– Robert E. Petersen, 80, founder of Hot Rod
and Motor Trend
magazines and benefactor of the Petersen Automotive Museum passed away March 23, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. after a short battle with neuroendocrine cancer. He 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.
“Mr. Petersen helped create and feed the American obsession with the automobile, delivering gasoline-powered dreams to the mailboxes of millions,” said Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “He understood the thrill that an average person could get from seeing and reading about horsepower as an art form.”
A native of Southern California, Petersen’s mother passed away when he was 10, leaving him with his Danish-immigrant father, who worked as a truck and equipment mechanic. As a young man he picked up his father’s skills, learning to weld, de-coke engines, and hone his fascination with cars.
After graduating from Barstow High School in the 1940s, he moved to Los Angeles, working at MGM studios as a messenger boy. Following service in the Army Air Corps toward the end of Word War II, Petersen, an independent publicist immersed in the burgeoning customized auto culture of California, was instrumental in creating the first hot-rod show at the Los Angeles Armory. To help establish the event, in January 1948, he launched Hot Rod magazine, and sold the magazine at local speedways for 25 cents a copy. Motor Trend, a more upscale publication for production car enthusiasts, and dozens of other titles aimed at specialty automotive segments soon followed.
Petersen spent decades as chairman of the Board of Petersen Publishing Company, which was at one time America’s leading publisher of special-interest consumer magazines and books before its sale to private investors in August 1996. Among its other titles are Teen, Sport, Rod & Custom, and Guns & Ammo. He also headed a variety of other businesses including ammunition manufacturing, real estate development, and aviation services.
Petersen is survived by his wife, Margie. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made to the Petersen Automotive Museum or the charity of the person’s choice in his honor. Funeral mass will be held Thurs., March 29, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Calif.