By Toby Brooks
Thursday was a bad day if you’re into cool cars.
The newly formed The Enthusiasts Network (TEN) limped from the smoldering ashes of Source Interlink Media and announced its plans for the future. In the process, a dozen prominent automotive magazine titles were shuttered and more than 6,000 folks lost their jobs. Among those now-defunct publications, none stung more to me than the loss of Popular Hot Rodding.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, pro street was at its zenith. I clearly remember trips to a local grocery store when my mom would shop and I would browse. While she examined apples and selected from available varieties of potato chips, I poured over the latest issues of Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Popular Hot Rodding.
To my ten-year-old eyes, I could tell that PHR was somehow different from Hot Rod and Car Craft and also somehow similar to my dad’s favorite, Super Chevy. It would be several years before I had heard names like Petersen Publications, Argus Publishers, or Source Interlink Media and their connection to those perceived differences.
At the time, it wasn’t uncommon to see the same car featured in two or even all three publications in the same month. Titles jockeyed to be the one to debut the hot new builds before their competition. There was no need to “define a niche” or cater to a specific subset of the custom car scene. There was more than enough advertising revenue, annual subscribers, and general interest in hot rodding to go around. As such, all three mags gave me what I loved most: Pro Street.
However, as pro street began to decline in popularity in the mid-’90s, a dramatic shift in the publishing world also began in earnest. The internet age was upon us and with it, the slow but predictable decline in print media’s command of the information throne. Printing a magazine takes time and money—two things that are of little consequence in a digital age.
Photographic artists who were names I knew by heart at the age of 12—Steve Reyes, David Fetherston, and Randy Lorentzen—were paired with equally adept editorial craftsmen like John Baechtel, Jeff Smith, Jon Asher, Cam Benty and countless others. The titles were birthed, owned, and operated by renaissance-caliber creators who were just as capable rebuilding a Holley double pumper or replacing a set of points as they were cranking out a quality publication month in and month out.
However, just as technology rendered carburation and points-style ignition nearly obsolete, it slowly began doing the same thing to my beloved print media.
Thursday was a bad day if you’re into car magazines.
Advertisers began realizing that more organic forms of connecting with their customers were not only cheaper, but oftentimes more effective. Making matters worse (at least financially), cash cow accounts like alcohol and tobacco were no longer allowed in print. Former multi-page advertisers like Performance Automotive Wholesale and Midwest Auto Specialties went under, leaving a void that few have attempted to replace. And the advent of the internet also made those multipage ads obsolete. Why pay thousands of dollars per month to post a fraction of your inventory when you can post it in its entirety on your website for next to nothing?
Over time, title after title was gobbled up by SIM. Likely due in large part to declining sales and a need to reduce redundancy, Hot Rod differentiated itself as more of a—you guessed it—hot rod and street rod oriented title, while Car Craft catered to later-model street machines and Popular Hot Rodding gravitated toward the offshoot of pro street, pro touring.
So despite its place as THE magazine for the pro touring scene, circulation of 111,000 issues per month, more than two million Facebook fans, and a continuous run of 52 years in business, PHR died an unceremonious death on May 29, 2014. It was a “business decision.”
She deserved better, friends.
“Yes, its business to those who see it that way. To me this is something else—a very black day for many people who have invested their lives into something only to have it destroyed with the swipe of the pen,” wrote legendary automotive journalist Jeff Smith. “To those of us who have toiled over the right words, these people and the titles they put their mark upon deserve better. There is a soul that is being discarded here—not just paper and ink,” he concluded.
When I was a kid, my walls were literally papered with images of cars cut from the pages of those magazines. As an elementary school student, I got called into the principal’s office for duping the substitute librarian into selling me an issue of Hot Rod for the required amount (10 cents) before the new issue came as was normal policy. Several of my friends would regularly race to the library to try and tree all those who wanted to take home the issue.
These days, my son, age seven, shows a passing interest in cars. His school doesn’t subscribe to any car magazines. He doesn’t have any pictures of cars on his wall that I didn’t put there.
So, fellow dinosaurs, if you woke up this morning mourning the loss of a once-great empire like I did, then you aren’t alone.
In the cult classic film The Shawshank Redemption, lifetime inmate Brooks Hatlen is finally freed near the end of his life. He writes to the only friends he knows—those made behind bars—that “the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Truer words have never been spoken. In the process, the world has steadily lost sight of some of the things that matter most.
For the past several months, we at TUBBED have been planning to bring you more of what you miss: custom automotive journalism from ‘rodders by ‘rodders. We are excited about a number of cool new features and ideas that we will introduce soon.
But I’ll be honest. Thursday was a bad day if you’re into cool cars.