In the Driver's Seat
Savvy's Amazing Teens: A Passion for Cars and Engineering Drives Kenneth Carper
By Dwain Hebda
At 16, it’s not particularly noteworthy that Kenneth Carper is nuts about cars. But Carper is not your typical 16-year-old, and his is not your run-of-the-mill car obsession. “I’ve always been mechanically inclined as far as being able to work on dirt bikes or cars, and I’ve always been fascinated by cars as a little kid,” he said. “A big part of my family is being able to work on your own car and not pay a lot of money to take it to a shop.”
At age 7 he got his first dirt bike and learned basic mechanics. At age 9 he built his first gokart from the ground up, and at 12 he spotted a neighbor’s dormant 1976 Fiat Spider convertible in a field about a quarter-mile from his house where it had sat dormant and nonfunctional for more than a decade.
“I used to ride my bike over there and sit in it and didn’t really think that much about it except that it was a cool car,” he said. “I decided to take a closer look at it and I found the make and model and looked it up. The thing that really caught my eye was, it was designed by Battista 'Pinin' Farina, the same designer who designed most of Ferrari's cars.
“I figured that was the perfect opportunity to start a project and … for me to learn everything because everything needed to be done to it.” Carper became obsessed with getting the car running, and his passion so impressed the neighbor he gifted the car to the seventh grader, fueling his desire to restore it from the wheels up.
“When I look at a car, I can break down each part and what its function is and how that contributes to the whole thing. I see it as a whole system of different objects and processes that all work together to create a final goal,” he said. “I did a lot of research and just took it step by step.”
From drivetrain to suspension, transmission to body work, Carper educated himself online and with the help of every craftsman who’d listen to him and offer advice. He also mowed lawns and launched a pet feeding service to earn money for parts to get the car back on the road.
“I’m pretty much the handyman as far as cars at our house,” he said with a chuckle. Carper’s experience landed him more than just a trade-quality skillset and a cool ride for getting to and from eStem High School in downtown Little Rock, where he is a rising junior. Six months after he started working on it, his English teacher handed out an assignment that would change his life.
“My teacher wanted us to hand-write a letter and send it to any company, criticizing one of its products,” he said. Being knee-deep in the Spider and seeing nothing out of Fiat lately but minicars, he decided to send a letter and lobby for the company to bring back the Fiat 124 sports car.
To his amazement, he not only got a reply, but from the desk of COO Alfredo Altavilla, who extended an invitation to the Carper family to visit Fiat headquarters in Turin, Italy, a tour that included Altavilla giving an eyes-only peek at the company’s top-secret project.
“It was an extremely rough metal design of the Fiat 124; he then explained to me that they used my idea and they were bringing back the 124 and were currently in the process of designing it,” he said. “I was just absolutely touched by that.”
The visit concluded with Altavilla offering Carper a scholarship to Polytechnic University of Turin and an internship at the company following graduation from the school’s mechanical engineering program there. He’s considering that, along with other schools’ engineering programs in the U.S.
This summer, Carper was also Little Rock’s representative at the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders in Boston, an honors only program for high school eSTEM students from across the country. There, he heard Nobel laureates and National Medal of Science winners talk about leading scientific research, and got advice from deans of the world’s top tech universities.