The passing of Margie Petersen late last year, on the eve of this magazine’s 35th anniversary, got us to thinking about our history, where we came from, and why the Petersen name is such an important part of not only our title but the car and truck enthusiast magazine business in general.
So who, exactly, were the Petersens?
Though this magazine is 35 years old, its roots go a lot farther back. In the mid ’40s, a young man named Robert E. Petersen was starting a public relations firm, Hollywood Publicity Associates, following a stint in public relations at MGM Studios. Though he had planned to work with the movie industry, he agreed to help promote a brand-new hot rod show that was taking place at the Los Angeles National Guard Armory.
Soon after came the brainstorm: Petersen saw an opportunity to launch a magazine targeted at the growing number of young men who were hopping up cars to race on Southern California’s dry lakes (and, yes, on the streets). Petersen was no stranger to cars; his father, Einar, was a mechanic who showed his son around a toolbox and welder, so it was easy for him to develop a rapport with the guys building the cars and the speed shops who wanted to sell them parts.
The armory show led to Hot Rod magazine in January 1948 and Motor Trend a year later. More magazines followed. Most of them were about automobiles (and motorcycles), though Petersen followed his passion for guns and hunting with the founding of Guns & Ammo magazine in 1958.
In 1963, Petersen married Margie McNally, a model and actress, after just one date. Their marriage lasted more than 40 years, during which time Petersen launched, bought, and sold more magazines; scooped up acres of valuable real estate in Beverly Hills and the surrounding area; built a sizable car collection; worked on behalf of several local philanthropic organizations; and started other business ventures that included a restaurant, an art gallery, and a private aviation service. In the mid ’90s the Petersens donated time and money to kick off a venture that would eventually become the outstanding Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
So, where does this magazine fit in the Petersen timeline? Just as Hot Rod wasn’t the first hot rodding magazine, we were by far not the first 4WD title. Four Wheeler has been around since 1961, for example, and CBS launched Pickup, Van and 4-Wheel Drive (aka PV4) in 1972. (Some 10 years later it would become part of the Petersen stable—and be killed soon after.) In 1977, the company was looking for new sources of revenue and, as Petersen had done with hot rods so many years before, saw potential in the growing off-road enthusiast market.
The decision was made to produce one magazine, loosely described on internal paperwork as “Petersen’s 4-wheel & off-road magazine.” A better title was supposed to be developed prior to launch, but Petersen’s legal department trademarked the name, and it appeared on four issues of what was supposed to be a one-shot. Those initial copies all bore the Hot Rod logo above the 4 in our own logo. The Mar. ’78 issue was our first as a monthly and the first to replace the Hot Rod logo with Petersen’s.
Despite all his other business holdings, Petersen was an active participant in his publishing company right up until he sold it in 1996. He and Margie were also very involved in the growth and development of the museum, an effort Margie continued after her husband’s death from cancer in 2007. In fact, she announced a $100 million donation of cash, property and vehicles to the museum shortly before her death, also of cancer, last November.
So, 35 years after our founding, the Petersen name lives on in our title. It’s a nod to our founder and a way of setting us apart from the other magazines on the newsstand. Our name may sound like some of the others, but there’s only one Petersen’s.