A passion that starts with the children
How a children's author is making sure automotive enthusiasm has a future
To tell a child a story, you must first begin by telling them the truth. It's the reason Harry Potter is so successful: It's not the fantasy of the magic, it's the realness of the friendships. When it comes to books about cars, there's plenty out there that's zany or humorous, but nothing that has that same spine of real to it. Or, at least, there wasn't until The Little Red Racing Car came along.
In a nondescript office park in Phoenix, something special is coming to life.
The blinds are down, and the only clue is the sign on the door: "Stories, apparel, and gear for automotive enthusiasts present and future."
Inside, author Dwight Knowlton is hard at work on a commission for the American Bugatti Club's June meeting in New York. The poster for the event features a pair of prewar cars at speed, and Knowlton is experimenting, trying to match that sensation of speed with a period-correct take on the artwork.
It's just the kind of fiddly little project that appeals to Knowlton's obsessive nature. Trained as a fine artist and a designer by trade, he has several international awards for his work on major brands such as Intel and Safeway.
However, when his son was born, Knowlton discovered that something was missing. Having always been a car guy, he went looking for a book to read with his budding new enthusiast – and found nothing. The idea for The Little Red Racing Car was born.
"I wanted to make an heirloom book," he says. "And at first, I thought it would be easy."
He laughs. "It wasn't."
Four years later, Knowlton's inspiration has spawned a line of car-related kids gear and three special books. He's been the official poster artist for the Lime Rock Park Historic Festival, and worked with racing legend Stirling Moss when writing The Greatest Race, the story of the record-breaking '55 Mille Miglia Mercedes.
His third book, The Small Silver Speedster, easily hit its Kickstarter goals, and is hotly anticipated. However, it's running a little behind. In part, I'm here to find out why.
Knowlton grabs a 1/18th scale AUTOart model of a Porsche 356 Speedster to explain his process. The model is in pieces, taken apart so that he can view the lower indicator grille more accurately. Setting the scene in reality, albeit at a small scale, makes for a more accurate sketch.
There's more. In one corner of Knowlton's studio is a racing seat bolted to a television, set up for Forza. But far from providing an escape from work, Knowlton uses the video game's accurate physics to load up a car's suspension, for greater precision.
"I drive through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca," he says. "Then go to the video replay and spin the camera around until I can get the right angle."
As if this sort of frame-by-frame refinement wasn't enough, the story has to be right, too. Part of the popularity of The Little Red Racing Car is in its simple conceit of a father and son restoring a piece of the past (in the book, it's a Maserati 300S).
For The Small Silver Speedster, Knowlton wanted to capture some of that same magic for fathers and daughters, but also pay tribute to the late motorsports legend, Denise McLuggage. It's a dense topic, but a children's story requires lean prose to be accessible.
"My favourite line was originally the last line in the book," he says. "But then I had to cut it – and it was better without it."
Further, in Knowlton's mind, the artwork has to be faithful to the period. Much of his office is taken up with reams of old sports-car magazines, old advertisements and posters from the 1950s. He uses these to give his books a timeless flavour. The illustrations are brightly coloured and simplistic enough to appeal to kids, but there's a depth of authenticity here.
Currently, all two dozen pages of The Small Silver Speedster are laid out at the back of Knowlton's office. He points out one sketch showing the hero car being chased through the bend by a rival wearing racing livery he found in an online catalogue of old racing pictures. There are gaps here and there where final details need to be added, or wording tweaked, but it's nearly finished.
This isn't the first time I've encountered this same obsession with getting things right. In the Hot Wheels design offices, everyone's a gearhead with their own collection, from classic Japanese rides to DeLoreans. The head designer for Lego's Speed Champion series of toys has a vintage Ford Model T that he races on Danish beaches. One of racer and actor Paul Newman's last roles was as a Hudson Hornet in the Disney movie Cars.
Headlines often trumpet an end for automotive enthusiasm, citing fewer young people getting their driver's licences and the rise of autonomy. While learning to drive may not be the same rite of passage for my daughters as it was for me, I'm not ready to give up on raising a couple of young gearheads.
When Knowlton's The Small Silver Speedster arrives, we'll all sit down on the living room sofa, turn the first page and begin. Together, we will read the story, experience the speed, grasp the steering wheel and feel the truth.