Backstage Past: Streamliners, Customs, Race Cars, and Hollywood Stars Made 1959 Memorable

If you could see the hundreds of rejected 1959 images currently covering our cutting-room floor (digital version), you’d be shocked and awed; shocked by the volume and awed by the variety. You’d be forgiven for wondering aloud why 34 others made it to print instead. Heck, who wouldn’t?

No two humans granted access to the massive film collection compiled by late publisher Robert E. Petersen could be expected to make identical choices. Going in, we’d advise an aspiring editor to bury any and all biases about racing types and organizations, vehicle makes and models, heroes and villains, other personalities, aftermarket companies, engine designs, magazines and their staffers. He or she would be reminded that many mature HOT ROD Deluxe readers made firsthand automotive memories during 1959 (though not your correspondent, who turned 10 that October, nor editor Hardin, who turned 2 that August).

While the objective of this series is to share never-before-seen scenes alongside the mugs of the lucky Petersen photographers and writers who worked behind the scenes during one calendar year, what three-dozen such photos would most appeal to most of you (thus encouraging nice reader mail and subscription renewals)? How many artists and entertainers should steal space from steel subjects? Rods or customs? Open-wheeled versus full-fendered? Shouldn’t some space be made for significant shops and shows? Don’t forget the drag bikes and dream cars. How about this killer action from Indy, Daytona, Bonneville, Sebring, and Pomona? Or a tortuous road test of Detroit’s hottest 1959 iron?

Petersen’s in-house photo lab processed more than 3,000 rolls of black-and-white film between January 4 and December 31. Most rolls contained 12 exposures (though the compact, versatile 35mm format’s 24- and 36-frame rolls appear more frequently as the racing season progresses). Of these 50,000-odd individual images, your editor has room for 34, no more. He’s also got a deadline with an inflexible Midwestern printer whose giant presses will roll right on time, ready or not, little HOT ROD Deluxe. You’d better get busy.

That’s just the fun part. The hard part is research—not the unreliable kind done online, either. You can’t beat 60-year-old paper and ink, particularly the monthlies published by Petersen. All too often, though, a person, place, or thing that shows up on old film in the archive never did show up in a magazine, forcing modern-day editors to reject interesting images for want of caption material, rather than commit publishing’s mortal sin of omission. Another, more common cause for rejection is prior publication. In most of the latter cases, at least one scanned outtake can be found to surprise and amaze even those readers who have seemingly memorized every photo in every issue since 1948 (e.g., invaluable HRD contributor Greg Sharp).

Indeed, unpublished outtakes buried in the archive vastly outnumber the photos printed in Petersen periodicals and other, so-called “special interest publications” (yearbooks, pictorials, how-to compilations, and so on.). Film was relatively inexpensive; printing and binding and storing and mailing never have been. Then, as now, the number of editorial pages in print magazines is largely determined by projected combined revenue from subscriptions, newsstand sales, and advertising. Because so many of you good people support this one, we’re getting space in 2019 to tell a 1959 story. These 34 frames will hopefully be as enjoyable to view as they were painful to pick.

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