: Her main ride is an orange and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Says Strom, “I’m not a typical mini-van person.” —Reporting by Carin Rosengren

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