An avid travel and auto enthusiast determined to give a voice to the women’s market, Courtney Caldwell was fueled by passion to make a difference. She created the first national magazine to specialize in auto, travel and safety-related topics for women. Launched in print in 1989, ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine (RTM) transitioned into a digital magazine in 2000 with Caldwell as the driving force.
Caldwell’s love for cars emerged during the muscle car era. “I was just a kid when the Mustang and GTO came out. The roar of the engine and cool styling was mesmerizing. So, I badgered a local mechanic for weeks to teach me to drive his ‘64, 4-speed GTO. I think he finally gave in just to get rid of me. He had white knuckles and I became hooked!” says Caldwell.
Living in total anonymity in Warwick, Rhode Island, the single mother of two realized that owning a muscle car was not practical so instead Caldwell bought a new ‘79 Chevy van, which she had customized for camping, turning it into one of the smallest RVs at that time. The tiny home on wheels not only accommodated her family’s active lifestyle and love for outdoor life, it also led to Caldwell’s first company, VANity Fare, a limousine service designed to chauffeur groups to local and regional sporting events.
Intuitively, Caldwell knew something bigger awaited her beyond RI, so in 1981 she sold her home of 11 years, packed up her two kids, then 11 and 12, and headed cross-country to California. “We camped out under the stars in 16 states. My son gathered wood, my daughter filled water containers and I cooked over an open fire. It was our first trip out of RI and one of the most memorable experiences we’ve ever had as a family,” she says. Camping became a way of life for the Caldwell Clan even after settling in California.
Once in California, Caldwell combined her years of Taekwondo black belt training with her daredevil driving skills honed on the back roads of RI to become a stunt woman. “My specialties were J-turns (spinning cars), riding motorcycles, and fight scenes. I worked on several projects with Sam Elliott, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell.” However, stunt work for women was still scarce in the ‘80s and Caldwell had two teens with medical conditions to support. As an experienced accountant, she worked between gigs as a controller for Pierre Cardin, a personal bodyguard for actress Lola Falana, and assisted singer Peggy Lee with personal affairs and managing her diabetes.
As a single parent who made all of her own financial decisions, Caldwell grew restless with the disrespectful treatment received at dealerships so in 1986 she formed a national organization to help raise awareness of the power of the purse. Through the organization, Caldwell created and produced her first major event, the “Cruise-Aid for Diabetes,” a celebrity-packed, 50-mile motorcycle ride, raising several hundred thousand dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, one of the largest outdoor fund raising events in Los Angeles at that time.
Recognized for her success in event production and innate skill as a media spokesperson, Caldwell was hired by the motorcycle industry to produce the Van Buren TransCon in 1988, a national publicity tour designed to enhance the image of motorcycling. Caldwell served as the lead rider and media spokesperson on the 22-city, 4000-mile, 30-day tour, where she addressed thousands of grass root Americans on motorcycle safety.
Inspired on tour by the overwhelming demand to improve the quality of treatment at dealerships towards women, Caldwell launched RTM upon her return, which became the pioneering automotive publication to educate women on car buying, negotiating, with emphasis on personal safety on the road, especially when traveling alone, RVing or camping. RTM established the first voice for the women’s automotive market.
The premier issue of RTM was due to launch in January ‘89 but not without its challenges. Two weeks before the launch, Caldwell was hit on her Harley when a distracted driver ran a red light. She broke seven ribs, paralyzed her right arm, shattered her right scapula and and suffered severe spinal compression, an accident in which few survived, according to her attending ER doctors. Undeterred, Caldwell’s 21-year-old son carried his broken mother on board a plane two weeks later, propping up her willowy spine and bruised body with seven pillows for support during the cross-country flight. Once in Washington, DC, Caldwell and a close cousin handed out hundreds of copies of the first issue of RTM from an auto show booth.
Declaring Caldwell’s vision of the women’s market “before its time,” most marketers refused to advertise in the first few years. Convinced the market was huge, Caldwell sold her ten-year-old customized Chevy RV van and used the insurance money from the accident to support the magazine until automakers caught on. “Many laughed, throwing the magazine across their desk, saying they thought it was a joke. Some even told me I should get a real job or to find a husband and settle down,” she recalls. “Ford was the first automaker to believe in our vision, agreeing that the women’s market was a force to be reckoned with.”
[Who's Laughing Now by Sharon Aschaeek - Sun Media]
In spite of naysayers, Caldwell expanded her mission by launching the International Car of the Year Awards (ICOTY) in 1997, the first auto awards to honor the emotional connection between car and consumer. By 2008, ICOTY had become the largest auto awards show in the U.S. earning the honorable distinction as the “Academy Awards of Cars.” Today, automakers use the ‘emotional connection’ theme in their national marketing and advertising campaigns in numerous mediums.
In 2000, Caldwell transitioned RTM from print to online making it one of the first magazines in the US to go digital. With marketers declaring the Internet nothing more than a passing fad that was too technical for women to understand, Caldwell responded, “Mark my words, within ten years the Internet will dwarf all other mediums with women accounting for the majority of online users.” In 2007, women accounted for 97M online users vs. 91M men. Today, most print publications have either gone digital or gone bust, a trend that continues to forge on until the last print publication eventually becomes nothing more than a distant memory or collector's item.
Early on, Caldwell and her team saw the natural connection between auto and travel, and how frequently articles and reviews tied the two together. Thus, the RTM Travel Channel was born which today boasts more than 18 separate and unique departments in its navigation. Today, RTM has more than 6000 pages of content with 37 channels covering a wide range of travel and auto topics. In 2017, Caldwell returned to her first love, adding RTM's first RVing & Camping Channel.
Recognizing the urgency of climate change and its effects on the planet, Caldwell launched EWP® Media in 2008, a multimedia company designed to help elevate awareness of the rapid acceleration of climate change. The mission of EWP is to provide readers with content and resources from which they can make informed decisions on eco-friendly products and services.
Caldwell continues to expand her role as a national media spokesperson and advocate, a skill she honed through stand up comedy classes in LA, and is today considered one of the leading authorities in her field. No one’s laughing now as Caldwell continues to propel her purpose driven life to strengthen, communicate and bridge the gap between industry and consumers.
From total obscurity as a single mom in Rhode Island to a national consumer advocate, magazine editor, event producer and spokesperson, Caldwell knows no limitations. Tell her it can’t be done and she’ll show you it can, a true testament that nothing is impossible.