Hot Rod Empire

Robert E. Petersen and the Creation of the World’s Most Popular Car and Motorcycle Magazines

by Matt Stone with Gigi Carleton


Hot Rod Empire is very much a contemporary story celebrated in anniversary issues of several of its magazine titles, in company-issued press releases, and the hardcover book Fifty Years of Motor Trend published in 1999 by MBI (Motorbooks International) now a sub-group of Quarto, this current, newest book’s publisher. 

For the earlier book the authors, who are credited generically as The Editors of Motor Trend Magazine, selected highlights for each decade and within each decade year-by-year offered captioned images of those cars deemed most significant. Motor Trends first issue bore the cover date of September 1949 and its pages first uttered the “Car of the Year” phrase in that very first year too written by John Bond, who would go on to edit and own Road & Track. But it took until 1958 for Motor Trend to formally designate some vehicle as its Car of the Year. And, as the program proved successful in netting increased magazine sales, it expanded categories to include competitions and subsequent winners for Import of the Year, Truck of the Year, etc.

Your commentator had opined in a published review of this 1999 book when it was newly released that its greatest oversight was due to it being “text light” it lacked of an alphabetical listing of the various editors and photographers whose work had made Motor Trend’s pages come alive for its readers and subscribers over the decades. That opinion stands, for while the magazine pages are about cars, it is only due to the talents and personalities of the presenters (writers and photographers coupled with the designers of the pages) that any magazine connects with its readers.  

Redirecting attention to the pages of this new book, they are a generously illustrated celebration of the lives of Robert E. Petersen and his wife Margie. And that is all the more understandable when the reader is aware that author Matt Stone was at one time an employee/editor on the staff of several of the Petersen publications. Then too, there is his collaborator, Gigi Carleton.  

Carleton was Robert E.’s personal assistant/manager and executive secretary for 40 years. Early on she also formed a fast friendship with Margie Petersen as well. Since the passing of Robert in 2007 and Margie in 2011, Carleton has been—and still is—the “keeper of the flame.” Her official title and responsibilities are as president of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Foundation which philanthropically benefits many charities.  

What enthusiast turned enthusiast-magazine publisher “Pete” Petersen accomplished and built will likely never be repeated if for no other reason than the decline of printed periodicals. And it wasn’t just one enthusiasm or one magazine, for Petersen was a man of eclectic interests and enthusiasms including (but not limited to) hot rods or, more accurately, cars of all sorts and types, also fishing, boats, aircraft, motorcycles, using (hunting and trap alike) and collecting guns, and more. For every interest he soon developed and published at least one magazine, sometimes multiple titles reflecting various facets. 

By the mid-1990s, the astute-businessman aspect of Petersen foresaw the publishing world was heading for changes. Ultimately he sold the entire Petersen Publishing Company. Subsequent owners chopped and channeled it, thankfully renaming it with each change. Thus the Petersen Publishing Company’s reputation, legends and accomplishments are untarnished as this book shares, remembers, and celebrates.

And, of course, there remains too, in Los Angeles, Petersen’s namesake automotive museum although it too has changed greatly since Robert and Margie’s initial founding of it. Originally the main floor had dioramas that presented the history of the West Coast’s pivotal moments, people, and places that had influenced the growth of the automotive industry and hobby alike. 

While Stone and Carleton acknowledge the changes and the controversy surrounding them they declined to voice judgment or a position. And that is as it should be because with its main benefactors gone, the new governing board faced the challenge of keeping the institution for which they were now responsible viable and (hopefully) operating in the black. So while your commentator has been personally sad to see those dioramas not merely removed but dismantled precisely because of the history they presented so very well, we’ll never know what Pete and Margie might have thought. It is just possible Matt Stone may have phrased it just right when he wrote, “. . . the Petersen Automotive Museum will remain a viable, tangible, emblematic reminder of who (the Petersens) were, what they did, and what they loved.”  

Both books are nicely produced in terms of bindings, page appearance, paper, and image reproduction. But as the statistics for each indicate, paper thus finished bound sizes have changed a bit as has overall page count. Still published nearly a decade apart each (ironically?) has the same list price.


Copyright 2018, Helen V Hutchings (

Hot Rod Empire
Robert E. Petersen and the Creation of the World’s Most Popular Car and Motorcycle Magazines
by Matt Stone with Gigi Carleton
Motorbooks, imprint of Quarto Publishing Group, 2018
208 pages, 112 color & 115 b/w images, hardcover
List Price: $35
ISBN 13: 978 0 7603 6069 9


Fifty Years of Motor Trend
The Editors of Motor Trend Magazine
Motorbooks International (MBI), 1999
180 pages, 158 color & 73 b/w images, hardcover
List Price: $35
ISBN-13: 978-0760307816

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