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The 200 Club – 200 covers, zero conclusions

Published in blog.hemmings.com

I shot this special-paint 300D a decade ago and, other than remaining on friendly terms with its owner (who no longer owns it, btw) I remember little about it. He did recently remind me that it was a special-order paint-code car; the original color was a sort of blah golden tan, so when the owners redid it in the early part of the 2000s, they went with another available Chrysler color on the palatte. I have to say, I agree with their choice. Photography by the author.

The October, 2019 issue of Hemmings Classic Car (featuring a blue ’58 Chrysler 300-D) represents a personal career milestone: it is my 200th cover for the Hemmings family of old-car magazines.

The idea that my work has managed to be chosen so often, in my nearly sixteen years with Hemmings, is humbling; I consider myself lucky that the editors have sufficient trust in what I do that they allow my images to be the face of their magazine, in hundreds of thousands of homes nationwide and on increasingly competitive newsstands. I’m grateful to them for their confidence in me, and I’m equally grateful to the guys and gals in the art department, past and present, who nip and tuck my images here and there (and occasionally make new pictures from whole cloth) to make my work look its best.

Every cover is a gift, and most end up a surprise; the editors generally refrain from telling me whether I’ve scored a cover or not until I see it for myself, when the magazine arrives from the printer. (Living about 2500 miles from Hemmings World HQ in Bennington, Vermont, helps keep things quiet.) I have little say in what ends up on the cover; I’m greedy enough that they’d ALL be my photos on the cover if I had my way, but mercifully that’s not how things work.

Back before the recent call to add European cars to the pages of Hemmings Classic Car, it occured to me that Hemmings Motor News was the only spot for American cars and foreign cars to appear together, in the same story. What’s more, Editor McNessor had enough pages to devote to a thorough examination of whatever pair I’d conjure up. Though I’m pleased with the bulk of the comparisons I did in this regard, this was probably my favorite pairing. I’d long believed that the Porsche 928 was the greatest GT car of the last quarter of the 20th century, and despite Pontiac’s all-American vibe it made a career out of wanting to seem more European. On paper, they seemed remarkably similar. The all-around best of the second-gen Trans Ams, I thought, would be a ’79 W72/WS6 four-speed, and a Tenth Anniversary Trans Am is the easiest way to find that. I thought finding a comparable 928—similar year, and a stick to boot—would be the hard part, but I got lucky and found one with a single phone call. Another easy shoot, and an illuminating day for your tester.

In my work life, photography was more or less accidental—or at least not what I’d planned for. When I decided I wanted to work for car magazines, it was because I was a writer; my only camera in high school (and college) was a gifted Kodak Disc. (I had a Polaroid One-Step before that, and a Kodak 126 before that.) It wasn’t until my first car-mag gig, with the long-gone CSK Publishing in 1993, that someone forced their spare Nikon into my hand and insisted that I “go shoot something.” In those days of color slide film, I burned some Fujichrome on a borrowed car, sheeted it up, and threw it on the light table. Virtually everyone in editorial – editors, feature editors like me, the janitor – came around and looked to see what the new guy could do. Not much, as it turned out: everyone told me in no uncertain terms what I had done wrong, which was approximately everything. More film, and out I went again.

After a few months of practice, I started to wrap my head around what was required. Soon, I was shooting features and show coverage. I even managed to eke a couple of covers out – one I was proud of (a red GTO against a backdrop of an Ikea blue wall in the rain), and one less so (yellow car silhouetted against an art-department-added neon pink background … well it was the ‘90s). In that pool of young-and-hungry office mates, at least one of whom I can once again happily claim as a coworker, there was a sort of unannounced competition between us; that sense of competition drove us to try ever-more-elaborate set-ups and techniques. We all learned from each other by trying to top each other. It was friendly, and encouraging, but we all still wanted to do better. My previous full-time publishing job before Hemmings saw me get another two covers in my 4-1/2 years of employment.

By the time I’d made it to Hemmings in 2003, I’d been in the car-mag business for a decade and finally figured out how to do what I wanted to do with a camera, with reliable results. It was also the advent of the digital age – I swapped over to a digital SLR in 2003. And the Hemmings machine is a hungry beast: three monthly magazines (with a fourth on board for a dozen years), a location that gets snow six months out of the year, and the company’s reliance on in-house rather than freelance-generated content meant that my sunny Southwestern shots were increasingly front and center.

Even now, everywhere I go, I’m half-looking for backgrounds and sun placement. My face lights up whenever I drive by a rock quarry. Every hazy sunset, I think man, that light is perfect to photograph something. Even when I’m not working, I’m looking.

For years, Hemmings Classic Car strove to find the best, most correct cars possible. (Whether we succeeded was another matter.) And so when I was confronted with a pair of rare-air Cadillac Eldorado Broughams—one done back to stock-correct, one modified to look and feel original while taking advantage of some more modern technology—I thought it worth a comparison. Apparently editor Lentinello agreed. I’ve driven a lot of home-built nightmares in my time, but in a back-to-back drive, the modified car felt every bit the equal of the restored-to-original one. Cadillac or not, that’s not easy to do.

The breakdown runs as follows: 31 for Hemmings Classic Car, 33 for Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, 56 for Hemmings Muscle Machines, and 79 for the mother ship, Hemmings Motor News. That’s roughly one per month in the time I’ve been at the company. No one is more surprised than me.

A few personal favorites are shown here, but I thought I’d see if I could deduce any trends, through my 200 covers (and more than 200 cars, as we’ll read anon.)

When it comes to representing American marques, things play out about as you’d imagine. Chevy covers lead the way, with 39, with only Ford (31 main-cover images) coming close. Dodge is a distant third, with 20 main images. Any other marque can’t make it out of the tens and teens: 17 Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, 15 Plymouths, 10 each Buicks and Cadillacs, and 11 that I have marked as “other GM (mostly GMC).” The rest don’t make it out of single digits: six Mercurys, five AMCs/Ramblers and Chryslers, four Edsels, three “other Mopar” (including DeSoto), and two Lincolns. An equal number of Chryslers and Ramblers is a surprise; so is my Edsel total beating the number of Lincolns. There are also eight additional American independents beyond AMC/Rambler—mostly Studebakers, although there’s a Cord in there as well, from the days when we were transitioning from the brown kraft-paper covers, and that lovely Packard from the cover of Motor News a couple of months ago.

If we may speak of our departed Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, I’ve broken down cars by nation: I shot lucky 13 British and an equally lucky number of Italian cars, 11 German autos, five Japanese cars, two French ones (both of them Citroen SMs, coincidentally) and one that I have listed under “other”—a DeLorean. Among the five Japanese cars were two different orange early Datsun Zs—one on the cover of the fifth issue of Sports (and my first cover for the title), and one on the cover of its last issue three years ago. A near pair of bookends for me, on that particular title.

The age of the cars themselves skews like a bellcurve of Boomer old-car interest.

As far as breaking down body styles, the vast majority of our cover babies are coupes and sedans. Yet a whopping 61 convertibles have appeared on covers I’ve shot, along with 15 station wagons and 11 trucks/vans (three of which appeared simultaneously on our January ’14 cover—our 60th anniversary issue, a photo used to replicate the old kraft-paper-cover line drawings of the company’s three ’36-era delivery vehicles).

Color is always a consideration—editors want their covers to pop on newsstands, to stand out from everyone else’s images that are also designed to pop. Color is one way to stand out. And so, of my 200 covers, I was surprised to see that blue outnumbered red cars 49-48, followed most closely by green, with 35 examples. Twenty-three white cars, 21 yellow, 18 black and 17 orange appear. (Black cars have occasionally been pronounced as newsstand death, but some of our best-selling newsstand covers have been black cars; navy blue, maroon and forest green are far more challenging colors, because they’re easy to make look black.) Grey/silver were marginally more plentiful over brown/tan/cream 12-11, and the rest were in single digits (gold/bronze eight, pink and purple four each). Three of them were two-tone jobs, with no dominant color; no surprise that all of these were ‘50s cars.

Two-car covers are always a bonus: the idea is that if a cover with one car attracts stray readers on the newsstand, we can interest twice as many people by featuring a second car. Easier said than done: shooting two cars requires special staging and room that I sometimes simply don’t have available. Yet over time, I’ve had a whopping 44 two-car covers—roughly one in five I’ve shot. A few displayed the same marque—two Cadillacs for Classic, three Camaros for Muscle—which kind of kills the notion of going for different readers. Still, most featured competitive marques. The Toyota 2000GT and Mazda Cosmo Sport on the cover of Sports, for example, or the Dart and Valiant convertibles on the cover of Classic earlier this year, or last year’s orange Plymouth Road Runner and Mercury Cyclone for the front of Muscle.

Fifty-six Muscle covers in 16 years, and this one from more than a decade ago continues to stand out. Why? It was a day where everything just worked out: the light was right, the car-to-car road was arrow-straight and went on for miles, and all of the drivers did as they were instructed. The car (a ’72 Road Runner, though any of the loop-bumper ’71-2 Plymouth coupes trip my trigger) is my favorite-shape muscle car ever, done in such a color and specification that I might actually want to own one like it at some point. The owners were terrific, patient people who were willing to do whatever ridiculous thing I had in my head. I think they even fed me Wendy’s, a time-killing move when the sun was still too high in the sky. Frequently, when shooting, there’s strife of some sort—equipment, traffic, my own mood rolling in, you name it. And this photo session? Everything just fell into place. I wish they were all like this one.

Editors like action—at least for Muscle and Motor News; editor Lentinello prefers static shots for Hemmings Classic Car; it plays into our overwhelming belief that old cars can and should be driven for pleasure. An eye-opening 48 of my covers—nearly a quarter—have featured cars in action. Shooting action generally involves me hanging out the back (or side) of a van at 15mph, with someone else driving that van in the wrong lane, while the car I’m photographing paces us at an uncomfortably close distance. Then I hold my breath and shoot like mad, hoping for the best. No one outside the office ever believes that this trick is going to work; done right, it can and does. Somehow I’ve only been ticketed once for this.

Combine two-car covers and action covers, and I claim just four. This is for the simple reason that as hard as it is to get one car behind you to pace your speed, it’s even harder to get two of them to follow in lock-step. Juggling someone behind the wheel (of the photo van, of the car[s] I’m shooting, all of the above) who occasionally can’t find a steady spot on the throttle to maintain the requested speed, times three, mix in a long camera exposure, and there’s lots of herky-jerky back and forth, and tons of ruined shots to comb through after the fact.

We also like to throw the occasional curve ball to catch the eye. Pick up a car magazine, and what are you likely to see on the cover? A front 3/4 angle—meaning you can see the front and side in the same shot. Very few rear shots turn up. And yet 15 of my covers feature, in whole or in part, a rear 3/4 image of a car. Take that, conformity!

I’ve been a proponent of Japanese cars getting their due for decades now. Back in the ‘90s I did a story in Hot Rod magazine about how to get 500 horsepower out of a sub-two-liter Honda engine, much to the wide-eyed handwringing of those readers. My first car-mag publisher was skeptical about hiring me because, reason #472, I didn’t drive an “enthusiast” car, I drove a Japanese car (a Nissan NX2000, for the record), which made my wallet enthusiastic when I was commuting 165 miles a day round-trip from home. The 2002 Subaru WRX I bought new? They’re going to bury me in that car. (Well, they can fill the unused ashtray with my cremains, anyway.) And there’s a Nissan Skyline GT-R in my garage that doesn’t get driven nearly enough. And so, finding a Toyota 2000GT and a Mazda Cosmo Sport, a pair of not-for-US-shores JDM delights, from the same era and espousing the Japanese car industry’s coming-of-age in two equally-flamboyant but very different ways, was equal parts delightful kismet and dogged mission. Either alone would have been awesome, but the two together make a natural comparison that I’m not sure anyone else had done before (at least, not in an English-language publication.) That they ended up on the cover was doubtless a gamble, though perhaps less so since a Toyota 2000GT had recently topped the million-dollar figure at auction.

Sometimes, a car I shoot ends up pulling double-duty, and it eventually ends up on the cover of Hemmings Motor News as well as whatever monthly magazine the photos came from. I’m amazed to see that it’s happened on no less than 14 occasions. Three of them were foreign cars: a black Porsche 911 soft-window Targa, a maroon BMW 3.0 CS, and a blue Pantera that I was actually scolded for shooting once upon a time, for reasons that are too absurd to justify with discussion. Two different red midyear Corvette roadsters appeared twice on the covers of Muscle and Motor News, and so have the following: a white six-cylinder Mustang coupe, orange ’69 COPO Camaro, red ’69 Dodge Daytona, brown Dodge Challenger (although only its smoking rear tire appeared on the cover of Muscle), a blue ’70 Olds 442 W30, a bronze Lincoln Mk V that I maintain an irrational attraction toward, a yellow ’41 Buick convertible, a reddish-pink ’59 Chevy wagon, and a stunning black ’60 Ford wagon.

The only conclusion that I can draw from any of this is that variety is the spice of life at Hemmings. American, foreign, car, truck, fast, slow, no matter: there’s an old car (or truck) out there that everyone harbors in their heart, that triggers memories. If we can inspire people to eschew glassy-eyed nostalgia and encourage them to experience these machines in the here and now, to embrace them for what they are, to use them as living artifacts, to enjoy them on their merits and forgive them their trespasses, all the better.