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July 2011 Trail's End

Four-Wheeling, Then And Now

Fifty years is a fair amount of time in human terms, but for a magazine, it’s an eternity.

Early in my career, I was told that, of the 2,000 new magazines launched every year, only five would still be publishing a year later. So in 1962 when Bob Ames started his magazine, The Four Wheeler, as a way of communicating backcountry etiquette to people he met exploring abandoned roads, he had no idea what he was up against.

And yet, many twists and turns later, here we are, nearly at the half-century mark.

During that time the magazine has taken on many identities. When I came on in 1986, Four Wheeler had become a monster truck magazine. Success in those years was created by putting Bigfoot on the cover, and the more times you did it, the more magazines you sold. Eventually, though, everybody who wanted to see a monster truck had seen one. From there, the trend morphed toward the popularity of tall, Midwestern-style fullsize trucks with 12- or 16-inch suspension lifts, candy or metalflake paint, and chrome everything.

The big show trucks were works of art for sure, but eventually tastes gave way to more functional engineering. We began to look for suspensions that added travel, not just lift, proper gearing, and steering systems that didn’t crumble on uneven terrain. Olive drab was a cool paint job. We found the kinds of 4x4s we liked more often out on the trail, and less often at a truck show.

In the final few years of my 14-year tenure at Four Wheeler, we had begun to measure capability, using Top Truck Challenge as a way to get the best-engineered machines to come to us. At first these were usually Jeeps, but then the rock buggies started showing up, and eventually they came to dominate the proposition.

All along, we tried to keep in mind what Bob Ames had originally called for. The key issue then was how to educate trail users, so that the outdoor resources we all shared could be preserved. It still is today.

And still there is debate about what four-wheeling really is. My favorite definition is, “Four-wheeling is the practice of creeping about on abandoned roads that are in the process of returning to nature.” But with the advent of private off-road parks and recreational driving facilities like the Hollister OHV area, wheeling is often less about exploring the backcountry and more about targeted engineering and driving skills. The ultimate culmination of that process is seen at events like King of the Hammers, which brings us up to the present day. To many, four-wheeling has become less of a family picnic and more of an adventure sport.

Looking back, we could say that much has been lost, but much has been gained. We don’t see unsafe, prone-to-rollover, hockey-puck engineering on the road as much as we used to; 4x4 builders have a much higher aptitude for safety and performance.

On the land-use front, organized trail users now take responsibility for their local resources, to the extent that we have groups like the Red Rock 4-Wheelers, who administer a broad network of trails with remarkable insight and tenacity. It’s much harder, in this day and age, for outdoor recreationalists to go out and blithely trash the outdoors. We all know better. We now recognize that our right to use the lands must be continually defended, and deftly negotiated, in places like Sacramento and Washington.

Even though four-wheeling has changed, morphed, and evolved, I think Bob Ames would be content with where we stand today. In the face of change, we have come to grips with some thorny problems, solved many, and maintain organizations that work to keep what’s important. There will be new problems to solve in the future, no doubt, but we’re much better prepared than we were 50 years ago. Where we’ll stand 50 years from now, no one can know, but I for one am optimistic.

About John Stewart
John Stewart was the editor of Four Wheeler from 1986 to 2000. He’s now the editorial director at the Specialty Equipment Market Association, and makes his home in Pasadena, California.