Handmade Vehicles For Children
From the hands of Jim Wilson
I have been making child-scale cars for years. For the past ten or so, I've specialized in vehicles based upon the automotive creations of Ettore Bugatti, a brilliant, quirky man, who approached automotive visual and mechanical design as an artist would have. I find it especially delicious that a "mere artist-type" without an engineering degree managed  to win races against the efforts of the world's greatest automotive engineers. His Type 35 Grand Prix racer was the most successful in Grand Prix history, winning at least 1000 races. 
Ettore Bugatti (1888-1947)
A man so creative that he once had a pair of boots made for himself which featured individual toes.
Bugatti Type 35 (1925)
The Bugatti string of victories was almost unbroken until the 1934 GP racing season, when the Nazi government of Germany prevailed in having the rules changed in their cars' favor. The new "750 KG" rule specified that Grand Prix cars could weigh no more than that, but could have unlimited horsepower. The German GP cars built by Mercedes and Auto Union specifically to take advantage of that rule were incredibly fast compared to the more traditional Bugatti Type 59s of that season. To make the 750 KG limitation at weighing-in, the Bugatti cars had to be stripped of batteries, brake shoes, and anything else which didn't show from the outside of the car. When those necessary components were put back on for the race, the cars were considerably heavier than the more powerful German cars. From that season until the start of World War 2, almost the only time a Bugatti won was if the notoriously dangerous over-powered German cars crashed before the finish.
Bugatti Type 59 (1933)
While not nearly as successful as the Type 35, the Type 59 is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the Bugatti racers. I think they are both incredibly lovely, and have based children's vehicles upon both of them. While those are my favorite Bugatti types, there are many others available, and I can make virtually any model, as they are all one-offs.
The Bugatti works itself produced a line of children's electric cars loosely based upon the Type 35. The first Type 52, as they called it, was constructed for Ettore's son Roland, who was five years old at the time. As it was factory-built it was made mostly of metal, like the full-scale cars. 
Although I'm an accomplished metal crafter, and make bicycles from that material, I prefer making my children's cars mostly of wood, as it is more friendly and pleasant to work with, while being very strong and lightweight. To form their structures, I use similar techniques to those used by aircraft builders of the early 20th Century. Whereas wooden-framed aircraft were normally covered in stretched and "doped" fabric, and wooden-framed automobiles were covered in sheet metal, I prefer to cover mine in modern foam and fabric composite materials saturated in epoxy resin, with reinforcement where needed with fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon fiber. The resulting exterior surfaces are more rigid than thin sheet metal forms, while being much less prone to dents and distortion.
Another advantage of my materials preferences is that the finished vehicles look like large classic toys, rather than scaled-down real automobiles. In this I'm influenced by the beautiful painted wooden European toys I experienced in an early visit to New York's legendary FAO Schwarz toy emporium. I find beautifully finished painted wooden forms to be quite delightful in look and feel, so I strive to play up that aspect as much as possible in my work. All edges are softly rounded before painting and filling with two different primers, with extensive sanding between all coats. The color finish I apply is multiple applications of hand-rubbed and polished acrylic enamel. The look and feel of my children's vehicles is much more voluptuous than more common formed and painted metal or molded plastic items.
I have built children's Bugattis with both pedal and electric drive. While, in theory, I prefer the aesthetics of bicycle-style pedal drive, it makes adjusting the vehicle for different-sized or growing drivers considerably more complicated for the owner, so I normally recommend electric power to those who wish one built. I could also build them with internal combustion engines, which would be even simpler. But no one has ever asked for this option, which is fine with me.
Since the original vehicles my cars are based upon are from the 1920s and '30s, I try to always incorporate some details from the general period, as a physical link to the past. My latest one's dashboard is fitted with a pair of functional electricwal gauges from the '30s. I am continually on the lookout for little vintage bits and pieces to incorporate into vehicles, such as knobs and switches.  I have quite a collection of old elements ready to be worked into my cars. 
While I work from actual profile and top view factory drawings of the originals, I don't slavishly copy them, and I have no standard sets of plans I work from. I design and draw all parts directly onto the wood and cut them out, with no blueprints involved. Thus two versions of the same Bugatti model, made at different times would be considerably different in subtle ways, even though both would have the sensuous shape and general proportions of the original. 

.Each car requires approximately two months to make, which makes them rather more expensive than mass-produced Toys R Us-type sidewalk vehicles; but the difference is astounding. My cars are stunning pieces of functional mixed-media sculpture, recognized as such by anyone who sees them. In 2002, one of my vehicle pieces was accepted into a juried mixed-media art show as a "floor piece" and was the most popular in the show with gallery goers, to the extent that it actually increased viewer traffic to the show. 
My immediately- previous Bugatti project, based upon the Type 59, was commissioned by an Australian automobile collector, who thought it would be nice for his visiting grandchildren to play with. However, when he opened the crate and actually saw the car, he changed his mind. He brought in a cabinet maker to build a pedestal base for it in his living room, where it is still on display. One hopes that he at least got something from Toys R Us, or its Australian equivelent, for the kiddies' use.
Prince Hassan of Morocco in his Bugatti Type 52 (1927-30)

Spandex / fiberglass over shaped-foam hood being saturated with epoxy.

Foreground: Classic wooden duck toy. Rear: Wilson Type 35 front axle.

Pedal drive in Wilson Type 59.
Laying out Type 35 front axle directly onto laminated block of red oak.
Left: Type 59 ready for shipping to Australia. Right: Type 59 at destination.
Much use is made of actual vintage components and materials. Cockpit on left shows vintage lighting switch and old leather upholstery.  
Dashboard on  right has vintage electrical gauges, pilot light, etc.
My personal feeling on this issue is that a certain amount of wear and tear from usage adds to the beauty of "family heirloom toys", which these cars are certainly meant to become. The more love, blood and sweat which goes into a piece of craftsmanship, the more powerful its aura. This is why discerning people love fine antiques. The same goes for generations of children's play with a lovely and durable handmade toy. Every part of one of these cars- cosmetic, structural, mechanical, or electrical, is completely repairable or replaceable, now and into the distant future. Each comes with a fitted tool kit for possible repairs and adjustments by the owner. The following is a portfolio of images of various children's cars I have created.
1960s Lotus GP Racer-style Pedal Car (1971)
Gravity (Soapbox) Racer done in the style of a 
"Midget" Dirt-Track Racer of the 1940s (1988).
This image of an "in-progress" car shows the underlying 
structure of a Wilson Type 35. Curved members are steam-bent 
and laminated red oak. Areas which would normally
never be visible are as beautifully finished as the more superficial  aspects. This is the difference between art and industry.
Right side view of a Wilson Type 59, when compared to the original car, seen near top of page, shows that it is not a slavish replica of the original, but captures the spirit and style of the original. The distinctive Type 59 chassis, compared to that of the Type 35, immediately above, shows the considerable differences between the two, requiring totally different construction techniques. The Type 59 chassis is hollow for lightness, made in similar fashion to a hollow-body guitar. The sealed chassis rails are lined in fiberglass.
Left side of  Type 59 shows head / tail lighting and bugle horn common to all Wilson children's cars.
Actual Bugatti GP Racers did not come outfitted as
such; but these features are very popular with children, so they are incorporated.
All upholstery is genuine leather; 
because it smells good, and looks              good even when well-worn.
This is a smaller-scale Type 35 pedal car. Vehicle size is determined by tire diameter. This one has 12" diameter tires, and is 
about five feet long.  
All Wilson Bugattis may be commissioned with pedal or electric drive. Electric drive allows 
the further option of radio control. 
Most dogs love riding in cars,
especially their own. 
For further information:
Jim Wilson
873 Broadway Suite 406
New York, NY 10003
(212) 475-5102
If larger scale is not a problem, I recommend the 16" tire scale, as     above, even for smaller children. This gives a vehicle length of                                 six to seven  feet, and allows more room to grow.