Historiography: The Biggest Award of Them All

Automobile awards can be the most controversial part of this business.

Those of us who shower the manufacturers with these awards have good intentions of handing off the hardware to a worthy winner. We want to see who is the best of them all. We want to demonstrate that our editorial integrity is on the line when we present our trophy or plaque to celebrate their achievements.

Ask of any of us who presents an award to an automobile – this website, included – where the idea of being audacious enough to name some vehicle the best of the year came from. We would all point to the biggest buff book – er, automotive magazine – in the world. The one magazine that can turn an engineering caliper into a coveted trophy to use as marketing bait.

Seventy years ago, Robert E. Petersen set up shop in Los Angeles to publish a magazine called Motor Trend. He wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in the automobile as spurned on by the Post-World War II economic boom. It was not his first publication, however.

Petersen was working in Hollywood in a publicity consulting firm after being laid off from MGM Studios. His first task was to publicize a show featuring hot rods. In a short matter of time, he would turn this exposure into a segment of the new car culture into a publication – Hot Rod magazine.

The spark that created the magazine turned into a wildfire. Petersen saw growth in Hot Rod, as it sold 50,000 copies by mid-1949. That spark also gave Petersen an idea. How about a magazine for the rest of the car-loving world? At least, in the USA.

In September of 1949, Petersen published his first Motor Trend. It would become part of a larger publishing empire of admired and respected magazines and buff books for those seeking enthusiasm from two and four wheels.

As part of his initial strategy, Petersen set up the first award made by an automotive publication. The Motor Trend Car of The Year award was to be the magazine’s greatest asset, alongside its content in its monthly publication. If one thing was to distinguish Motor Trend right off the bat, it would be the Car of The Year award.

The first recipient of this award was to Cadillac in 1949. This was the right award at the time since Cadillac extolled the virtues of the overhead valve, high compression V8 across its lineup. However, Cadillac turned down the award since it came from a brand new magazine that had not cemented its reputation upon the motoring public. Later on, Cadillac's communications team would mention the fact that it was the first winner of Motor Trend's Car of The Year award in its press materials.

The initial award did not deter Petersen and his Motor Trend team from not giving up on this effort. They skipped the 1950 award and returned with its accolade for the Chrysler Corporation in 1951.

In its first decade, Motor Trend’s COTY would be awarded to the manufacturer or division/brand. There would be some innovation or design element that would capture the eyes of the COTY jury to present the award to its worthy recipient. In 1955, Chevrolet won because they introduced the Small Block V8 to its lineup, starting off the Tri-Five era.

In 1958, Motor Trend awarded its COTY to a single model for the first time. The Ford Thunderbird of 1958 was not just innovative, but it brought a whole new segment of automobile to the masses. The second-generation T-Bird would become the first personal luxury coupe that was within most people’s budgets. A contrast to the 1956-57 Continental Mark II, which scaled over the $10,000 pricing barrier. That would be around the price of a new Lincoln Navigator Black Label in today's money.  

After several years of trading off between individual models and division/manufacturer awards, Motor Trend began to concentrate solely on awarding the COTY to an individual model. That began in 1966 with the Oldsmobile Toronado. The front-drive personal luxury coupe was beyond innovative for its time. It would also define the reasoning behind most of the COTY winners from that point forward.

While testing and debating among the Motor Trend staff would help frame the COTY from the mid-1960s onward, some award winners ended up being debated by the magazine’s readership. For example, the 1971 COTY went to the Chevrolet Vega. At the time, it was considered a giant leap for General Motors to present its first subcompact car in this country. Little did anyone know how the Vega became a huge burden for the company due to its melting aluminum engines and other quality issues that would dog the car until its cancellation in 1977.

Yet, the COTY became the most prestigious award of its kind by the time Chevrolet received their golden caliper for the Vega. In 1970, Motor Trend tried to separate the award for both domestic and foreign automobiles. The first Import Car of The Year went to Porsche for the 914 – a collaborative effort with Volkswagen to produce a more affordable and concentrated sports car. The magazine shelved the award for 1971 but found itself a justification for bringing it back a few years later.

In 1972, Motor Trend awarded the COTY to Citroen for its innovative SM coupe. This would be the first imported car to receive the award outright. Like the 1970 Porsche 914, the SM was a collaboration with the French company's Italian cohort Maserati. The award stunned its readership, but it also promoted Motor Trend to resurrect the Import COTY for 1976.

As you can tell, Motor Trend’s COTY award is also a barometer of the times in the automotive world. The OPEC Oil Crisis became a boom for imported automobiles into the USA, as they were seen as more efficient than their domestic counterparts. Vehicles from Japan proved their detractors wrong by being more reliable than American and European models during the 1970s.

Being a sign of the times, the Import COTY for 1976 went to the Toyota Celica Liftback, while its domestic counterpart was the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare. What we know now of these two (OK, three) award winners would set the stage for the rest of the decade and into the 1980s. The Motor Trend COTY awards became a barometer of the day, as well as the future.

Sometimes, that future would yield the question "what were they thinking?" In 1974, Motor Trend awarded the COTY to the Ford Mustang II. As a future owner of one, I had to admit that while it was a good idea at the time, it would become the lowest point for a celebrated nameplate. You may agree with me – and through my own and my brother’s experience with said automobile – that it was one of those choices the staff at Motor Trend may have to regret making.

Then, there were years where Motor Trend actually got it right. The 1982 Import COTY went to the Toyota Celica Supra. As stated on this website a few times, the second-generation Supra catapulted Toyota into the realm of performance that equaled American and European rivals. It was also executed superbly.

Another Motor Trend award that they got right was the 1986 COTY – the Ford Taurus. If one car symbolized a change in the vehicular landscape of the 1980s, it would be the one car that catapulted Ford into a new wave of success n that era. It would change the family sedan for good, which is the conclusion Motor Trend made in awarding the golden caliper to Ford that year.

As an indicator of the times, Motor Trend began branching out their COTY into other vehicle types. The year 1979 saw the magazine's first Truck of The Year for the Chevrolet LUV. The latest edition of the Isuzu-built compact pickup truck was cited as a clean design that advanced the breed. It captured the times as the compact pickup was not only popular but primed for extraordinary growth. Isuzu would set up shop in the USA two years later with its own version of the LUV – the P'UP.

The Truck of The Year award went on hiatus until 1989, when it began to be awarded annually. Just like most truck awards, the category included SUVs and vans. It would be the popularity of the SUV that helped frame Motor Trend's next award, the SUV of The Year. The first breakout award for SUVs came in 1999 with the segment-breaking Lexus RX 300.

From 1999 onward, the Truck of The Year award was strictly given to pickup trucks of all sizes. Yet, the mid-sized segment only won three times since – the Honda Ridgeline and the Chevrolet Colorado, twice in a row. As a reflection of the marketplace, the full-sized pickup truck has dominated the award for the past twenty-plus years.

It would take a lot of bandwidth to recall and analyze a lot more of the Motor Trend awards over the past 70 years. Yet, one cannot deny the legacy and influence their awards have given the automotive media business the gumption to do their own take on the same accolades. Neither of us can duplicate the golden caliper trophy – an iconic piece of hardware matched by the Stanley Cup, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Lawrence O’Brien Championship Trophy, and the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy. Nor could we match the significance and prestige of Motor Trend's awards.

Today, there are three golden calipers awarded annually. This year's awards were presented at the Los Angeles Auto Show to General Motors, Kia, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette, Kia Telluride, and Ram Heavy Duty pickup trucks were put to the test by the magazine's staff and went through the discussion process before being chosen as their respective award winners.

However, a given trophy case at an automobile manufacturer's headquarters could be full of many different awards from other outlets and organizations. If you ask any of these outlets where the idea of their award came from – you can point to Petersen and the 1949 Motor Trend Car of The Year.

All photos by Randy Stern

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