Don Stanford MG’s Best Selling Author
By Dick Knudson
At last summer’s induction ceremony at the British Sports Car Hall of Fame, the first recognition did not go to a person, instead, Robert Goldman, Chairman of Moss Motors, cited a book, a very important book. He paid tribute to The Red Car by Don Stanford. This book certainly introduced thousands of readers to British sports cars…in this case, the MGTC. From the audience reaction, there was great agreement with Robert. The all-time, best selling MG book ever written is The Red Car by the late Donald Kent Stanford.
Stanford was born in 1918 in Chattanooga, TN; he died in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, in the 1990s. His education included Drexel Institute of Technology, Foreign Service Institute, and the University of Paris. Stanford was a literary nomad who moved about on various continents supporting himself by writing novels, short stories, film and TV scripts.
His first novel was The Slaughtered Lovelies, a mystery with a sports car theme. Stanford called it “garbage” in a February 5, 1989, letter to me. He went on to say, “I whipped it up in a great hurry (in 1950) for Ralph Daigh of Fawcett’s Gold Medal Books…but it paid for my TC and several years of pure motoring pleasure.”
I had written to the author to ask him about a photo that accompanied an article in an early copy of Road & Track about a road race in Aspen, Colorado. Stanford answered, “The photo in Road & Track on Labor Day 1951 of a very amateurish SCCA road race we ran: Le Mans start, driver and riding mechanic in each car, all eager and sincere. I hit a hay bale on a turn and ripped my left rear wing so that it was rubbing on the tire. My ‘mechanic’ a girl named Alice-something, wore off her fingernails holding the wing together while we finished the race in third place. I loved that TC and drove it cross-country many times, beating girls off with a stick as I drove. Irresistible little car.”
At the time of my contacting him, I had read his third novel, The Red Car. In that book there is a road race in a Colorado town, and the protagonist is in a TC when they hit a hay bale causing some damage so that the riding mechanic had to lean out to hold things together. That was just too much of a coincidence, and so began my search for Don Stanford.
Stanford proved to be a delightful man who was still enthusiastic about his TC even though it had long gone. He described being persuaded to write The Red Car this way: “In the first place, I didn’t want to write it. I was in one of my insolvent periods, and I bugged my agent, Lurton Blassingame, to find me a book contract, any kind of contract, and Lurton got back to me and said he could contract me to Funk & Wagnall’s for a juvenile novel.
“Juvenile! I said. Not my line of country. You mean The wooty-tooty twain goes wooty-tooty-tooty down the wooty-tooty track? Not me, Buster. Give it to one of your other clients. Aren’t there any adults reading out there somewhere?
“Go, Lurton said. Go, have lunch with Bill Sloane at Funk & Wagnall’s. He will pay. Do not have more than six martinis, and listen to what he has to say. So I went, and Bill Sloane explained that what his company had in mind was a series of informative sports/adventure novels for teenagers, and that their readers would be the most knowledgeable, and the most critical audience imaginable.
“If you write a book about a car, he said, it will be read by boys who don’t read much but who like cars, and they will know about cars, and if you get the wrong number of cylinders into a Bugatti, your publisher will get 5,000 illiterate letters the next morning all beginning, ‘Dear Sir, Who is this schnook?’
“Sloan continued, also, you will not write down to them, because these are kids who are acquiring vocabulary, not losing it as we all tend to do after we leave school and begin indulging our selves in careless speech habits, reducing ourselves to a lower common denominator. If you use a word they don’t know, they’ll look it up…but the chances are you won’t. Do not condescend to expanding minds.
“He ordered a fifth martini, but I declined. Put that way, the project sounded kind of intriguing, and I knew I was going to write his book. And not in three weeks, either. It took me an entire summer, and I wrote more carefully and critically than I had ever written before. It had been my habit to whack a piece out and turn it in without even re-reading it. With Bill Sloane’s comments in mind, I found myself re-thinking and even re-writing paragraphs…and pages…and entire chapters. It wasn’t that the story didn’t re-write itself. I had lived the climatic road race in the book. I had lived for more than a year in Aspen, and I knew most of the characters in real life, it was just that for the first time in my life I was considering the people who would be reading this story and respectful of their opinions.”
Don Stanford had real feelings for his TC and took special pride in The Red Car. This book has been translated into several languages and sold very well abroad. It was also bought by Scholastic Books and went through many printings (with several different covers!). All told, I am sure that the sales of The Red Car easily topped two million. I am sure that most of you own a copy of the book. After reading what the author thought about the book and his effort to make it outstanding, I hope that you are motivated to take it off the shelf and re-read it. I know, too, that many of you may have purchased it for your MG library and may have never have read it. Well, now is the time. You won’t be sorry. MM
A Selected Don Stanford Bibliography
The Slaughtered Lovelies Gold Medal Books, New York, 1950
Bargain In Blood Gold Medal Books, New York, 1951
The Red Car Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1954
Treasure of the Coral Reef Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1956
The Horsemasters Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1957
Ski Town Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1958
Crash Landing Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1959
Ile de France Appleton, New York, 1960
Must Be Good Riders: Orphans Preferred Funk & Wagnall’s, New York, 1962
Mulligan’s Pirates Simon & Schuster, New York, 1966
The Rice of Affection R. Hale, New York, 1969
Stanford also contributed over eighty short stories and articles to various magazines including: Redbook, Argosy, Woman’s Day, Cosmopolitan, This Week, Hitchcock, Coronet, Writer, True, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and Holiday.