Wheels: The Magical World of Automotive Toys

by Mike and Sue Richardson

Published by Chronicle Books

192 pages, 1999

Buy it online





Book for Sale: Low Miles, Some Rust, Needs a Tune-Up

Reviewed by David Middleton


Giving a book a bad review is like having to tell one of your friends they have rotten taste in clothes or breath that would strip the paint off a garbage truck. It hurts in the hearing and in the telling. But once the hurt is past, perhaps something can be learned. Maybe you will have discovered more about tact and the friend -- if they are still speaking to you -- will have learned that tartan does not go with polka dots and that a habañero pepper and sardine chili dog is perhaps best eaten after a romantic interlude.

Known for their high-quality works of non-fiction, Chronicle Books is one of the finest publishers of art books in the industry. So when I picked up a copy of Wheels: The Magical World of Automotive Toys I got quite a shock. On the surface the book looks beautiful and is as well laid out as any other of Chronicle's titles -- in this case a coffeetable-style book about the history of scale model toy automobiles -- but it was upon closer scrutiny that its flaws came into focus.

I love the design of automobiles and I love toy cars, in fact I have a replica of the first Hot Wheels my grandmother ever bought me; a little gem from 1967 in metallic gold called the Silhouette. It sits atop my computer and reminds me of my childhood. It is truly magical what a small memento from your past can do for your state of mind. What I was expecting from Wheels was a bit of that magic. To be able to browse through the book, pondering the merits of a Dinky, a Corgi or a Matchbox car and wax nostalgic about a wonderfully silly thing in my life. Somewhere my ride into the past took a wrong turn. Bewitched was quickly turning into bewildered.

I am usually not one to complain about the editing of an art book, I am primarily interested in the overall feel of the book. I want it to stimulate certain senses I associate with things of a nonverbal nature: sight, touch, even smell. A good art book is a delight to interact with and in my personal collection are some astonishingly remarkable books that have me going back to them time and time again -- even though I have looked through them a hundred times before -- just to experience them and to lose myself in their pages once more. Of secondary interest to me, but just as important as the look of a book, is its quality of information. Not only should it be interesting, it should be accurate and presented in a manner which will help me learn about the subject in an enjoyable way.

Reading Wheels I was left with the feeling that I had bought the car of my dreams only to find out that beneath the shiny new paint, rust had eaten away the fenders.

Wheels was originally published in the United Kingdom in 1998 and this year's model has been translated for the North American market. I say "translated" because British and North American writing style differ in several ways: the least of which is the use of punctuation or the use of numerals versus numbers spelled out. Not much of a difference you may think, but when styles have not been fully translated and are mixed the result is rather unsettling. It would have been better to leave it in its original form rather than have only a partially reinterpreted version.

Editing a book is an enormous and time-consuming task. To get everything right -- to be perfect -- must be daunting. In the case of Wheels it appears that the production has been rushed and the book suffers as a result.

Opening a page at random I found the first flaw: two mismatched captions, where a Chrysler Imperial caption is traded for a Cadillac and vice versa. Things like this happen in books where there are many things of the same size, shape and basic look. It is usually found and corrected in subsequent editions. No problem. But as I started to read the first paragraph of the introduction I discovered a second flaw: a typo. Then a third flaw: incorrect punctuation and spacing of words. A fourth flaw: poorly worded sentences. Then again, incorrectly captioned photos. And, in the "extensive" glossary, there was an inconsistency in the use of bold words. Separately these things would be a minor annoyance, however together they make reading this book a task.

But wait a minute. Despite all of its technical faults is the book any good?

Authors Mike and Sue Richardson may be experts in the field of models and miniatures -- and Wheels sure is full of information and minutiae -- but I found it rambling and at times merely descriptive. It does trace the history of toy motor vehicles and provide some guidance and information for anyone who may already be an avid collector as well as those seeking to collect. We read about dates and manufacturers and materials and manufacturing techniques and occasionally an unusual detail this or that vehicle may have. The book says a few interesting things but not in a particularly well thought out manner. Wheels sort of just prattles on, which is fine if you are an antique toy car geek, which I suspect the authors are. I'm sure their information is correct and well researched but something is lost in their narration and it comes off as less than a "magical" tour, as the title would tell us. Romance is replaced with pure information.

The book is full of descriptions of scale-model cars and trucks but not enough illustrations of the vast catalog of vehicles to which they refer. That is not to say that photos are in short supply. There are quite a few, but their captions are occasionally incorrect and in one case missing entirely. The photos are technically very nice and adequately illustrate each vehicle but have been cut out of their original backgrounds and have been given annoying and obviously fake shadows beneath each wheel.

It's a shame that Wheels presents itself as a Rolls Royce when its really just a Lada with some nice coach work. With a bit more time tinkering under the hood, it would have been a ride worth taking again and again. | August 1999


David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine and just loves that "new car" smell.