• Petersen

AUTOPHILE: Robert E. Petersen

A rods-to-riches dream, one story at a time. A publishing empire started at 25 cents a copy

Avatar By: Wheels September 6, 2021

The stories were racked up like miles on an odometer. They told the tale of where he had been and who he had become.

Mostly, though, they were Robert E. “Pete” Petersen’s magical way of bringing everything together and the main reason why one of the most successful publishing entrepreneurs in the history of the car-magazine business was just so good at what he did.

As the founder of the company that produced Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Car Craft and dozens of other enthusiast magazine titles, Petersen was a storyteller. And he made sure his magazines told great stories.

“An American icon,” said Dick Messer, then director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Calif., upon Petersen’s death in March 2007 at age 80.

“He helped create and feed the American obsession with the automobile, delivering gasoline-powered dreams to the mailboxes of millions.”

And the stories? Petersen loved to share them.

There was the one about how star actor Steve McQueen used to come up to Petersen’s ranch in the 1960s and just ride with local motorcycle guys.

“He’d ride with us all day, then sit around and eat hamburgers and have a few beers,” Petersen told Motor Trend Classic magazine in 2006. “We had no idea he’d become a cult figure.”

Or there was the one about the day in 1957 when Petersen got a Ferrari 250 delivered in Italy and Enzo Ferrari, Ferrari’s owner, personally took him out for a test drive.

Or there was the best one about the day in 1960 when Petersen picked up his Mercedes-Benz 300SL in Germany and crashed it that night after a little too much cheer with the Mercedes engineers.

“I spun the car out,” Petersen once said, “dented it up and they took me to jail. My photographer told me to say that I had hit a tree, which in Germany isn’t as bad as hitting another car. You just have to pay a fine. I paid and they let me go.”

What a life.

A native of Southern California, Petersen’s mother died when he was just 10, leaving him with his Danish father who worked as a truck mechanic.

“I practically grew up in the garage,” he remembered. “We worked on cars, trucks, tractors. My dad said, ‘If you’re ever going to be a good mechanic, you need to learn all of the parts.’ So I washed parts, scraped and de-carbonized heads. Everything.”

After high school, Petersen moved to Los Angeles and worked as a messenger boy at MGM studios. Following service in the army, he immersed himself in the growing customized auto culture in California, working with promoters to start one of the first post-war hotrod shows.

To get things going on the hotrod scene, Petersen began his own magazine in 1947, called Hot Rod, selling it at local speedways for 25 cents a copy.

Hot Rod spawned Motor Trend, a more upscale publication for production-vehicle enthusiasts, and then dozens of other related titles aimed at specialty auto segments.

Privately, Petesen immersed himself in the car culture. He bought Ferraris. He hung out with auto executives. He drove in races. And he became an influential member of the car community, building his magazine empire, one story at a time.

“He understood the thrill that an average person could get from seeing and reading about horsepower as an art form,” said Messer, who retired from the Petersen museum in 2010.

But the one thing Petersen really wanted was an educational museum to pay tribute to the automobile. In 1994 that happened when the 300,000-square-foot Robert E. Petersen Automotive Museum opened to the public. Today it is the one of the leading auto museums in America.

“What made him special was that he gave every ounce of his energy and abilities to his dreams,” Messer said.

Petersen owned hundreds of machines. All were classics. All, like Petersen, had a story.

“I’ve had about everything I ever wanted.”

Perhaps that made for the best story of all.