Pioneering magazine publishers often have a profound influence on popular culture. Think Robert E. Petersen and Hot Rod magazine, Henry Luce and Time, Jan Wenner and Rolling Stone, even Hugh Hefner and Playboy. Each changed the perception of, and popularized, their subject matter (although one could argue that Playboy’s subject matter was already quite popular).
Add Tom McMullen to the list.
Born during the Depression in Bay City, Michigan, McMullen’s early years were uneventful. He joined the Navy during the Korean War, where his small stature was ideally suited for submarine duty. Only when he was discharged and moved to Southern California did things get interesting. After picking up a degree from Compton College, McMullen took a job at an instrument business, Automotive Electronics Engineering. Always having an interest in cars, he started a small sideline business wiring cars. About this time, he also picked up a 1932 highboy roadster, propelled by a 283c.i. Chevy V8 and a two-barrel carb. More on this car later.
An avid reader of automotive magazines, McMullen began submitting how-to stories to Tex Smith, editor at Hot Rod Magazine, and later Popular Hot Rodding and Cycle Guide. The foray into motorcycles prompted McMullen to purchase a 1947 Harley Knucklehead from none other than Ed Roth. Tom immediately transformed it into a “chopper.”
Tom embraced motorcycle culture. He joined the Hangmen M/C club, submitted articles on chopper mods, and crafted various bike components, including “sissy” handlebars. Then in 1967, an untimely too-close encounter with a pickup truck sent McMullen to the ER with serious injuries. Undeterred, he decided to change focus. He launched AEE Choppers (an outgrowth of his earlier Automotive Electrical Engineering business) to market chopper bits and pieces.
“One thing you need to recognize,” explained former Street Chopper editor Steve Stillwell, “is that Tom launched his businesses based on having survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash with a left-turn driver. He brazed custom sissy bars while in a full-body cast to pay the bills.”
The AEE Chopper catalog alone proved such a huge success that McMullen sensed an opening: With few chopper publications offered, he launched Street Chopper magazine with the help of Tex Smith, the first issue appearing in January 1969. Proving that timing is everything, later that year the film “Easy Rider” hit the silver screen. Interest in choppers exploded.
All the while, McMullen remained as enamored with four wheels as he was with two. Remember that ’32 roadster? Suffering from an incurable case of a need for speed, he increased its performance through a series of power plant swaps. The 283 was punched out to 301c.i., a GMC 4-71 blower added, along with a Halibrand quick-change, even a parachute — which he would deploy on the street every now and then for fun.
But he wasn’t done. Later he dropped in a stout 327, followed by an even stouter Ford 427, each topped by a blower. And its performance matched its aggressive visage: In 1964, McMullen set the A/Street Roadster record of 167mph at El Mirage and the car won its class at the NHRA Winternationals (with his wife driving, no less). The car simply oozed hot rod style, with a pedigree seldom equaled. Its audacious flames were laid out by Roth and applied by McMullen; Roth also handled the pinstriping. The result?
An iconic ride that appeared on everything from record album jackets to the April 1963 cover of Hot Rod. It is arguably the most famous ’32 roadster ever.
In 1971, a corporate decision at Petersen Publishing reshuffled the automotive magazine deck. Despite its success at reinvigorating the street scene for hot rods, including creating the first Street Rod Nationals in 1970, Rod & Custom magazine was bafflingly killed by short-sighted management. Because Tex Smith was instrumental in Rod & Custom’s resurgence — a faux freelance check for $750 from publisher Tom Medley funded the first Nats — and being a longtime friend with McMullen, the duo saw an opportunity. Together they started Street Rodder Magazine in 1972, filling the void left by R&C’s departure.
With AEE Choppers going strong and TRM Publications seizing the street rod day, McMullen’s Midas touch was evident. TRM soon launched other successful titles, Truckin’, Sport Compact Car, Hot Bike, and more. A contentious divorce in 1974 spun off AEE Choppers to his ex-wife, while he retained TRM. Later came more management and name changes, including Vice President Ken Yee becoming part owner, changing the name to McMullen-Yee Publishing.
Any discussion of Tom McMullen would not be complete without a nod to his flamboyant lifestyle. Think “Wolf of Wall Street” in publishing. He combined an irascible personality — some found him difficult to work with, others laud his loyalty — with a devotion to luxurious and on-the-edge behavior. He owned and flew all manner of aircraft. Who else would own both an F-86 Sabre jet fighter and a T-33 military training jet? Who else would take friends up for a jet ride, then cut off their oxygen until they passed out? Crazy staff trips to Las Vegas were common, with McMullen a master at baccarat. He also enjoyed the company of exotic cats, owning two full-size cougars — named Spoke and Spool — who often hung out at the TRM offices, frightening more than one staffer. And there is more…so much more.
Brian Brennan, currently editorial director at Street Rodder, joined McMullen in the mid-1970s as a cub reporter, working on both SRM and Street Chopper. Brian knew McMullen well and shared in the craziness. But underneath Tom’s wild side, he exhibited a preternatural business sense. “His two greatest attributes,” Brennan explained, “were his ability to foresee trends and he was a fearless risk-taker.”
Sadly, McMullen’s fearless risk-taking was his undoing. In 1995, he and his wife Deanna were killed when their Rockwell Commander crashed into a field in southern Oklahoma. He was 59 years old.
The influence of Tom McMullen is hard to overstate. He was an instrumental force in promoting both chopper motorcycles and the street rod hobby, creating a publishing empire along the way. He had money. He had, even more, fun. A more colorful and important hot rod legend would be hard to find.