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1977-2007 Timeline 4Wheel & Off-Road Magazine - Our First 3 Decades

Posted in Features on May 1, 2007
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Last month we kicked off a nearly year-longseries of articles celebrating the 30-year history of Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine. We figured the best place to start this retrospective was by talking to the people who launched and nurtured the title-the magazine's editors.

In Part 2 of our editor interviews, we pick up the magazine's story in the early 1980s. 4-Wheel & Off-Road had become, in under 10 years, the leading publication in the off-road magazine marketplace. Michael Coates, the magazine's third editor, left Petersen Publishing to work in public relations. A couple months after Coates' departure, John Stewart, the book's technical editor, took the helm.

October 1985-September 1986
"The big deal in those days was monster trucks. We had had Bigfoot on the cover during the prior year and sold a lot of copies. At that point, other monster trucks began to be built. We worked with the Jamboree Nationals event producers to get monster truck racing added to their schedule. This was really packing the seats, as I recall.

"Big events at the time were Gravelrama, the Indy Jamboree, the Jeepers Jamboree, and a trail ride in Colorado put on by the Mile-High Club. Moab was still small, and trail rides were mostly club events.

"We did our trail testing at the now-closed Indian Dunes recreation area. To get to the rocky trails we had to cross a sandy stream bed, where usually there was water running. Sometimes, there was a lot of water. On one occasion, I braved a fairly stiff current and fell into a hole about half way across. The brand-new test truck (a Toyota?) came to rest with the entire front end submerged. I remember my panic, the thoughts of losing the truck, my job, the whole works. Managing to climb out the back window, I sprinted to the main trailer and got someone to follow me back with a road grader. After some serious swimming, I got the thing hooked up and dragged out, full of water and wet leaves. Much to my amazement, after a few minutes, it started...and ran. No water in the oil, no problem anywhere except wet carpet and seats. I ended up driving it home like nothing happened. I cleaned it up and brought it back to work, and to this day nobody ever knew."These days I work as editorial director for a small publishing company [the Action Pursuit Group]. I still run into readers who recall my name, and I see many friends from those days on the trails."

October 1986-August 1991
"In those days manual-locking hubs were being phased out in favor of automatic hubs, and a number of new midsize SUVs were introduced, including the Nissan Pathfinder and the Toyota 4Runner. Previously, only fullsize vehicles such as the Blazer, Bronco, Ramcharger, Suburban, and Land Cruiser had filled that niche. Tall trucks were also coming into vogue, and we were very conscious of trying to show only safe and properly built suspension systems. The Jeep CJ was discontinued, and the Wrangler came on the scene.

"I find that the industry has evolved in a pretty logical way. Rockcrawling has, of course, become far more sophisticated than when we were creeping over the Rubicon Trail in the '80s, and today's vehicles are like luxury motorhomes compared to some of the bare-bones pickups we tested. Still, I'm not surprised that things are better now than they were 25 years ago. The market continues to grow, and both the automakers and aftermarket companies continue to offer greater innovation and better technology.

"Among the things I'm proudest of is the Drivelines news column, where we were able to cover topics in a paragraph or two that otherwise would have gone unreported. We refined the 4x4 of the Year program, making it a model of consistency that other magazines adapted to their own uses.

"On the other hand, we got into a phase early in my tenure of placing cover vehicles in unnatural settings via airbrush. One cover depicted a monster truck surfing down the face of a tsunami; another superimposed a Nissan race truck over an image of movie star and martial artist Chuck Norris; and a third showed another monster truck superimposed over a nuclear explosion. They were all pretty infantile, but we were trying to be daring...sort of. Fortunately, we grew up.

"My most memorable experience was when Drew Hardin and I chased the Baja 1000 from Ensenada to La Paz. We were awake and on the road for about 24 hours straight. We ate weird tacos flavored with questionable goat cheese and photographed the race at various pit stops and jump sites throughout the day and night. I gained true respect for drivers such as Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart, who drove the whole race by himself. Oh, and we had one hell of a good time, too."

After serving as editor of Hot Rod, editorial director of groups of magazines, and content director for Petersen/emap/Primedia's automotive Web sites, Campbell became editorial director for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and then went freelance, writing, editing, and taking photographs for a wide range of automotive consumer and trade publications.

September 1991-April 1994
In a lot of ways I maintained the magazine formula that Stewart and Campbell honed. We still put monster trucks on the cover (though less frequently) and featured a whole lot of Midwestern show trucks and desert races. But change was in the wind: Coverage of the Easter Jeep Safari appeared in the Aug. '93 issue written by a guy named David Freiburger, a Hot Rod staffer who was also into four-wheeling. Ed Fortson amazed us all in the Mar. '94 issue with photos of radical rockclimbing Jeeps in Surprise Canyon. And the trend to beater trucks got its first foothold with "Ugly Readers Rides" in Aug. '92.

Some significant new 4x4s were introduced during these years, including the civilian Hummer, the Dodge Ram, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Baja race chase with Steve was the highlight of my stint as a staff writer; but in 1991 I got to actually drive in the Baja 1000 with freelancer Todd Kaho, thanks to the folks at Ford who set us up in a Stroppe-prepped F-150. It's a good thing I kept my day job. Kaho is skilled behind the wheel but I am anything but fast, and we ran out of time before finishing the race. Yet the experience of desert-race training, hanging out with the pro drivers, and seeing first-hand just how brutal-and beautiful-the Baja can be are memories I'll be talking about for the rest of my life, I'm sure.

I cringe now when I see some of the gawd-awful-looking project trucks we built back then. Those efforts reached something of a hideous pinnacle with the purple, green, and white Force 250. And speaking of hideous, I think I'm still apologizing to Freiburger for setting the wheels in motion for the American Gladiators story and then leaving the magazine, making him execute it in one of his first issues.

Like Campbell, I left 4-Wheel & Off-Road to go to Hot Rod and eventually moved through several editorial director positions. In 2000, I left the company but didn't go very far; I now freelance for this magazine and several other Primedia titles, as well as for a few non-Primedia publications.

November 1985
John Stewart's first 4xForward: "I love monster trucks. I hate monster trucks."

February 1986
"Bye-Bye Tall Toyotas, Hello Prerunners" examines Toyota's new independent front suspension.

March 1986
Ford Ranger SuperCab XLT wins 4x4 of the Year award, beating the Chevy S-10 Blazer, Jeep Comanche, Nissan (pre-Hardbody) King Cab, Suzuki Samurai, and IFS Toyota. The Ranger is the first pickup and first Ford to win.

June 1986
New Jeep Wrangler is subject of a Dave Kimble cutaway illustration on the magazine's first fold-out cover. Stewart writes in his editorial: "It will take more than a few months to prove to the world that the CJ is obsolete."

September 1986
Stewart's last issue as editor; Steve Campbell takes over with the October issue.

February 1987
4x4 of the Year issue moved ahead one month; Nissan Pathfinder beats field that includes the Dodge Dakota, Ford F-150, Jeep Wrangler, and Mitsubishi SPX pickup.

March 1987
Martial artist and sometime off-road racer Chuck Norris featured on magazine's cover; Baja 1000 race coverage includes Campbell's and Hardin's 24-hour race chase.

May 1987
A GMC Sierra is the subject of the first test of GM's completely revised GMT 400 pickups.

November 1987
Drivelines column begins; issue also contains the first look at Toyota's 3.0L V-6, the first non-four-banger in a Toyota pickup.

February 1988
Jeep Cherokee becomes the first vehicle to win the 4x4 of the Year test twice, beating pickups from Chevrolet, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Toyota, and Range Rover. What began as an office joke two years before ends when Robert Miller's '77 Stepside is featured as "Robert's Red Ford."

April 1988
Robby Gordon named SCORE/ HDRA Rookie of the Year at age 18.

May 1988
We run a teaser illustration and info on Jeep's upcoming ZJ. "Our guess is that it's a sport/utility that's halfway between a Cherokee and an upscale import station wagon. We suspect the ZJ will completely obliterate the truck/car distinction."

June 1988
Campbell writes about the murders of Mickey and Trudy Thompson in 4xForward.

October 1988
Drivelines: "Samurai Sales Nose-Dive After Rollover Reports."

December 1988
First article about Tread Lightly!

February 1989
Toyota Xtracab V-6 wins 4x4 of the Year, beating Chevy S-Blazer, Dodge W250, Geo Tracker, Isuzu Trooper II, and Mitsubishi Montero.

April 1989
First tech story about lifting new GM IFS features Skyjacker's 1 1/2- to 3-inch kit.

February 1990
Eleven Bigfoot monster trucks appear at Indy Jamboree, setting the stage for a centerfold poster. Nissan Pathfinder is second vehicle to score two 4x4 of the Year wins; beats Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup and four-door versions of Chevy S-Blazer, Ford Explorer, and Toyota 4Runner.

March 1990
In a "Best of the Best" anniversary issue, a story called "War of the Winners" pits previous 4x4 of the Year champs against one another. Cherokee wins and steals thunder from just-announced '90 4x4 of the Year winner Pathfinder. Nissan is not amused.

August 1990
Drivelines reports first rumor of a Toyota fullsize truck.

January 1991
Magazine's name and logo change from 4WOR to Petersen's 4Wheel, "to alleviate some of the confusion" among the competitive titles, and because going off-road "connotes trail-blazing in many people's minds. In the minds of some, 'off-roader' is to recreational four-wheeling what 'Hells Angel' is to motorcycling," writes Campbell in his editorial. The logo quietly changes back in October.

February 1991
Dodge Dakota Sport wins 4x4 of the Year against the Jeep Wrangler Renegade, Isuzu Trooper LS, and Suzuki Sidekick JLX.

August 1991
Campbell moves on to the role of APG editorial director. Drew Hardin takes over as editor with the September issue.

December 1991
First civilian Hummer is featured in the magazine. "Soon you can own one, too."

February 1992
Chevy Blazer wins 4x4 of the Year, beating out stablemates Suburban and K2500 diesel pickup, plus F-150 Flareside, Dodge Dakota V-8, Mitsubishi Montero, and four-door Suzuki Sidekick; this marks the first use of the John Bull trail on the test.

March 1992
Baja 1000 coverage includes sidebar of Kaho and Hardin's racing experience.

August 1992
Beater truck trend recognized with first "Ugly Reader's Rides" story; Drivelines includes item about new Interco Thornbird tire.

January 1993
First test of the Toyota Land Cruiser, the first SUV with optional front, rear, and center locking differentials. "We applaud the effort."

February 1993
Jeep Grand Cherokee V-8 wins 4x4 of the Year test against the Ford Ranger, GMC Sonoma, Isuzu Trooper, Land Rover Range Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser, and Toyota T100.

April 1993
First Look test of new Dodge Ram; "Dodge was willing to gamble on a love-it-or-hate-it truck."

May 1993
Coverage of GM pickup truck side-saddle gas-tank controversy.

June 1993
Project Force 250 on cover in all its colorful glory; Todd Kaho writes our first story on GPS navigation technology that was beginning to trickle down from aviation.

August 1993
David Freiburger covers Moab Easter Jeep Safari.

October 1993
Announcement that our editorial offices moved from Sunset Boulevard to their current location in the mid-Wilshire corridor.

January 1994
4x4 of the Year test moved up another month to beat competition; Dodge Ram bests Chevy S-10 ZR2 and K-Blazer diesel, and Ford F-250 turbodiesel. Drivelines headline: "Hall to Race Hummers in Baja."

March 1994
Ed Fortson covers Panamint Valley Jeep trail ride; we are astonished at what these guys are doing.

April 1994
Hardin's last issue as editor; Freiburger takes over in May. Drivelines has picture of "four-door Blazer," which would become the Tahoe.

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