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The History Of Off-Road Magazine

Posted in Features on April 2, 2014 Comment (0)
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The History Of Off-Road Magazine
Photographers: Off-Road Archives

The last 46 years have been quite a ride. We were lucky enough to be there at some of the first Mexican 1000 races, and we’ve had the pleasure of watching off-road racing and enthusiast technology evolve to allow incredible feats.

The second-oldest U.S. magazine devoted to off-pavement vehicles, OFF-ROAD was never the biggest-seller in its category. But the magazine made significant contributions to the industry and ended up being the only one that continuously offered coverage of enthusiast’s go-fast and 2WD trucks.

“Once an off-roader, always an off-roader.”

The information in this retrospective comes mostly from seat-of-the-pants memories, and therefore, may not be 100-percent accurate. Please keep that in mind. Unfortunately, none of the surviving OFF-ROAD alumni has a complete set of issues, and the archives disappeared during office moves. Sadly, we have no copies of the first issues, though, we know they’ll pop up out of nowhere as soon as this issue hits newsstands.

This magazine’s editorial backbone has been driving fast in the desert. It spawned from the Popular Hot Rodding (PHR) staff’s enthusiasm for off-roading. George Elliott, the editorial director for Argus Publishers’ automotive magazines, was a former Navy pilot and an accomplished motocross racer. He admired Bud and Dave Ekins’ Baja “record” runs on dirt bikes. The Ekins brothers got time stamps at the Tijuana post office, then banzai’d to the La Paz post office, approximately 1,000 dirt miles away, for finish time stamps.

An image of the first-ever cover will undoubtedly surface once this issue is printed. It featured this Revmaster Spider, driven by Off-Road founder George Elliott and the magazine’s first Managing Editor, John Lawlor, in the 1968 Mexican 1000. Future Off-Road editor Duane Elliott is standing on the driver’s side. An image of the first-ever cover will undoubtedly surface once this issue is printed. It featured this Revmaster Spider, driven by Off-Road founder George Elliott and the magazine’s first Managing Editor, John Lawlor, in the 1968 Mexican 1000. Future Off-Road editor Duane Elliott is standing on the driver’s side.

In 1967, PHR writer and future Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (ORMHOF) inductee John Lawlor covered the first four-wheeled Baja record attempt, co-driving with Drino Miller in a Meyers Manx against three other vehicles. (A few months later, record-run organizer Ed Pearlman branded the event the Mexican 1000, holding the first official race in November 1967.) Positive response to Lawlor’s article prompted George Elliott to create a one-time newsstand magazine titled The Wild World of Off-Road Vehicles around 1968. “The Baja scene was strong, so we started a magazine,” Elliott recalls.

Elliott and Lawlor campaigned one of four Revmaster buggies in the 1968 Mexican 1000, which was covered by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. (Elliott later notched class wins in the Baja 1000 and Baja 500.) Argus Publishers capitalized on the broadening audience by producing somewhat-regular issues of Off-Road Vehicles & Adventure. The staff was drafted from PHR, Motorcade, and Model Car Science—Argus’s other automotive titles.

1970 to 1980
In 1970, the magazine became a regular publication. Retitled Off-Road Vehicles, PHR staffer Tom Madigan became Editor; John Lawlor served as Managing Editor. “Not much was happening outside of California and Arizona,” Madigan remembers. “Walker Evans was still a cement contractor, doing driveways.”

Southwestern hot-rodders who couldn’t afford to be competitive in organized drag racing or open-wheel turned to the desert racing, where home-built vehicles could still actually win. “OFF-ROAD grew a lot during the seventies,” Madigan says.

The magazine covered racers who embraced four-wheeled off-road vehicles but who were better known for other things at the time: James Garner, Parnelli Jones, Malcolm Smith, Bob Johnson (NASCAR champ Jimmie’s dad), and others.

Early issues were full of fiberglass: namely buggy tubs over VW, Corvair, Jeep, or other mechanicals. Recent issues showed plenty of high-clearance ’glass fenders. Early issues were full of fiberglass: namely buggy tubs over VW, Corvair, Jeep, or other mechanicals. Recent issues showed plenty of high-clearance ’glass fenders.

Then Dick Russell and Bill Stroppe unveiled Ford’s tube-framed Big Oly “Bronco.” Madigan shifted the magazine’s focus from racing to “more along the lines of ghost-town adventures,” activities the average enthusiast could actually do.

“F.A. Barnes’ travel stories were popular, and Lonnie Bassett’s ‘Travels with the Turtle’ series were some of the first foreign travel-adventure articles,” Madigan says. When Bassett migrated to National Geographic, Gary and Monika Wescott filled the adventure-travel void. OFF-ROAD was the still-rolling Turtle Expedition’s original magazine home.

After Argus, Tom Madigan went to work for Ford, doing PR and logistics for media events. Somewhat retired today, he writes authoritative books, including biographies of Bill Stroppe and Vic Edelbrock.

OFF-ROAD founder George Elliott ultimately served as Executive VP of Argus Publishers, and later, headed the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA). He was also chairman of SEMA, the aftermarket trade association started by his father, Ed. Both Elliotts are in the SEMA Hall of Fame. George Elliott won the 4x4 class in the inaugural Baja 500 in a Brian Chuchua Jeep and also scored numerous dirt-bike and drag-racing wins over the years. Elliott’s currently Executive VP of motorsports marketing agency Morris International and has a management role with the zMax automotive chemical product line (zMax.com).

Another notable contributor during this era was the late Jean Calvin, another ORMHOF member. She and her husband, John, later launched Dusty Times, which quickly became the voice of desert racing.

Other esteemed automotive writers who helped OFF-ROAD get off the ground included Spence Murray, and John Thawley, who also wrote authoritative books and was working on The Inaugural 1967 Mexican 1000, portions of which are published at deansgarage.com when he died in 2009. Other notables were current SEMA Editorial Director John Stewart; future Motor Trend and Edmunds executive Kevin Smith; Rich Johnson; and LeRoi “Tex” Smith, probably best known for Hot Rod Mechanix magazine.

1981 to 1985
The early 1980s were transitional. All-wheel-drive Peugeots and Subarus infiltrated OFF-ROAD. Editors during this time included the late Dave Epperson, who legendarily financed his college education by working as a mercenary. Joe R. Hicks, who is now a well-known talk-radio host and community activist in Los Angles, also did a tour of duty on OFF-ROAD.

Mike Parris took over in 1982. He recalls, “I became editor after the circulation had been dropping for a few years. Hired originally under Tom Madigan, I brought it back to the same format Tom had envisioned, combining some off-road racing with a lot of tech, travel, and rockcrawling articles. My tenure also ushered in the era of Bigfoot. With every big-wheel cover, the circulation took another jump, so we tried keeping a balance of all these themes in each issue.

Originally known as Off-Road Vehicles, the magazine was part of a 1971 publishing portfolio that included Popular Hot Rodding (PHR), Popular Cycling, and Motorcade. Originally known as Off-Road Vehicles, the magazine was part of a 1971 publishing portfolio that included Popular Hot Rodding (PHR), Popular Cycling, and Motorcade.

“I also had the support of the late John Lawlor, managing editor since the beginning of OFF-ROAD, to keep the written word to high standards. My background in photography also helped. Without good photos—especially great action—we couldn’t distinguish ourselves from the competition. I was also the first at the company to buy my own computer for word processing in 1982,” adds Parris.

“My days at OFF-ROAD were some of the best of my career, getting to win the 1980 Baja 500 with Ivan Stewart, navigating in Pro Rally for Rod Millen, building project trucks, and rockcrawling over the Rubicon. I also got to work with a young Duane Elliott, who later became an excellent editor, writer, and photographer. We all worked so closely together in those days that we became family. When I spot a copy of OFF-ROAD on the newsstand, I can’t help but pick it up and see what the current staff is up to.”

Parris left OFF-ROAD to be a Public Affairs manager for Ford. He currently runs Parris Communications (mikeparris.net) and has written several car books.

Contributors during this time included two gents who speak with British accents: Barry Brazier, who now owns the Mini Cooper enthusiast magazine MC2, and esteemed rock ’n’ roll and automotive photographer John Rettie.

1986 to 1989
The late 1980s were Off-ROAD’s most controversial period. Former editor Rick Sieman reminisces:

“In 1986, things got very shaky at Dirt Bike, where I was the editor. I contacted George Elliott at Argus Publishing. George and I had had a great rivalry going magazine-wise and racing-wise. He had run Popular Cycling, which was a direct competitor with Dirt Bike.

“I pitched the idea of reviving Popular Cycling. George mentioned that Mike Parris was going to work at Ford and that he didn’t have an editor for OFF-ROAD. He told me that 4x4s were not much different from bikes.

Features on custom home-built 4x4s helped sustain Off-Road for some 46 years. Jean Calvin covered this “Pinto Punk.” She later founded Dusty Times. Features on custom home-built 4x4s helped sustain Off-Road for some 46 years. Jean Calvin covered this “Pinto Punk.” She later founded Dusty Times.

“After a lot of beer and some serious thinking, I agreed to take over OFF-ROAD. I found out that the people in the industry were just as serious about their vehicles as dirt bike people were. I threw together the first few issues, hoping they wouldn’t bomb.

“Then I got a call from Sal Fish at SCORE, who invited me to come down to Baja to cover a race. Several thousand people were watching the race, and how they didn’t get killed is beyond me. They would stand in the middle of the track with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other.

“A Class 7 truck came through and high-centered on one of the rocky ledges. The driver waved a few dollar bills in the air and yelled in Spanish for people to help. In moments, there were dozens of people trying to pick the truck up off the rocky ledge. What made this really exciting was there were three big rattlesnakes underneath the rocks. You never saw a crowd disperse so fast in your life as when these long rattlers made their presence known.

“I got invited to test ride one of the factory Troopers that they were building for the Baja 1000. I wound up racing the Trooper in Class 14 [George Elliott co-drove] and was the only finisher, giving me the win.

june 1989 off road magazine

“Not too long after that, I built a Class 3 Ford Bronco with the help of Dennis Garman and hit the SCORE/HDRA circuit. The magazine covered the racing and the building of the truck. OFF-ROAD became a fixture at all the major races.

“After about four years of this, I got a call from Dirt Bike to become a senior editor. This would let me turn my full attention to off-road racing. I continued to write stories and columns for OFF-ROAD.

“In 1992, I moved to Rosarito in Baja, Mexico, and concentrated on racing for several more years. Now, I’m semi-retired, write for a few websites and a couple of magazines, and have my own site at superhunky.com, where I sell a bunch of books, posters, CDs, and such. I still race at age 74, but I’m slower than ever!

View Slideshow

1990 to 1995
Desert racing enjoyed a dedicated following, but reader and advertiser support wasn’t enough to sustain OFF-ROAD. The magazine was at a crossroads: Argus either had to reinvent OFF-ROAD or pull the plug.

George Elliott’s son Duane photographed motocross races for various magazines as a teen when he wasn’t racing himself. Since he couldn’t be an Argus employee (the company had a no-nepotism policy), Duane eventually worked as staff photographer for Four Wheeler, one of OFF-ROAD’s competitors. Duane left Four Wheeler and worked a deal with his dad to take over OFF-ROAD as a freelance contractor, not an employee. He then sub-contracted staff positions to other non-employees. It was a low-risk Hail Mary for Argus. The freelance staff worked remotely; most lived in rural areas near 4x4 trails. Article text was transmitted via 2,400-baud modems.

Pink shock boots, KC Daylighters, the fiberglass “Lund Look,” and Joe Camel ads paid the bills in early 1990s. Issues with outrageous cover trucks (Frank Schettini’s “Big Dummy” shown here) were often mocked by “hardcore” off-roaders, but they sold well on the newsstand, keeping the magazine alive. Pink shock boots, KC Daylighters, the fiberglass “Lund Look,” and Joe Camel ads paid the bills in early 1990s. Issues with outrageous cover trucks (Frank Schettini’s “Big Dummy” shown here) were often mocked by “hardcore” off-roaders, but they sold well on the newsstand, keeping the magazine alive.

Rick Sieman continued to cover SCORE races, and Moses Ludel’s “Holy Moses!” Q&A column was immensely popular. (Ludel now runs 4WDmechanix.com and has written several automotive books.)

Duane Elliott devoted color pages to so-called show vehicles, primarily Midwestern-based, agricultural-inspired fullsize rigs. OFF-ROAD’s resources were a fraction of the competing magazines’, and one trip to a Jamboree Nationals show generated multiple issues’ worth of photos. Non-Sunbelt enthusiasts responded to mud and monsters. Paid circulation peaked at more than 100,000.

“We were able to get the industry’s attention and show that it was possible to do a magazine from the field, without being in an office building in California,” Duane Elliott remembers. “We got good at being really efficient with a small budget.”

Several industry veterans pitched in during this era. Bruce W. Smith, previously an editor at Four Wheeler, did some heavy lifting on OFF-ROAD before later launching Bass & Walleye Boats. Smith is currently Senior Editor of the trade magazines Hard Working Trucks and Equipment World.

About a decade before DUB existed, Karl Malone struck the “big-baller” pose on the cover of OFF-ROAD. About a decade before DUB existed, Karl Malone struck the “big-baller” pose on the cover of OFF-ROAD.

Bill Sanders came out of semi-retirement to be OFF-ROAD’s industry insider. He covered Baja races in the 1960s for Motor Trend and even claimed a class win in the 1973 Baja 1000 in a propane-powered FJ-40.

Legendary drag-racing photographers Steve Reyes, Tim Marshall, and Bob McClurg were lured away from the strip and elevated OFF-ROAD’s feature coverage. Ken Brubaker brought an Illinois meat-and-potatoes point of view and photo skills honed at high-school sporting events and crime scenes. Brubaker’s off-road photos are also in books and calendars. He’s currently Four Wheeler’s Senior Editor.

Tom Morr filled in the blanks then and here. He’s currently an automotive-communications contractor who does PR for aftermarket manufacturers. Morr has co-authored three books with Ken Brubaker. (Editor’s note: And is the humble author of this story who wrote too little about his own contributions.)

Vintage racer and automotive historian Ned Bacon created OFF-ROAD’s suspension-testing program. He also contributed distinctive and detailed illustrations. Bacon is currently driving a VW Syncro van around the world. Updates are at Charlottamiles.com.

Rick Péwé served as the late-night technical consultant, helping make OFF-ROAD as accurate as possible before it went to print. He eventually shut down his shop, Republic Off-Road, to be Technical Editor at Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road, then Editor of Jp. An internationally recognized Jeep expert, Péwé is currently Editor-In-Chief of Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road and a member of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

A long-time 4x4 enthusiast who also dabbled in off-road racing, Ted Nugent wrote an outdoors column for OFF-ROAD in the early 1990s. A long-time 4x4 enthusiast who also dabbled in off-road racing, Ted Nugent wrote an outdoors column for OFF-ROAD in the early 1990s.

Ben Stewart freelanced articles for OFF-ROAD as a college student. He served on the Four Wheeler staff before becoming Popular Mechanics’ Automotive Editor and a Road & Track contributor.

Duane Elliott launched Truckworld.com in 1995, one of the automotive industry’s first online magazines. He currently runs Duane Elliott Enterprises (duaneelliott.com), a web-services/SEO company that has both aftermarket and non-automotive clients.

In 1994, OFF-ROAD’s bleakest-ever day happened when publisher-at-the-time Mark Rose was killed in a freak accident while co-driving at Brush Run 101. OFF-ROAD’s circulation peaked around that time and began a gradual decline following the tragedy.

1995 to 1999
Wall Street corporate raiders K-III acquired Argus in 1995. (HBO’s Barbarians at the Gate dramatized their M.O. Ironically, the movie co-starred once-former OFF-ROAD cover model James Garner.)

OFF-ROAD was integrated into K-III’s McMullen division, under the Truckin’ management. The asses-in-cubicle approach yielded an OFF-ROAD overhaul.

Former 4-Wheel & Off-Road tech editor Brent Ross accepted the hot seat. He was succeeded by Rick Shandley, who shares his recollections:

“My time on Off-Road was an adventure and a great experience. Going down to the Baja races was something I lived for in those days.

“Working on Off-Road allowed me to learn from industry leaders in the performance automotive aftermarket. I’ll never forget all of the good people I met across the country at the truck shows and events from Bloomsburg to Tellico.

“One highlight was the opportunity to consult in conference calls, along with Managing Editor Tom Lutz, with Ford product planners and engineers about a future pickup. Lutz and I just hammered on long-wheel travel, low center of gravity, at least 35-inch tires, overkill hardware and proper gearing. That truck—the Ford Raptor—became available to the public a couple years after I had left OFF-ROAD to complete my master’s degree in business administration.

“These days I work with start-up businesses and established companies on strategy, funding, operations, and marketing initiatives. AbbeyRoast.com, a gourmet coffee, is my latest project. What hasn’t changed is that I still love long-legged, high-horsepower pickup trucks.”

2000 to 2003
The new millennium wasn’t kind to OFF-ROAD. Randall Jachmann, formerly on NASCAR Trucks, assumed editorship. A life-long desert enthusiast, Jachmann continued the tradition of OFF-ROAD editors who raced. Health issues eventually sidelined him; Jachmann succumbed to complications from diabetes a few years back.

Sport Truck tech editor Joel Mollis took over next. Mollis also suffered from diabetes, which eventually took his life as well. Next, Mike Finnegan tried to pick up the slack. “I lasted less than nine months,” he says. “I was directed to put either a Super Duty or Chevy HD pickup on the cover and fill the pages with lift-kit installations to satisfy an army of advertisers pedaling kits for trucks that really didn’t do much off-roading. Eventually, I burned out and left the company.”

OFF-ROAD was a stepping stone toward Hot Rod for Finnegan. He also co-hosts the popular web show “Roadkill.”

Kevin Wilson, Editorial Director at the time, sums up this era: “OFF-ROAD was jinxed. It was Dysfunction Junction.”

2004 to 2007
Phil Howell, who championed club-based trail-riding while editor of 4-Wheel Drive & Sport-Utility, was brought in to re-right/re-write the ship. He says, “When I took over OFF-ROAD, I wanted to revisit the days when the magazine featured trail riding and the vehicles built to do it. I coined the word ‘TrailRunner’ to describe a vehicle that could not only crawl over obstacles, but could haul across the desert at 80-plus mph. We built a few projects that met that definition. Our adventure destinations gave armchair explorers places to read about and real explorers places to visit. Being the Editor-in-Chief of OFF-ROAD was a lot of fun and a time I’ll always cherish.”

2007 to 2014
Everything old eventually becomes new again. Editorial musical chairs spun Jerrod Jones from 4-Wheel & Off-Road to OFF-ROAD. Jones took the magazine back to its original roots—going fast in the desert. The magazine would become dedicated to go-fast vehicles and fullsize trucks, leaving Jeep coverage for the other off-road magazines.

Jones reminisces, “Lots of things changed for me (and OFF-ROAD) when then-publisher, Jeff Dahlin, brought me in as Editor in October 2007. I immediately recognized that this guy would become one of my best friends and together we would spurn some new life into OFF-ROAD. We had the times of our lives reviving what we thought was the best off-road title.

Since most of my own trucks have been solid-axle prerunners (if you believe there can be such a thing), it was natural for us to keep OFF-ROAD as a go-fast magazine that also covered fullsize trucks. The broader fullsize truck theme allowed us to hit on all types of fullsize truck builds, from desert to trail to mud truck, if we wanted to. But it was the go-fast and 2WD coverage—plus the lack of Jeep coverage—that made us unique.

We never really had any signature events, but by chance of living in San Luis Obispo years ago, I knew the young Garner twins (creators of Huckfest) and the magazine sort-of adopted Huckfest as our own, a couple years before it became an official event. Now it’s one of the biggest off-road events in the country.

While I cannot say I loved every minute of the work of an Editor, I can say that I loved the job, the life, the magazine, and the off-road community. It was honor to play a small part.”

Although OFF-ROAD has probably the best name in the segment, the magazine never enjoyed the newsstand distribution or editorial budgets of 4-Wheel & Off-Road or Four Wheeler. Still, it was consistently the second or third best-selling magazine focused on four-wheeled off-road vehicles with bodies. It outlived some better-selling titles (such as 4x4 Power) and outlasted countless others: Pick-Up Van & 4-Wheel Drive (PV4), 4x4 Mechanix, and 4x4 Builder to name a few.

At the time of this article’s inception in late January 2014, OFF-ROAD is currently one of seven off-road magazines owned by Source Interlink Media. It covers enthusiast-built vehicles and the tech and parts it takes to create them. It is the only one to cover the enthusiast side of go-fast play and 2WD trucks.

Many former staff members remember their years at OFF-ROAD as the most enjoyable of their careers. “Everyone was passionate, so it wasn’t like working,” George Elliott says, identifying a common thread through much of OFF-ROAD’s existence. “We were hands-on, which the readers could relate to. We had so many good times that I can’t remember them all.”

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