Rodding and motorsports aficionados worldwide mourn the passing of Robert E. Petersen, a true pioneer of all that is rodding. He founded what grew to become one of the largest publishing companies in the U.S., and was the originator of many of the most popular automotive magazine titles. Among those titles are Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Car Craft, Rod & Custom, and more. Pete was instrumental in the evolution of the hot-rodding culture, and, with his wife Margie, realized his dream of establishing an educational museum to pay tribute to the automobile with the 300,000-square-foot Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Petersen left our world in late March after a short but valiant battle with cancer; he was 80 years old.
Pete helped create and feed the American obsession with the automobile, delivering dreams in print to the mailboxes of millions. "He understood the thrill that an average person could get from seeing and reading about horsepower as an art form," commented Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
After graduating from Barstow (California) High School in the mid-1940s, Pete moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at MGM as a messenger boy. Following his military service toward the end of WWII, Pete immersed himself in the burgeoning customized auto culture of California, was instrumental in creating the first hot rod show in Los Angeles, and, in January 1948, launched Hot Rod magazine. Motor Trend, a more upscale publication for production-car enthusiasts, and dozens of other titles aimed at specialty automotive segments soon followed, as did a parade of how-to books and magazines in other fields, such as Guns & Ammo and Skin Diver magazines. The Petersen film division produced a variety of television shows; notable among them was "The Wonderful World of Wheels" that aired on CBS.
Unknown to most of today's rodders and racers, and many principals of the specialty industry as well, was Mr. Petersen's generosity when it came to viable industry causes. During the early days of SEMA, the association was strapped for the resources necessary to combat the emerging, very restrictive, and threatening legislation in California and other states. It was Mr. Petersen who came to SEMA's aid by funding the essential legal actions necessary, including hiring an attorney. It was also Mr. Petersen's foresight and investment that brought about the first SEMA Show-a humble 98-booth beginning that has flourished into the world's largest trade show, now at about 1.5 million square feet of space and held annually in Las Vegas.
There were many other Petersen firsts, but the champion of rodding causes will best be remembered for Hot Rod magazine, and certainly the Petersen Automotive Museum, which opened on June 11, 1994. Today, the Petersen Museum stands as the nation's premiere automotive showcase, welcoming thousands of visitors each year. Its mission remains to educate and excite generations of auto enthusiasts with the fascinating stories, vehicles, and people that have influenced the American love affair with the automobile-a mission that has been a resounding success thanks to the generosity of its main benefactor.
Mr. Petersen was honored with both the Automotive Icon and Visionary Awards at the Petersen Museum's annual gala in May 2007.
Messer said it best when he commented: "What made Pete so special was that he gave every ounce of his energy and abilities to his dreams. He was a quiet man who truly became an American icon. He made his living doing things he loved and he found success at every turn. The way he lived his life, always looking for ways to give back in return for the success he enjoyed, made us proud to count him as a friend. The museum is now his legacy."
Mr. Petersen is survived by his wife Margie.
Dick Wells was an early employee of Petersen Publishing, a lifelong friend to Pete, and is an accomplished journalist.