Knight wasn't a trained businessman, but he always wanted to do right by his customers. And it seemed the longer he was in business, the more second-rate the insurance companies wanted the repairs to be. So, in the mid-1990s, Knight got tired of the insurance politics among other things and sold his business and retired to Mountain Home, Arkansas. "I wanted to give each car I worked on the best repair possible, but the insurance companies wouldn't let me," he said. "I had to get out before my reputation as a respectable body man went out the door."
Still living in Arkansas today with his second wife Lisa, Knight not only has his home hidden away on a mountain, which is a far cry from the industrial smell of Northwest Indiana, he has two fully-equipped shops on his property that once again allow him to give aging heaps of rusted metal a second chance at being king of the road.
The Heart of the Matter
While the long hours at Classic Auto Body often kept Knight away from his young daughters, his presence was still very much around the house. "I vividly remember the countless car trophies, ribbons and plaques that lined our basement walls only to be interrupted by a deer head or two," said his oldest daughter Sarah. Hunting and fishing were the only two hobbies that could sometimes shake Knight's fervor for the classics.
According to Sarah, she once asked Knight if he could recount the trophies he'd snagged over the years and he ended up with a number that was well over 200. "I found that pretty impressive and for the first time, it really got me thinking about his craft," she said. "He's an artist. While some painters put their inspiration on canvas, my dad puts his on sheet metal."
For Knight, it's not all about the accolades and praise. It's the pride of bringing an old car back to life and in most cases, making it look better than when it left the factory. Throughout his classic tenure, which keeps going strong, Knight has restored so many beauties that he's lost count.
For his daughters, when you ask them what cars they remember the most from their days growing up classic, they have an exact make and model.
"I have two all-time restoration favorites," said Sarah. "I loved the red and white Chevy Nomad wagon that he restored for my mom when I was around three years old and the pink Mercury he finished building when I was in middle school. Both of these cars hold some very fond and not so fond memories for me."
Growing up, Sarah remembers cruising in the 1956 Nomad listening to Bob Seger as she and her parents headed up to the Blue Top Drive-In in Highland nearly every weekend in the summer. "It was here that my dad and all his buddies would show off their 'babies' to one another, while the 'real' kids played," she said. Sarah also mentioned that many times her dad would feel proud as they pulled into the drive-in because half, if not all, of the patrons would be wearing Classic Auto Body t-shirts.
While she would never call the Nomad "Christine," Sarah also has a few unpleasant childhood recollections of this car. Once she was sitting in the driver's seat pretending to drive while Knight was in the garage working. She got bored, as little kids often do, and decided to get out. She opened the door and a gust of wind knocked the car door back taking her tiny hand with it. Knight rushed over to amazingly discover that the heavy door didn't break any bones or leave a bruise. Sarah's hand was so small that it fit nicely within the door jam, leaving her with only a few skin indentations.
Then there was the time when Knight and the then four-year-old Sarah were cruising on a major thoroughfare and just as they started to accelerate to the top of an overpass, the Nomad broke down. Knight, who had just had appendix surgery, was having a difficult time pushing the vehicle. All the while, a scared and confused child sat inside crying her eyes out. Finally, two passersby offered their assistance and they made it safely to the gas station at the bottom of the hill. A year or so later, the Nomad wandered when it became Knight's down payment for his shop building in Gary.
As Sarah reached her teenage years, Knight just completed what many consider his claim-to-fame: a 1951 chopped-top Pepto-Bismol pink Mercury with teal accents and vintage Cadillac hub caps. This true lead sled, with its risky color, was Knight's nine-year side project while growing Classic Auto Body. He could only restore it in spurts because time and money were often factors and the business came first. He had always wanted a Mercury and it took him several years to find a body before finally spotting one in a Michigan City, Ind. junk yard. "I might as well as have started from scratch because every panel on this car was changed or modified in some way," he said.
"When the Mercury hit the streets I was no longer daddy's little girl," Sarah said. "I was at the stage where I was too cool to be seen with him." So imagine how she felt when her girlfriends, who loved the car, wanted Knight to drive them to the eight grade dance in it. "At that time, I hated being the center of attention and how double awful to be it when you are with your dad," she said. She recalls keeping her fingers crossed as they pulled into the school parking lot, hoping that no one would be around. To her dismay, the entire class was standing outside and when they caught sight of the pink beast, all eyes were on it. "While kids stared in amazement, I slouched in embarrassment," she said.
She continues by saying, "Looking back now, I should have embraced the moment and viewed things differently. It truly was a beautiful car and a true representation of my dad's talent." During Knight's ownership, the Mercury was featured in a national video called Bad Rods and won a slew of awards, including "Coolest Custom" at an Indianapolis Good Guys' show.
"I hated it when my dad had to sell her," Sarah said. "She couldn't handle the unpaved, hilly road that leads to his house in Arkansas. Heck, she rode so low and her top was so chopped that a slight bump on the highway often resulted in a bump on the old noggin."
For Knight's younger daughter Samantha, selling the Mercury was just as disappointing for her. In fact, she cried. "I loved helping him wax it at car shows," she recalls. "I took a lot of pride in that car and would sit next to it during the entire show so no one would touch it." Allowing her to bask in her glory, Knight would let her pick up the trophies he won. Unlike her older sister, Samantha never minded being the center of attention and very much liked to be seen riding in her dad's cars.
While most kids were going to Disney World on vacations, these girls were traveling the Midwest to car shows. According to Sarah, she always loved going to the bigger shows, such as the World of Wheels in Chicago, because it was where she got to meet celebrities that included: Spider Man, Twiki from Buck Rogers, The Flintstones, Captain Caveman and The Incredible Hulk.
Neither one of Knight's daughters would change a thing about their classic childhood, except for their dad's decisions to sell their favorite cars. According to the girls, they are extremely proud that their 55-year-old dad is still dedicated to restoring old cars. "Not everyone is lucky enough to make a career out of what they love," says Samantha. "My dad was blessed with a gift and I am glad he can share it with the world." One of Knight's cars has made it as far as Australia.
Unfortunately, none of his new beauties hold the same sentimental value for his daughters like the Nomad and Mercury did. However, they realize that there are hundreds of people out there who have made or are currently making their own memories with the cars their dad has restored over the past four decades. And to them, that's something.
"He's definitely made his mark," says Sarah. "My dad always wanted to be more than just a name; he wanted to be respected for his craft. As far as I am concerned, he proved himself a long time ago, but I know that out of pure joy he'll keep welding, sanding and painting as long as God will allow it."