Four years ago, Emelia Hartford was juggling acting gigs with daily jobs in the service industry, relying on food stamps to make ends meet. After her shifts, she would work on customizing her cars, occasionally posting updates to Instagram. She was surprised when one day she was invited by tire manufacturer Michelin to fly to New York for the launch of its performance summer tire, the Pilot Sport 4S.
“That changed my life,” said Hartford. “They had me out with a bunch of influencers who were big in the automotive space. I was sitting there with no following, not sure what they saw in me.”
Though she initially felt out of place, her fellow influencers put her at ease, generously sharing stories and tips about rebuilding Ferraris and how to demystify the mechanics of a vehicle on YouTube. After getting advice on how to direct her own videos from YouTube celebrities such as TJ Hunt and Jason Fenske, she bought her first camera and started her own channel on the site, EmeliaHartford.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I spent every single penny in my bank account in order to buy a used Canon G7 X [camera] online,” Hartford said. “I met a very nice guy at a very sketchy gas station.”
Hartford said that growing up she always preferred playing video games and tossing footballs. Her father died by suicide when she was a teenager. To cope with her loss, she became focused on getting her driver’s license, then buying her first car, a task that became an obsession.
When she purchased a 2005 Infiniti G35 with a six-speed manual transmission, she’d never driven a stick before. “I figured it out on the drive home,” she said. “I was really good at it. It went from that to, ’Let’s see how I can make my car faster. Let’s start tinkering with things.’”
Soon, she was spending her time with a car community in Bloomington, Ind., called Bcrew. “Those guys became my family and they really helped me out of a dark time,” said Hartford, who refused to provide her age. “They took me under my wing. Instead of partying on the weekend we were doing motor swaps and doing turbo installs. I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.”
Since launching her YouTube channel in January 2017, Hartford’s videos have been viewed 72 million times. She has 655,000 subscribers and nearly half a million followers on Instagram, with viewers ages 25 to 40 making up the biggest share of her audience.
“Most, if not all, of my followers are car enthusiasts, ranging from just learning a thing or two about cars, to getting down and dirty themselves on some pretty extensive projects,” said Hartford, who added her relationship with her followers, called the Ecrew, is the kind of connection you can’t fake. “If I am banging my head against the wall on a project that I can’t figure out, they are not going to enjoy it because they can sense that I’m not enjoying it.”
Though she already has a fleet of five customized cars including a C8 Corvette, Toyota Prius with a Honda K-series engine and her grandmother’s 1979 Buick Regal, Hartford’s currently chronicling the purchase of her first supercar, deciding between a Lamborghini 580-2 Huracán or a Ferrari 458. She also just purchased her first house, or, as she puts it, “I bought a two-car garage, and it came with a home.”
“I hope that what I’m doing is able to inspire and motivate people,” she said. “You don’t have to come from money. I’m a strong believer that, sure, luck may be part of it, but I believe luck is where hard work meets opportunity.”
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Hartford’s tips to great Instagram photos
When it comes to photographing cars, whether race cars or those being worked on, Hartford makes it look easy. And, according to her, it is. Here are her tips for taking prized photos.
Enjoy the views: Your car is already hot but make it extra eye-catching by placing it somewhere that also looks good. “If I want to take a photo of my car, I will try to take it with a very pretty view in the background,” she said. “If you are driving in the canyons or you are at the beach, take a photo of your car.”
Make it quick: If you’re snapping a picture inside your garage, catching the energy of the moment is more important than stopping work to do a photo shoot. “I will usually have one of the guys in the shop snag a quick photo,” Hartford said. “If we have 12 hours of work to do, I don’t want to spend too long taking photos.”
Phone it in: It’s more important to have a supped-up vehicle than a high-performance camera. Hartford’s Instagram feed is filled with photos snapped casually using her phone. “Phones are super easy and take such good quality photos,” she said. “[If] you want to document the experience, I think a phone is okay. I think it’s okay if it looks a little amateurish.”
Ryan Porter / Special to Wheels