Motor Mouth: “Hot Rod” magazine has become immortal

Every page of every issue of America’s oldest magazine will soon be available online, for free

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Long before — in fact just two years before, but when you’re only 11, nine it’s been so long — I discovered motorcycling, I was a hot rod magazine fanatic. Images of tired Chevelles doing glorious burnouts on a drag strip, Deuce Coupes roaming the salt in Bonneville, and slamming Ford F-100s prowling the sunny streets of California were outrageous for a boy from northern Quebec. town whose main street was not yet paved. It was a fairy tale that I lived once a month when hot rod on the shelves of Beaulieu’s smoking on Laura Blvd. One day I dreamed that it would be all mine.

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What really got my engine going, however, were all the tech articles in the magazine. To the budding geek—and, yes, at nine, I already had my first pocket protector—focused on internal combustion, hot rod was a privileged source of information. I learned the basics of valve clearance, the wonders of Plastigauge (which measures main bearing clearances), and the basics (I was only nine, after all) of camshaft lobe centers from of its pages.

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A few things still eluded me. I didn’t quite understand how ignition coils worked – age didn’t, as I had hoped, make it any easier; my lack of understanding of electromagnetism in third year ‘helped’ me move on to majoring in mechanical engineering about 10 years later – and for my life I probably still couldn’t rebuild a Stromberg carburetor if my life depended on it. But the magazine’s concise and clear explanations filled my brain with visions of one day designing my own outrageous engines, and remain the model I use to approach automotive technical explanations.

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Even after two wheels took over four in my heart – and I gave up Driver, automotive trend, et al from my reading list – I always went through every issue of hot rod when he hit the newsstand. The articles were so informative that while a V8 pushrod had next to nothing in common with an overhead twin-cam four, the theories espoused in those pages were the best insight into internal combustion technology available in print journalism. I learned how to adjust the ignition timing on my first bike, a glorious Honda CT70 minibike, thanks to something I learned in hot rod. Ditto for his first valve clearance check.

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Even after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, I was still learning from hot rod. I started using wideband oxygen sensors to calibrate bicycle carburetors long before motorcycle builders discovered the wonders of digital tuning, and once even grafted a Haltech electronic fuel injection system onto a Laverda RGS1000 – surely the first and, I suppose, the last time it was ever attempted – from what I gleaned from the pages of hot rod about aftermarket EFI systems for cars. (And, by the way, this business has grown so much that today you can buy a system from Autotrend that perfectly emulates the throttle bodies of stock Rochester carburetors so your restore rod looks like perfectly vintage.)

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The point of this somewhat endless diatribe is that the journalism that has honored Hot Rods pages formed the technical elements that I write today. Without their model — and the world famous one Cycle magazine too – I could never have become editor of Canadian auto trade, a tech magazine written for mechanics, which served as my springboard into full-fledged automotive journalism. The thing is, there’s a direct connection to Robert E. Petersen — hot rod was the premier title in the once-dominant Petersen publishing empire – until today Motor Mouth.

That’s why I’m thrilled that these dog-eared pages will live on in memoriam. 2023 being the 75e birthday hot rod – it was first published and sold at the Hot Rod Show in Los Angeles in 1948 – MotorTrend Group has announced that it will offer, free of charge, digitized versions of every issue produced during those glorious 75 years . Each article has been reproduced, each image scanned.

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So will we have photos of founding publisher Wally Parks – the man who started the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) – tinkering with four-wheeled toys, articles detailing Autolite’s attempt to take Bonneville by storm with battery-powered “Lead Wedge” sound (lead-acid). and more details you never wanted to know about GM’s original 427 cubic inch ZL-1 monster V8.

You can even read all about – and I must admit I missed this in December 1968 – Dick Smothers, of the famous comedy duo Smothers Brothers, producing a sound history of American racing on vinyl record. We’re talking over 900 issues in all and, according to current editor John McGann, an incredible 128,000 pages of content.

You can bet I’ll be one of the first to access the archives. The greatest treasure of historical automobile mechanics is unveiled on Tuesday, November 1.


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