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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Roads to Riches : Robert Petersen has turned his devotion for cars, guns and motorcycles into magazines --and millions. His advice to others? Be eager and ready to take it in the face once in a while.

August 27, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a chairman's aerie aloof above Los Angeles, there's a shelf with a sentimental spot for a black, cast-iron, upright Underwood typewriter. Its keys are grimy from half a century of fingertips; ribbon dried to brittle, oil to gum. But in its day it smoked. Press releases headed for Hedda Hopper. Biographies of Prince Sua and his Royal Samoans, and stories for the first issue of Hot Rod magazine.

All written by Robert Petersen.

On the same shelf is a photograph of a new building glittering as only Los Angeles does. Searchlights into space. Limo lines streaking reds, ambers, gold lame and chrome bringing the mayor and millionaires to an opening.

Of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

But Robert Einar Petersen, 68, in the withdrawn way he brings to the few interviews he allows, acknowledges nothing unusual in his transition. Sure, he says, it takes luck and timing to ride a beater of a typewriter to a $15-million piece of your own museum in four decades. But nothing really extraordinary.

And this modest millionaire shrugs, looks aside at any suggestion of something inspirational in his biography--a kid from East L.A. who left Barstow Union High School at 15, scraped plates at Henry Wolverton's Home Cafe for 25 an hour, didn't go to college but became one of America's richest men anyway.

"There is a Horatio Alger award, you know, and they once talked to me about that," he says. "I said no. I don't believe in these things."

He also doesn't believe much in introspection or attempts to intellectualize his successes at publishing, real estate, charter aviation and the toughest slog of all: Life.

"I don't have any profound messages," he says. "I think the best thing is to have an eagerness about everything you do . . . always be involved in some new deal.

"And be ready to take it in the face once in a while."

He confesses no lofty vision, no prefabricated goal to founding and forming Petersen Publishing into a magazine factory of 77 periodicals with 45 million monthly readers. Hot Rod, of course. 'Teen. Motor Trend. Guns & Ammo. Skin Diver and Sassy. All Petersen publications. All solely owned.

Again the understatement: "About the only secret is catching [a trend] while it's growing, and get in fast. When it starts slowing, get out. But there's no magic thing, a lot is guesswork."

He is quietly satisfied with the $42-million Petersen Building, a 20-story editorial central for the magazines and new to Wilshire Boulevard. And Petersen Aviation, which chartered jets to a campaigning Bill Clinton, a serving Pete Wilson, a trysting Whoopi Goldberg and a fleeing Hugh Grant.

He scuba-dives off Fiji with Cousteau. After Peter Ueberroth insisted, Petersen agreed to be commissioner of shooting events for the 1984 Olympics. He is a denizen of Old Hollywood--long-term friend of Hugh O'Brian and Debbie Reynolds--who threw one of the last free-flowing chili parties closing Chasen's.

Maybe more remarkable for Petersen's rich environment and accompanying temptations: He has been married only once, to model Margie McCall for 32 years.

This very ordinary Petersen cherishes 40-year friendships and has a dozen. He talks more about collecting Colt firearms than gathering money. His escapes are wildlife art, fine automobiles, target shooting two-inch groups, and cruising his 65-foot Tollycraft to Avalon.

Also the view from his penthouse office.

Because on a clear day, panning right from the Pacific across the Hollywood sign to East Los Angeles, he sees everything he was.

Over there, on Melrose, was his one-room apartment that trebled as an office and after-work beer joint. The couch made into a bed and he would "get up in the morning, pull the thing up, the secretary would come in and that would be our office."

See the red billboard? Olympic and La Cienega, site of a second office where Petersen auditioned staff for a motorcycle magazine.

"We'd have them ride around the service station," he remembers. "If they made two laps, they were hired. Once in a while someone wiped out the pumps."

There, on Hollywood Boulevard, next to what used to be Grauman's Chinese. That's where Petersen opened Hollywood Motorama museum. And on Sunset, the KTLA studios where he helped produce the nation's first television car program, "featuring Roy Maypole, live from the alley."

There was no Petersen Publishing in those days, just Hot Rod Inc., which evolved into Motor Trend Inc. Even in those late '50s, the magazines were doing well and Petersen's success earned a visit from his old high school principal, the late Vincent B. Claypool.

"I'll never forget him," remembers the publisher. "He stuck out his hand and said: 'I knew you'd be the No. 1 guy, I always knew you'd make it.' "

Petersen ordered Claypool out of his office.

What he had never forgotten was leaving Barstow Union High and hearing Claypool tell final assembly that Bob Petersen was one student least likely to succeed.

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