By Spencer Murray, Founding Editor
R&C scored a number of firsts during its early years, including the first Chevy V-8 engine swap, the first customizing how-tos, and the first project car, which became the R&C Dream Truck. We introduced go-karting and saw it become a full-fledged motorsport just as we did with dune buggies which grew into off-road racing. However, we admit to taking second place in starting what is now called a "little pages" magazine. The honor goes to Hop Up , which pioneered the concept with its initial issue in July 1951 (not August, which is the date the magazine collectors and swap-meet vendors want you to believe.)
Spence Murray's '49 Chevy,...
Spence Murray's '49 Chevy, groomed by early customizer Link Paola, was instrumental in getting R&C's Founding Editor his job at Hop Up magazine in 1953 and would wow 'em even a half-century later with a top chop, Merc grille shell, frenched lights, dechroming, and exterior exhaust.
From the origin of RODS AND CUSTOMS (pluralized block letters for the original May '53 issue only, then the singular block/script combo with ampersand that you now see, 600 months later), here's R&C's chronology.
Our roots go back to Road & Track , which covered foreign sports cars and European racing and was first issued in June 1947, but didn't become monthly until January 1950. Meanwhile, in January 1948, Hot Rod Magazine appeared, from what would become Petersen Publishing, to concern itself with, of course, hot rodding which seemed more appealing than foreign cars. The Road & Track folks recognized this growing interest in hopped-up iron and wanted to take advantage of it, but instead of mixing rods with sporty cars in the one magazine, they started a new title, Hop Up , born in July 1951 with reduced-size pages for economy and priced at 15 cents or $1.50 per year. The first printing was very small to test sales, but it quickly sold out and was reprinted with the cover date changed to August and one page revised (a collector should have both issues).
Things went along well enough until financial problems loomed in 1952. Bill Quinn, Road & Track ad manager and minor shareholder, feared the worst, so he traded his shares in the company for the rights to Hop Up and moved to the building next door, taking with him Artist/Writer Lou Kimsey, Photographer Ralph Poole, and Dean Batchelor who had been with Hop Up since the April '52 issue (Did I say building? It was a small bungalow with a living room, two bedrooms, one bath, and the kitchen converted to a darkroom). Hop Up 's first Quinn issue was dated July 1952.
So far so good. But how do I fit in? I'd been a rod/custom guy since year one--since 1943, really, as co-owner of a couple street rods: in 1943 with a Carson-topped '41 Ford and in 1944 with a ditto Chevy which boasted the lead work of early customizer Link Paola at Link's Custom Shop near Glendale, California. After the war he fitted my '46 Chevy with full-length fenders, and while these cars were all nice, they were just mild customs. I wanted something more radical, so I went to work for Link after he agreed to cut up my new '49 Chevy during spare shop time in exchange for my working after regular hours sanding cars and driving the tow truck. We chopped the two-door's top, dechromed it, radically lowered it, and worked up a Merc grille shell with Plymouth bars. I entered it in the 3rd Annual Oakland Roadster Show in February 1952 where it took Second Place to Joe Bailon's '41 Chevy, "Miss Elegance." Batchelor saw my car at the show, and Poole photographed it for Hop Up 's June '52 issue.
Then I entered another show, this time in Indianapolis, which ran during the week before the 500-mile race. Batchelor thought the long trip in a tail-dragging custom would make a dandy story and sent Poole with me to shoot photos along the way. The result was "6000 Miles in a Custom" (Hop Up , September 1952), which Batchelor had me write and inspired him to ask if I'd like to work with him full-time.
Fifty years separate these...
Fifty years separate these shots of Spence, spanning the time between our first issue in May 1953 and the one you're now holding. He's a lifelong member of both the Grand National Hall of Fame and the KKOA and has authored eight books and over 1,500 magazine articles.
What rod/custom fan could refuse the offer! For a full $35 a week, yet! I started in January 1953 and was listed as Hop Up 's Associate Editor in the April issue. So it can be said my Paola-customized Chevy lifted me from bodyshop gofer to the pinnacle of automotive success.
Work started at 8:30, not 8:31, and went to 5:00, not 4:49. Lunch was 30 minutes from exactly noon, so we had to brown-bag it or eat in a hurry at the corner hot dog stand.
There were no expense accounts, no mileage allowance, and no company car. And to cover car shows or the drags of dry lakes on weekends--even to go to Bonneville--we were on our own. When the boss was away, he'd lock our two phones so we couldn't run up the bill chatting with friends. My job was to write photo captions for Hop Up and help our secretary, Mabel, type mailing labels for subscriber copies (on one of the two company typewriters).
Hop Up turned out to be only marginally successful financially. There were two problems: 1) Newsstands were reluctant to stock a magazine whose size made it hard to display and easy to pilfer. 2) Big advertisers had little interest in low-circulation, localized magazines. Solution? Make Hop Up full-sized and include general industry coverage. March 1953 marked the first issue of the enlarged magazine, and it generated a ton of mail. Half the letters applauded the upgrade, but the others wanted to keep the small size, which fit into a pants' pocket, glovebox, or textbook.
Whenever Spence's Chevy paused...
Whenever Spence's Chevy paused on its trek between Indiana and California, resulting in "6000 Miles in a Custom" for Hop Up magazine in 1952, it always drew attention. Dig the long skirts, saddle shoes and hairdos of the early '50s, somewhere in the Mid-West.
To keep everyone happy Hop Up remained full-sized, and we started a little-pages companion which, for lack of anything better, we called simply RODS AND CUSTOMS . It bore the date May 1953 with me as editor (only because everyone else was busy with the new Hop Up ) and cost 25 cents for its 66 pages, or $2 a year. The first few issues were scraped together with unused Hop Up material, full-page salon photos of cars featured in earlier issues, and a few pinup girls for good measure. All of us (six, counting Mabel) worked on both magazines, and dry-lakes guru Barney Navarro, who produced Ford Flathead speed equipment up the street, become out tech guy and swapped his input for ad space. I kept writing Hop Up captions and typing labels.
Then a couple of things happened: The guys at Petersen, who had started Detroit-oriented Motor Trend in September 1949 as a companion to Hot Rod Magazine, got wind of the coming R&C and brought out their own little-pages, Honk! , "The Voice of the Motoring World." It also bowed for May 1953, but R&C beat it to the newsstand by a week. Next, Quinn was jealous of Petersen's address at 5959 Hollywood Blvd. He felt that magical name gave a magazine more prestige than did our Glendale suburb, just over the hill. So one day he announced he'd found office space at 4949 Hollywood Blvd., no less! (He hoped to get wayward Petersen mail, but the postman was sharper than that.) Another event was the change of Hop Up 's name to Motor Life to give it more dignity against rival Motor Trend . At the same time Petersen's little Honk! became the full-size Car Craft .
A shift in our fortunes followed a brief move nearer downtown Los Angeles when, one Friday in 1955, we said our usual weekend goodbyes. Then, on Monday, Robert E. Petersen himself greeted us and said he'd bought Quinn Publications; R&C, Motor Life , and each of us were now his property! The first R&C for Petersen was July 1955, and we moved into 5959 Hollywood Blvd., as one big, happy, multi-magazine family. Motor Life later merged with Motor Trend and any vestiges of Hop Up were gone. But R&C had soldiered on, as you all know. I had put the first 72 issues together and took a hiatus following the April '59 edition, but I returned once more as editor after R&C became full-sized in August 1961. But that's another story for another time.
R&C has enjoyed four corporate owners, many editors, and dozens of staffers over the years. All have been as dedicated to the rod and custom fraternity as we were a half-century ago, and all of us bask in the glow of the magazine's unrivaled success. So after a long but eventful five decades, Happy 50th Anniversary, R&C!