Why Hot Rod magazine is the best moto-mag in the world.
One of life’s greater and yet simpler pleasures is to sidle your chubby little bottom in a favorite chair, perhaps with a relaxing beverage, and dive into a fresh magazine of either the car or motorcycle genre.
When I was a lad my parents were early subscribers to Road and Track magazine. A few later, rare copies of Cycle World were passed around study hall like the illegal contraband they sort of were. While just out of college and beginning my teaching career, my best friend was sent to Viet Nam. I purchased 24 cans of Almond Roca candy (the kids were selling them at the time for a fund-raiser) as part of a support package for him. The $12 cost was a large sum for me at that time. I took out half the cans of Almond Roca and filled the case with a selection of motorcycle and car magazines and the odd Playboy or two. Off it went to the jungles of Nam.
My friend reported that the care package I sent was the most heartily received of any the unit had seen in recent months, and the car and motorcycle magazines were held in higher esteem than the candy or even the Playboy. High praise!
I’ve noticed in recent months that I still get a zing of pleasure when a new magazine arrives or is purchased, but after that there’s often a let-down. I’m excited to look forward to the pleasure of perusing, and left frustrated and feeling a bit empty. Why? Took me a while to figure out the answer.
Last fall a flurry of alluring magazine subscription offers filled our mailbox, and I subscribed to several in a spasm of economic excess. At $10 a year it seemed only prudent to do so. A year later, which one has risen to the top of my expectations and never fails to delight? Hot Rod.
This is a bit of a surprise. I’ve always been fascinated by hot rods and muscle cars, of course, and the hopped-up 1958 Corvette we owned when newly married gives me some credentials in this area. In addition, I worked for six months of Sundays as the announcer for drag races at Seattle International Raceway, or SIR as it was known then.
These were bracket races for the most part, culminating in the “Skippers Fish and Chips Nationals,” where I was the emergency back-up to big time announcer Steve Evans. He was a very nice man, and I was saddened to read recently that he has passed away. He showed me in about 5 minutes the difference between a pro and an enthusiastic amateur. I spent most of the day trying to soak up as much of his techniques as I could, when not distracted by being introduced to Linda Lovelace (while I was announcing) and work in the staging lane. It was a surreal experience to motion Don Prudhomme and many other drag race big names onto the proper lane for their car. At the end of the day there was so much VHT traction compound and melted rubber around the starting line that it pulled the heels off my new and oh-so-trendy “harness” boots. In addition, our Corvette, which parked right behind the announcing tower because I could, was totally covered in small bits of melted drag slick. Quite a day.
I also have had some experience with drag racing myself, although in my case most of it is amusing. One day at SIR, after the racing was over and the timing gear had been put away, the crew decided we should have a race between my ’58 Corvette and this other worker with… a Pinto station wagon. As we were both parked in the right lane during this conversation, I did a burnout in reverse to get to the left lane. The Pinto was flagged off and then I waited, and waited. The crew had decided that about a ½ track lead would make it fair. Finally I roared off, and I’d never driven the car that hard. I was surprised I won, and even more so the next week when my friend that ran a hot rod shop notified me that the front suspension was so worn it was about to fall off.
Years later I started working for Doug’s Lynnwood Mazda part time in an early version of the job I have now. Doug asked me for ideas for showing off the new Mazda 4 door pickup. They are ubiquitous today, but in 1998 Mazda had the first and only such truck. I suggested the 1/8th mile drags at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, omitting the small fact that I’d never attended them. Doug had me take his brand new personal truck and spend a Sunday drag racing. The entire staff was stunned when I returned the next week with a trophy!
A couple of years later I took a Miata with 110,000 miles on the odometer to (now) Pacific Raceways for a day of foreign bracket drag racing, and I was doing well until I got carried away and stomped on a guy and managed to break out (too fast) by .0002 seconds, despite coasting the last 50 yards!
So I do have history with hot rods, but neither the mechanical aptitude (to put it mildly) nor the funds to pursue my interests very far. In addition, in the late 1970’s performance cars pretty much ceased to exist, and Hot Rod entered an era that even their current staff now look back upon with horror – the latest in customized vans and so forth.
So what has happened to make Hot Rod so great now?
Part of the answer lies in me, part of it what has happened to other magazines, and the last part is the current “feeling tone” and content of Hot Rod itself.
Me: I’ve been reading every motorcycle and car magazine I could beg, buy, or borrow for over 50 years. In addition, I’ve been working part-time in the car biz (2 years) and full time in the motorcycle biz (almost 14 years) for enough time that there’s little that I’ve not seen and read before. This is ever more true today where industry internet sources get me the “latest” so fast that everything I read in a magazine is likely to be old news.
Magazines: Both car and motorcycle magazines share problems, most of which I have no solution for. Ironically, the biggest problem comes from the panoply of specialized models now on offer, and the extremely high quality of all of them. Pick almost any subset of vehicle offerings (we’ll use mid-price SUVs for an example) and the magazine will gather 6 or 7 candidates together. Unlike decades past, all of the SUVs on test will be good, and in fact all of them are likely to be excellent. They will have similar costs, mileage figures, performance, capabilities, and options. The road tests become picks in search of a nit. Which one has better cup-holders? Really? The result is more and more technology-based features to differentiate models, and a lot of it stuff I never knew I needed. Do I need a lane-departure warning system? If I need a power lift gate on the back, perhaps I could just purchase a lower and lighter vehicle? And on and on. Motorcycle magazines have the same problem. Pretty much all modern sport bikes are excellent, for example, offering performance that cannot be used to its limits on a public road, or even on a racetrack by all but a few highly trained pros. You end up with motorcycles being tested in ways the owners will never use them.
A second problem for magazines is creeping egotism. The writers have a depressing tendency to slide into “So there I was having lunch with the lead designer of the new Ferrari.” The lead designer of the new Ferrari is not going to say anything over lunch that is new or controversial, because he and all of his (and her) ilk have been to corporate media school. I work for a BMW motorcycle dealer, and likely to trash the brand while being employed. The writer knows big and important people? I’m far more interested in the cars and motorcycles. An exception is made for designers and stylists who did great things and are now retired and have no real or imagined impediments to telling it exactly as they see it – that can make for great reading, but the subject has to be free of any impetus, no matter or subtle, to protect the employer or sell the product.
For years I sought refuge in British car and motorcycle magazines, but that asylum is a fading promise of respite. On the plus side, both the writing and photography are of a very high caliber. On the negative side is the eye-watering cost.
Even if you succumb to temptation and fork over $10 or $12 dollars for a single issue, you smack your nose into two other problems. Some of the Brit-lit titles cover classic cars and motorcycles. How many articles can you read about the proper restoration and fettling of an MGB or a Triumph Bonneville before that particular well of information in your brain overflows? If the magazine deals with new cars, the Brits often road-test fantasy cars that are increasingly unrelated to any use I could find for them in the real world, even if I won the lottery and could afford one. Have you seen a “super car” up close and personal lately? They are now so low and wide you cannot see out of them, or back up, and their performance capabilities are so high you’ll probably never find their limit, even with lots of track days and private coaching. How long will it take you to master the 10/10ths capabilities of a Pagani, a Ferrari, or McClaren? Get back to me when you are done…
The other day when I was wasting time at the local Chrysler/Fiat emporium while a minor matter with my Fiat 500 Sport was attended to, In the front showroom sat a new Viper GPS, to which the dealer had added a couple of second stickers to prop the price up to an eye-watering $166,000 to you sir. Oh yes, plus tax and license, so you’ll need about $180,000 all in.
Always a fan of the Viper GTS, I strolled around and around this latest example, staring agape at the sheer width of the thing. I’d need a new garage if I wanted to open the doors once inside our standard size edition.
There are other examples in any current magazine. Reading about them is fine for a time, but eventually you realize that such cars are simply not made to be used, but to be seen in – and I could care less. Fantasy has its place, but true enjoyment comes from reading about machines made for use in the real world.
Hot Rod: What a joy! With a mantra of “no boring cars” they’ve surged forward with a delicious feast of cars that are all over the place. Some are cheap, some expensive. Some are wonderful and some are awful.
What all have in common is that they are interesting and they are usable. The invention of the “resto-mod,” is a wonderful thing, allowing anyone to enjoy the classic looks of a 50s- 70’s car of choice (many of which did not go or corner or stop all that well when new) with modern safety and radically improved performance. There is even some eco-practicality to all of this.
Let’s say you choose to spend $40,000 on a nicely restored and modernized model from your fantasized youth. That car, perhaps a ’67 Chevy Camaro, ($40,000 will get you a very nice one), has a carbon footprint already almost half a century old. With almost any conceivable up-rated engine and transmission combination, it will pollute less over the course of its remaining life than any modern $40,000 car no matter how inferior the mpg vs. a modern counterpart. Because most of the pollution created by a vehicle comes from its original creation, you are ahead from this day forward. You’ll have a vehicle that is your vision, gets better performance than a modern car, is much more individual, and you can admire the classic lines, feel the power, and feel a bit smug, all at the same time.
A look at the sort of events each magazine covers will also tell you a lot. Hot Rod promotes and puts on events such as “Power Tour” and “Drag Week.” Such is the clarity and simplicity of such titles that Hot Rod need not add their own name to the front. Contrast that to “The Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona presented by Colgate-Palmolive on Speed TV.” Which sounds more inviting to you? Which offers more opportunity for you to be involved? Note that the events Hot Rod is putting on are focused on those doing the activity, even though thousands of spectators turn out for the sheer spectacle. Most car and motorcycle magazines cover events that are either races with vehicles you cannot afford and probably cannot use to their potential (events where you come and pay a lot of money to sit), or events with entry fees and operating costs that are beyond the reach of most of us. If the Power Tour is traveling through your town, in contrast, you can pull up a lawn chair and salivate for free.
As another example, there’s a 2007 Roush-modified Ford Mustang for sale at the Ford dealer 5 blocks away. For under $35,000 I could have a ton of power from a supercharged Ford engine, a lot of burgundy paint, a 6 speed manual transmission, plus the other Roush farkles added to an already fine car. My bank would tell me I could afford this car, and with it I could make plans to attend the Power Tour of 2014. Such thoughts have a much higher expectation of being made reality than reading about a Lamborghini model of which only 3 have been created, at $3,000,000 each, and all are sold. Why write about that? Why bother to read about it?
What I really admire about the magazine, and I presume the credit goes to the editor, is what was referred to when I was teaching as “feeling tone.” This is extremely difficult to create in print, where you do not have the human voice of the author or the body language that creates for many of us over 90% of the meaning. Nevertheless, reading the magazine makes you feel that you’re in a room of like-minded people from all ages and walks of life discussing the merits and faults of a given set of modifications, paint schemes and designs, and ogling the performance of cars on real streets in the real world. The magazine serves only to provide the technical knowledge and mastery that most of us do not have.
At the end of the day, Hot Rod is apparently written by and for people who love the cars they own and are interested in others. Most other magazines are trending toward sad people who want to be loved by others because of the cars they own.
The subscriptions I dived into a year ago are running out. Some of them will not be renewed, even at a virtually free price.
With Hot Rod, it’s more likely I’ll renew for several years. Bring ‘em on!
Copyright 2013 David Preston