Issue: Issue Summer 2011

The Peterson Automotive Museum - Treasure trove of our car culture


If you live in LA or are just visiting for the first time, then you already know how important cars are here - maybe more than anywhere else on earth. The automobile literally shaped the City of Angels, and the Petersen Automotive Museum on the "Miracle Mile" of Wilshire Boulevard pays tribute to the world of wheels.

The man behind the dream was the late Robert Petersen, the owner of some 125 vehicles and the publisher of seminal car magazines Hot Rod and Motor Trend. He wanted to showcase and preserve his collection, and he and his wife, Margie, donated $5 million to fund an off-shoot of the Natural History Museum, adding some $24 million several years later.   

Purchasing a former department store designed by Welton Becket-William Wurdeman (who also designed local landmarks such as the Capitol Records building, the Beverly Hilton Hotel and the Cinerama Dome), the museum opened its doors in 1994.

Curator Leslie Kendall, the museum's curator since the beginning, chose the best of the initial Natural History Museum collection of 65 cars.  "Rather than just line up the cars, we wanted to put the cars in a context and show how they related to their environment - why Los Angeles grew out, instead of up. New York grew up because people didn't have transportation to go very far away, but in L.A. we had cars from the beginning. It's affected every part of life and culture here."

30's shopping mall at the Peterson Automotive Museum

On the museum's first floor a diorama "Streetscape" of California beginning in 1901 illustrates when times changed, transport changed too. In the early days there were few paved roads and getting stuck in the mud was a real hazard. A horse-drawn carriage was adapted with a motor and became the horse-less carriage, and early movies chronicled the process. Some may recall Laurel and Hardy sitting precariously atop a Model T Ford crushed between two trolley cars.     

A display of old billboards - advertisers needed bigger signs now that cars were speeding past - while restaurants used mimetic, novelty architecture like huge hats, animals, donuts, boots and other attention-grabbers to attract hungry travelers.

Colorful and eye-catching gas stations were made to look like old Spanish Missions, while the sophisticated, salon-type car dealership showed that buying a car in the 1930s was a big deal. The ubiquitous strip-mall owes its existence to the car, too, and there's a recreation of the world's first strip-mall, which is still nearby at Wilshire and Hamilton:

Post-WWII California was full of returning, skilled serviceman, and they designed and customized their way into what many see as the classic rock 'n roll age of American cars, some of which you can see-complete with their huge tailfins-at the fictional "Jamm's Diner" (there's a real diner here too,  Johnny Rocket's, where you can buy a burger and fries).

Car customization is a Californian art form, and the museum includes a display of a customizing shop with a 1950s Mercury in mid-work.  Kendall explains, "It's pretty unusual to have a car like this. Most people who do that much work on a car - it's been chopped, raked, leaded in -finish it. But the guy never finished, and we were lucky to get it."

It's not all about cars - one of the newest exhibitions is about scooters, a form of transport that's been around as long as cars and is wildly popular, especially in Europe - but there are still plenty of race cars, hot rods and alternative power (from steam to solar) cars, as well as a recreation of a modern car design studio (most major manufacturers have operations in Southern California):

For the youngsters, they'll find the Hot Wheels Hall of Fame, complete with "vroooooooooom!" race sound effects and a copy of virtually every Hot Wheels ever made.  ""Most people's first experience with cars was with Hot Wheels, and the kids just love this - even the 50 year old kids! And few people know that Hot Wheels were initially built and designed in Los Angeles."

The great weather and miles of wide open West Coast freeways - and the potential to really put the pedal to the metal - led to the drag racing culture, even if it was just from stop light to stop light. The first racer to hit 300 mph is here, and countless tricked-out and stunning-looking drag and customized cars. 

Then there's the Hollywood section, which is "more about looks than substance, as it just has to look good on the screen," notes Kendall. Unsurprisingly the most popular section in the museum, you'll recognize every car here - the Michael Keaton-era Batmobile, a "Dukes of Hazzard" Dodge Charger, the 1965 Chrysler Imperial "Black Beauty" from The Green Hornet and others.

"People relate to these cars, and sometimes they can't believe that they're real. People even complain if the Batmobile, the Speed Racer or Herbie the Love Bug aren't here."

De Tomaso Pantera, part of the Supercars exhibition belonged to Elvis.

The third floor is the Discovery Center - a chance for the kids to go wild.  They can sit on a CHP motorcycle, a Model T Ford or an Indy car and learn about mechanics and gears on some of the exhibits.

With 200 cars in reserve as well as the 130 on display the exhibits change regularly, so each visit you'll see something different.

Currently wowing visitors is "Supercars: When Too Much is Almost Enough", highlighting the supermodels: Ferrari, Bugatti, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche and many more - they're all from different eras, and James Bond would look right at home behind the wheel of any of them.

There's also Elvis Presley's yellow De Tomaso Pantera.  According to Kendall, he liked to have guns around, and he shot it three times when it wouldn't start. If you look carefully through the window you can still see the bullet holes; two in the steering wheel, one in the floor.

Although the Petersen is already blessed with unique cars, Kendall naturally has one special car he'd love to find, though he's always looking for more examples of L.A's automotive history.

" I make calls, knock on doors, search the internet, and go to auctions.  There are still  more that I would like to add. If I could get a Miller racing car from the 1920s, that would be a dream. Harry Miller was a local guy, a genius. His engines were extremely advanced, they were killer fast - like mechanical jewelry."

As one of the biggest automotive museums in the world, Kendall and the Petersen get lots of calls - and some lead to amazing finds;  sometime cars find them.  They got a call from a guy who had a garage with an old electric car in it - a 1914 Detroit Electric with about 10,000 miles on it, complete with original paint, interior, tires, and battery, even a "rectifier" the four foot tall original charger. "It was like unlocking time. Utterly incredible," said Kendall. 

Another "find" was a DeLorean (the car made famous by the Back to the Future movies), though this one was very special; gold-plated and one of only three made for a promotion with American Express.  It had been on display in the lobby of a bank in Texas, had just seven miles on it.  The owner called the museum to ask "I'm selling the bank. Do you want it?"  The museum also has a silver DeLorean occasionally seen on the streets here - but almost nowhere else.

Future plans include exhibiting more cars from the collection thanks to the recent announcement of a $100 million gift from Marie Petersen and the Foundation. 

In L.A. your car is like another layer of clothing, and cars mean more to people here than they do anywhere else.  At the non-profit Petersen Auto Museum it all comes together---history, celebrity and fascination. DH


Petersen Automotive Museum
6060 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: 323 930 CARS