Ask anyone who's worked around hot rod magazines long enough to have a valid answer what the most elaborate magazine cover shoot of all time was, and you'll probably get the same response: the time Car Craft talked General Motors into shutting down its Van Nuys, California, assembly plant for a photo shoot.
The spectacular image of Tom Huggins' SS/AM '91 Pontiac Trans Am Super Stocker (which at the time was the fastest Super Stocker ever with an 8.82 at 160.15) rolling off the line appeared on the cover of Car Craft's Feb. '92 issue and is still the stuff of legends around our offices.
"I had this idea in my head of a new Super Stock car coming off the assembly line," recalls then Editor John Baechtel, who brainstormed the grandiose concept and pulled it off. "Carl Scheffer was the GM West Coast PR guy at the time, so I called him and we had a meeting with the head of the plant. There was a two-day holiday shut down coming up, and we got permission to come in on a Thursday while the maintenance crew was working."
"When John first mentioned the idea, my reaction was, 'This is never going to happen,'" says Randy Lorentzen, the photographer who captured the scene on film. Lorentzen notes that the photo shoot occurred around the time GM was shutting down the plant, which had been building F-bodies since the beginning of production in 1967. After the close of the Van Nuys plant in 1992, all |F-car production was shifted to the Ste. Therese plant in Canada, which has also recently shut down production of Camaros and Firebirds.
"There really wasn't that much going on in the plant at that time," Lorentzen says. "There were no cars on the racks and the whole line was empty. [The photo shoot] took quite a bit of lighting, and we brought in a smoke machine partially to hide the fact that there was nothing on the assembly line."
Working in an automobile plant is a logistical nightmare, as nothing that interferes with the operation of the line is tolerated, and union rules can be very rigid when it comes to moving and setting up equipment. But during the Van Nuys shoot, Lorentzen says, it was different. "It can be a real horror shooting in a plant, but those guys made it very accommodating. We built a light box and wet the floor down to make the concrete look cleaner. To be given such carte blanche is unheard of." Of course, it helped that production at the plant was winding down, so it wasn't operating at anywhere near full capacity.
Pulling off the shoot required quite a bit of time and manpower, with about 10 or 12 people on hand, including the photographer and assistants, the car owner and his crew, and the factory staff, and it turned into quite a long day. "We went in at 8 or 9 a.m. and got out at midnight," Baechtel remembers.
In addition to the cover, the photos illustrated a feature article on Huggins' car along with a generic buyer's guide to late-model F-body performance parts, both of which were quite frankly anticlimactic compared to the marathon effort that went into getting the shots. And by the most important criteria by which a magazine cover is judged-how well it sells on the newsstand-the plant cover hardly broke any sales records for 1992. In fact, it was in the middle of the pack that year in number of copies sold. But in terms of inspiration, effort, and bold conception, it'll always be near the top. Or over the top.-Matt King