“Motorcycle magazines were created for their staffs to have fun!” That assertion, from then-Editor Dale Boller, was the reason I came to work at Motorcyclist in late 1978. It expressed a philosophy that not only made the job attractive, but also made a perfect mission statement.
Motorcyclist's 1981 staff tour was rain-soaked from start to finish. Here, staffers debat
Still, my choice must have seemed bizarre. The magazine I left was bigger and profitable, unlike Motorcyclist, which was losing substantial sums. Furthermore, Honda’s ad agency was aggressively recruiting me, with an offer five times what Motorcyclist paid. But that seemed paltry if it meant spending days creating ad slogans for motorcycles rather that riding and writing about them. The magazine I was leaving had an uncertain philosophy, but having fun wasn’t part of it.
The editor’s saddle had changed butts with unsettling regularity since Petersen Publishing had acquired Motorcyclist seven years prior. The offices were dumpy and crowded. (I regarded that old building on Sunset Boulevard, once Howard Hughes’ hideaway, as a “creative environment.”) The biggest problem was that Motorcyclist, as one major advertiser remarked, was “sixth in a three-book field.”
I had known Dale and new Publisher Richard Lague for a few years and thought they could create a successful magazine, particularly if they saw having fun as the way to do it. I was in!
I immediately persuaded Dale to let me organize a cross-country comparison tour to Daytona Beach, Florida. Touring was hot, and shaft-drive bikes were arriving from all corners. I thought this would be a great way to do a thorough test. Dale didn’t really believe that we could pull it off, but we delivered the story and the issue on time, and in the process started a fun new tradition: the annual staff tour.
Another rising category, cruisers, was more problematic. The industry was selling them like addictive hotcakes, but Motorcyclist wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon. In those days cruisers were mostly restyled versions of conventional models, and they didn’t work as well as the bikes on which they were based. Manufacturers sometimes had trouble understanding why we printed such hurtful things about their tepid “customs.” This resolved itself somewhat when manufacturers began to create purpose-built cruisers, starting in ’81 with Yamaha’s Virago. Of course by that time Yamaha was convinced we hated cruisers and refused to loan us a testbike, so we had to buy one.
Dale Boller departed in ’80, and I reluctantly took the editor’s job. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would understand the whole “having-fun” concept.
My misgivings only increased when company president Fred Waingrow opened the first meeting I attended by looking at the financials and asking, “Why do we even have this magazine?” At least I knew the question we had to answer!
I was blessed with a great combination of people and circumstances. I shared Dale’s attitude that only guys who rode fast could tell you how a bike behaved, and Jeff Karr and Ken Vreeke were as fast or faster than any magazine staffer in the country. Joe Minton was unmatched in his knowledge of how to make a motorcycle work better. Our efforts to inform readers about riding smarter were boosted by the arrival of the Hurt Report, the first (and, unfortunately, still the only) comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes. This provided unprecedented information for riders interested in safety, but most of the other magazines gave it very little play.
On the final night of our 1979 cross-country staff tour, Jeff Karr got some bad menudo, re
We began to get some traction in ’81. In particular, the February issue—which debuted the Kawasaki GPz550, harbinger of the sportbike revolution—was well-received. The next year was even more memorable, as Honda and Yamaha geared up for war with new turbos, cruisers, tourers and revolutionary engines, most notably the first V4s. As the April issue was about to go to press late on a Friday afternoon, Honda called to say that the 750 Sabre was ready and we could pick it up on Monday morning. “Could we get it today?” I asked. “If you get here by closing,” was the answer. I got a speeding ticket on the way, but by Monday morning we had put 2000 miles on the bike, and the issue went out with a comprehensive test—and a new cover. That PO’ed the corporate higher-ups, but they shut up when that issue became the best-selling motorcycle magazine in 30 years, with newsstands sales of just under 130,000 units!
I celebrated by trying to give up the editor’s job and returning to a staff position. For better or worse, that only lasted four months.
Our next big pitch came in ’82. Waingrow gathered the company brain-trust, mostly car guys, to hear our proposal. Their view went something like this: “So, just when your magazine—after 10 years here—is finally showing a little momentum, you want to eliminate half your audience by covering only streetbikes? How can that possibly make sense?!”
Almost to a man, they turned thumbs-down on the idea. Waingrow thanked them and dismissed them, presumably to spare us the embarrassment of them hearing what he had to say. Instead he told us, “Okay, I’m going to give you enough rope to hang yourselves.” So Motorcyclist celebrated its 71st anniversary with the declaration: “Now All Street!”
It should have been a rough time. The bottom dropped out of the new-bike market in ’82, and the slump lasted into the ’90s. The bigger magazines were primarily testing new motorcycles; however, we realized that even in good years, the vast majority of sales were of used bikes. We reasoned that lots of readers wanted to know how to maintain, improve, ride and enjoy their motorcycles, which weren’t necessarily the latest and hottest. There were lots of ways to have fun with them, and we pumped up that content. Comparisons became our preferred method of testing new models—they answered more questions and took less space per bike. Our circulation began to grow steadily. Even though the motorcycle manufacturers were advertising less, the aftermarket liked what we were doing and supported us.
It was a good time to be a performance-loving enthusiast at a motorcycle magazine. Manufacturers were finally realizing the potential of sportbikes. Newer, faster and more exotic models arrived every year. Readers often suspect that editors are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them, but that was never the case at Motorcyclist. The manufacturers understood that if we called one model a “little pile,” glowing remarks about another carried more weight. On a few occasions, a manufacturer withheld testbikes or advertising dollars, but those rarely lasted and had no significant effect with circulation growing.
By Motorcyclist’s 75th anniversary in ’87, the magazine had shed its also-ran status. It was frequently the best-selling American motorcycle magazine on newsstands, was solidly profitable and enjoying critical success. That issue, with an expanded page count and special historical section, was another blockbuster, the second best-selling issue of the last 30 years. The cover featured a reader’s project bike. Of course, James Parker wasn’t just any reader, and his MC2 was a proof-of-concept vehicle for his RADD front-suspension design, later adopted on the ’93 Yamaha GTS1000. Today, James is a Motorcyclist columnist.
Of all the people I worked with during 35 years at motorcycle publications, no one ever held a candle to Jeff Karr. Smart, thoughtful, analytical, an exceptional rider and writer, wonderful company and unrelentingly funny, he, as much as anything else, was responsible for Motorcyclist’s staff having fun as well as being successful. So it was a real blow when, in ’88, he was lured to our “sister” car magazine, Motor Trend. No one missed him more after his shift to “the dark side” than me. Fortunately, he continues to pen Motorcyclist’s “Last Page.”
The magazine continued to prosper, however, while some of our formerly more successful competitors withered and folded. By the ’90s, we could comfortably claim to be the biggest streetbike magazine in the world.
When you're having that much fun, it's tempting to forget that motorcycling can be dangerous. Don’t! One day, new editorial staffer Will Higgs became a statistic. Having a friend and colleague die doing something you love is crushing, and it kind of took my heart out of the job. Add the pressure to spend more time on management and less time riding and writing, and it was time for a change. Fortunately, when I stepped down to Senior Editor I got to hire my own boss in Mitch Boehm.
I could turn over the reins with no apologies. Motorcyclist was now the second-largest U.S. motorcycle magazine, and we’d put more than $6 million in Mr. Petersen’s pockets in my 14th year, and last as editor. Add in another $4 million from spin-off Dirt Rider and we’d answered Fred Waingrow’s question about why the magazine existed.
I remained on the Motorcyclist staff full-time for a couple more years, until I moved over to run our next spin-off, Motorcycle Cruiser. After 28 years with Motorcyclist and its sister publications, I retired in ’06.
It was a fun ride.
You can reach Art Friedman at artofthe firstname.lastname@example.org. Today he lives, rides and flies out of Santa Paula Airport.