Hot Rodders back in the late ’40s and early ’50s were screeching through the fast lanes of post-war Southern California, leaving the smell of burning rubber on boulevards like La Cienega and Van Nuys.
It was the world captured by a brooding James Dean in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” It also was a world captured by Hot Rod magazine, which next month celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“It was very controversial to publish a magazine like Hot Rod at that time,” recalled Wally Parks, chairman of the National Hot Rod Association and first editor of the magazine, which is published by Los Angeles-based Petersen Publishing Cos. Inc. “The term ‘hot rod’ in 1948 was not looked upon with high regard. People didn’t like to hear the screeching of tires. To be successful, we had to overcome that image.”
They did. But this is a very different time, so Hot Rod’s editors have gone under the hood of their magazine to bolster circulation and reinvent one of Southern California’s cultural icons.
That includes expanding the magazine’s core demographic, which is currently made up mostly of Chevy owners.
“I am trying to broaden it to Chrysler and Ford owners. We will be doing an upcoming story on a Honda engine,” said Ro McGonegal, Hot Rod’s editor.
Hot Rod’s circulation, which peaked in 1969 and 1989 at 950,000, has leveled out in recent years, now running at 750,000. Even with the drop, Hot Rod generates 10 percent of the total revenues of publicly held Petersen’s stable of 75 special-interest magazines.
For the year ended June 30, it had net income of $9 million, up from $7 million a year earlier. Revenue was $22 million vs. $19 million.
“We had our best advertising year ever last year,” said Jim Savas, group publisher of Petersen magazines Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Chevy High Performance and Custom Classic Trucks.
The magazine is projecting fiscal 1998 net income of $12 million on revenues of $25 million.
Hot Rod was the dream of Bob Petersen and Bob Lindsay, who created a 24-page promotional magazine to help sell booth space for a 1948 custom car show at the Los Angeles National Guard Armory. The two men distributed 5,000 copies of the first issue, borrowing $500 from Lindsay’s father.
“It caught fire,” Savas said. “They quickly went from 24 pages to 36 pages and the ads started coming in.”
By 1951, the number of pages had jumped to 68 and the circulation skyrocketed to 500,000. Hot Rod had clicked with car enthusiasts who wanted to improve the performance and looks of their cars.
“Before World War II, hot rods were a Southern California phemenon,” said Gray Baskerville, Hot Rod senior editor. “But the troops who trained in California took snapshots of these cars and the movement headed East and to the Midwest. By the time the first magazine was published, there was a built-in demand for it and they supplied it.”
“It’s a hands-on magazine,” said Drew Hardin, Hot Rod’s editorial director. “It’s not like a magazine where you are reading about the latest Ferrari or Viper. The one common trait for all our readers is they want to work on their car, improve it and personalize it.”
Core readers, he said, still think of themselves as rebels without a cause, like James Dean. “The died-in-the-wool hot rodder,” he said, “likes to feel they are still part of the mentality that works outside the fringe. They are not outlaws anymore, but they would like to think that.”
Editorial director Hardin said baby boomers have begun to respond to the magazine as they increase their incomes.
“The kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and couldn’t afford a muscle car can now, and they are reliving their youths by buying a ’57 Chevy or a ’69 (Plymouth) Barracuda,” he said.
McGonegal said he is also changing the emphasis of the magazine from show cars to more-utilitarian vehicles that can be driven on the street.
Hod Rod also is moving into television.
“Hot Rod Magazine TV” is shown on The Nashville Network, averaging a 1 rating, equivalent to about 700,000 households nationally. Hot Rod receives a licensing fee from TNN for the show.
The TV exposure seems to be working, company officials said. “We’ve gotten more than 40,000 subscriptions from the show,” McGonegal said.
“Our message is to broaden the appeal of the magazine,” said Joe St. Lawrence, the show’s executive producer. “We do a lot of stories on lifestyles.”
The magazine is even broadening the term “hot rod” to extend beyond the classic ’32 Ford or ’57 Chevy of purists who have emphasized high-powered, rear-wheel-drive, American-made V8s.
Newer V6-powered Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs are potential “hot rods.” Indeed, the pickup truck has become the basis of a new breed of customized hot rod for many enthusiasts.
“They (pickups) are V8s, rear-wheel-drive and cheap,” Hardin said.