Part 5: One wrecked dream and lots of celebrities stand out in 1958.
It should come as no surprise that photojournalists chasing interesting people, places, and things would lead interesting lives, themselves. Some of their shared experiences were documented on film that no Petersen staffer expected to ever be seen outside of the photo lab, recorded for internal entertainment only. Six decades further down the road, however, such outtakes glisten like gold amongst familiar, published negatives. Often, what determines whether or not such a nugget is selected for these pages is the story behind it—or lack thereof. We strive not only to identify who’s in a shot, but also why the credited staff writer or photographer deemed the particular scene worthy of fully 1/12 of that roll of mediumformat, 12-shot film. Perhaps only that one person can say—or would’ve said, had we gotten to him in time. Those roving reporters were mostly in their mid-to-late twenties or thirties, already. Add 60 years, and it’s easy to understand why a tempting image might be rejected today only because its shooter either can’t remember or, more commonly, took that inside information to his grave. (Much of this installment’s photography is the work of the late Eric Rickman, whom historians haven’t been able to pester since 2009.)
Luckily for HOT ROD Deluxe and y’all, Spence Murray and Bob D’olivo are still around, able, and willing to suffer dumb questions about obscure images that neither had seen since their film was processed and proofed in 1958. The irony of using modern technology to digitize, share, and identify ancient negatives that belatedly appear here as black dots on paper—same as ever—is not lost on either nonagenarian. Though Rod & Custom’s founding editor has been physically slowed by strokes that hinder typing, wife Carolyn expertly transmitted Spence’s memories of building,
driving, touring, and crashing the Dream Truck. The same month he crashed into a Kansas ditch, D’olivo bumped into Jill St. John at Riverside Raceway. Along with Bob’s four frames of the actress, we noticed Motor Trend’s main photographer was shooting some 35mm film, instead of the larger formats used almost exclusively by Robert E. Petersen and his hirelings since the start. Mature readers will recall that the smaller, lighter, single-lens-reflex (SLR) design was as nearly as revolutionary in its time as Apple’s camera phone became. For this issue, the longtime Petersen photographic director listed the advantages of 35 mm for race coverage.
Another thing that this latest round of archive research uncovered was an unprecedented number of entertainers and other celebrities not normally associated with our hobby. Stateside interest in sports-car racing was booming, especially now that underdog Corvettes and Thunderbirds dared to challenge European exoticars. Entertainment figures had been associated with hot rod shows since the very first one, in 1948, for which young Robert E. Petersen lined up some B-list beefcake to lure wives and girlfriends to the Los Angeles Armory (while Pete peddled the Jan. ’48 HOT ROD outside). Relationships created during and after his postwar stint as a Hollywood agent would increasingly bring those worlds together in Petersen-produced magazines, promotions, indoor shows, and special events. Thus does his incomparable photo collection contain a unique combination of show-biz and automotive milestones, along with mug shots of the employees who documented them. Many more examples await discovery. We can hardly wait to peek behind the curtain at 1959’s outtakes, next, before blasting into the ’60s.
> Of approximately 3 million black-and-white negatives in the Petersen archive, this one was surely among the most mutually painful for an editor and his audience. Through five years and four custom iterations, Rod & Custom readers were encouraged to submit suggestions for modifications that would be performed in the magazine, then seen in person at the 47 car shows across America that featured the Dream Truck. Its 48th would’ve been Iowa’s 1958 International Motor Sports Show, had the tow vehicle’s left-rear tire lasted just 60 more miles. Editor Spencer Murray and helper Jim “Buzzie” Blair escaped uninjured. The new-model Chevy Fleetside with custom Barris grille and paint also survived. In fact, after a wrecker yanked the shiny side up, Spence drove it the rest of the way to Des Moines at the request of a nervous show promoter whose patrons were expecting to meet the editor and see a customized California pickup. (If any of you attendees took pictures of the damaged pickup on display, we’d love to share them in HRD.) Murray briefly referred to the October 21st incident in his Jan. and Feb. ’59 editions—the last two installments of a series that established the formula for longterm magazine projects. The Dream Truck appeared in too many R&CS to list here, starting with Sept. ’53. (Also see Mar. ’58 HOT ROD; July & Oct. ’58 Motor Life.) The pre-crash ’58 Fleetside mild custom got a spread of its own in R&C’S Jan. ’59 truck issue.