Fun Stuff

Chasing Automotive History and Culture at the Petersen Museum

LOS ANGELES – There’s virtually no signage on the outside of the Petersen Automotive Museum, but it’s impossible to miss the building on Wilshire Boulevard. Covered by an outer skin meant to represent air moving over and around a vehicle, it houses ever-changing displays of some of the world’s most important automobiles.

The museum was founded in 1994 by Robert and Margie Petersen, and was originally inside Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum. Its current location started out as a department store, and Robert Petersen thought it would be perfect as a museum because it had very few windows and so wouldn’t let in sunlight that can be harmful to historic artifacts. The 100-tonne stainless-steel façade was added in 2015.

A lifelong car enthusiast and working as a publicist, Petersen helped to launch a hot rod show in the 1940s. To publicize the event, he put together a small magazine, Hot Rod, which he sold for a quarter apiece at local car races. The company that grew out of that, Petersen Publishing, would add such titles as Rod & Custom, Motor Trend, Car Craft, CARtoons, and Motor Life, along with several non-automotive magazines. The success of the company provided the wealth that allowed Petersen to create his own car collection and, eventually, the museum. Robert Petersen died in 2007 at age 80, while Margie died in 2011.

The museum covers three floors, with exhibits that usually stick around about three to twelve months before being swapped out for something new. On a recent trip, I saw displays devoted to Bugatti; to lowrider culture; to Harley-Davidson versus Indian motorcycles; and one with some cross-border content, dedicated to alternate-fuel vehicles. Alongside such cars as a Detroit Electric, a Honda hydrogen fuel-cell car, an EV-1, and a Fiat converted to natural gas, the display included a 1914 Galt, on loan from the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ontario. One of two prototypes and the only survivor, the Galt contained a gasoline engine that worked as a generator to power the car’s electric motor – in effect, the same technology that’s used today as the Chevrolet Volt’s backup system.

With Hollywood so close by, it was only natural to see a display of movie cars, including a DeLorean from Back to the Future, a 1966 Thunderbird used in Thelma and Louise, a replica Duesenberg that Leonard DiCaprio drove in The Great Gatsby, the Batmobile from 1989’s Batman, the 1982 Ferrari that Tom Selleck drove in Magnum, P.I., and one of the 24 Plymouths used in Christine, meant to be crushed after filming but saved and restored.

In honour of Petersen and his interest in shows, the museum also curated an amazing display of cars that had won the title of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster. Presented annually at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California, it’s considered the “‘Best Picture’ Oscar” for show cars. There was a 1929 Ford that won the very first award in 1950, cars by builders Chip Foose and Boyd Coddington, and a 1923 Ford built very much in the fashion of the times when it won in 1971 and 1975 (a car can win more than once, but must be considerably redesigned and rebuilt each time it enters).

There’s plenty to see on the three floors, but if you’re visiting, spend the extra $10 to take the Vault Tour. Trust me: you will not regret the money or the hour it takes.

Like almost all auto museums, the Petersen has more cars than it has room to properly display them. It also stores collector cars for a fee. All of these are stuffed into the museum’s lower floor, which contains hundreds of cars and where a guide takes groups through and explains each vehicle and its history.

The bad news is that while you can photograph anything else in the museum, the Vault Tour is off-limits for pictures. The good news is what you’ll commit to memory. Like the upstairs, it’s always changing, and I was like a kid in a candy store. I saw such cars as CadZZilla, the radically customized Cadillac owned by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top; Eisenhower’s presidential limousine; a Chrysler Turbine; the Outlaw, built by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth; and a 1925 Rolls-Royce bodied in the 1930s with round doors so odd that the British automaker supposedly doesn’t want to officially recognize it – and that was just a sliver of the basement collection.

Maintenance is also a priority at the museum and there’s a working shop in the basement. Up on the hoist during my visit was “Greased Lightning”, the high-finned fantasy car from the John Travolta movie Grease.

Nearby was a reminder of why people should follow the “stay with the group” rule: a 1953 Ghia-bodied Cadillac, one of two made and owned by movie star Rita Hayworth, had been scratched by a purse when its owner disobeyed and scuttled between the tightly packed vehicles for a closer look. The scratch created a dilemma: should it be fixed for the sake of appearance, or left as is to preserve the car’s paint, which can only be original once? Fortunately the scratch buffed out, with only those who know where to look able to find its traces, but the original-versus-restored argument is an ongoing issue for auto museums.

The Petersen Auto Museum is open every day except Christmas, at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. And even if you’ve been before, it’s probably changed since then – and it’s time to check it out again.