The cars are the stars at Los Angeles’s Petersen Automotive Museum

Phill Tromans journeys to one of the most exciting car collections in the United States: the Petersen Automotive Museum.
A selection from the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. In addition to the regular exhibits, visitors can view an underground car park where cars not currently on display are stored. Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum
A selection from the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. In addition to the regular exhibits, visitors can view an underground car park where cars not currently on display are stored. Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum

On Wilshire Boulevard, part of Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile, sits a former department store. Founded in the 1960s to sell high-end Japanese goods, it was a failure, and for many years stood forlorn and empty. But today, it houses some of the most important, rare and downright gorgeous cars in the world.

The Petersen Automotive Museum isn’t just another car collection. It’s more than that – it’s a celebration of the car in a city that, perhaps more than any other, owes its identity and its growth to the automobile. Los Angeles would be a very, very different place if it weren’t for the car, and the world’s love affair with the car would be very different if it weren’t for Los Angeles.

“What makes us special is what makes this city special,” says the museum’s chief curator, Leslie Kendall. “Los Angeles was born with the automobile, and Hollywood, and grew up with them both. So you have an area of the world that’s usually sunny, with a beach, mountains, desert and wonderful touring opportunities year round.

“Then here comes the car, and people are able to take advantage of it. Los Angeles doesn’t grow up, it grows out, and because of Hollywood, that romantic notion of Los Angeles as a car-centric place is propagated throughout the world.”

The Petersen, a two-storey building within spitting distance of Hollywood, houses not only incredible cars of all ages, shapes and sizes, but also the story of the automobile within society, framed against the backdrop of one of America’s greatest cities.

A walk around the ground floor sees select cars through the ages, displayed in context with the likes of an early 20th-century wooden racetrack or a 1950s diner. As well as vehicles as diverse as a 1901 steam car to a beautiful 1930 Nash 482R Coupé and a 1927 Ford hot rod, there are also plenty of wonderfully thought-through displays associated with the cars: a blacksmith’s shop; a hot-rod garage; fuel pumps from throughout the ages, tools, groceries. Seeing the cars against these backgrounds adds considerably to the sense of time and place.

Take an escalator upstairs and there are more focused exhibits – currently including a huge display of Ford Mustangs, vehicles from the silver screen and a collection of sports coupés, voted into place by a variety of celebrities. See a Ferrari 250 GTO in the metal, for example, then watch a video of the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason explain why it’s his choice for the best sport coupé ever. Running until February next year is a presentation on town cars – no, not the police force’s favourite Lincoln, but the generic term for cars with an open front compartment, designed as chauffeur-driven vehicles. Titled Arriving in Style, the exhibit includes cars owned by the likes of Fred Astaire and Liberace.

It’s not only cars on display, though. Most of us probably haven’t thought twice about the history of vehicle licence plates, with examples from California dating back more than 100 years. Who knew that early plates were mounted on leather? It’s a more interesting subject than it gets credit for, and against the specific example of California plates is a section dedicated to plates from around the world, including the Middle East.

For an additional fee, visitors can go behind the scenes for a tour of what’s colloquially known as The Vault – an underground car park where cars not currently on display are stored. During our visit, this includes the original Greased Lightning from the film Grease, Elvis Presley’s De Tomaso Pantera (complete with anger-related bullet holes) and a gold-plated DeLorean. Oh, and a few cars belonging to a certain Steve McQueen, including his ultra-rare Jaguar XKSS. For this author, The Vault is the highlight of the visit – a chance to see some incredible cars that you’re unlikely to ever clap eyes on again.

But let’s rewind for a moment. The story of the Petersen first began in the early 1990s, explains Kendall, who was part of the team assembled by Robert Petersen, a car enthusiast and successful publisher with titles such as Hot Rod and Motor Trend in his portfolio.

“He wanted Los Angeles to have a place to celebrate car culture,” Kendall recalls. “There was nothing that told a comprehensive history of the automobile’s effect on American life and culture, using Los Angeles as a prime example. There were many institutions that touched on it in different ways by having a small collection of cars. Others touched on the artistry of the automobiles, and some touched on the technology, but we’re the first to really say: ‘LA looks how it is because of the ­automobile.’”

Petersen worked with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, agreeing to donate a considerable sum of money if they could arrange to outfit the former department store as a new museum. It took a year and a half of planning before the Petersen Automotive Museum opened its doors to the public in 1994.

Then, as now, the museum had two very different floors – a deliberate decision.

“We didn’t want to see the museum be just another parking lot for old cars,” Kendall says. “There’s no point to that; it’s not revealing anything or getting behind the scenes. The idea was to show off the car in its context; show it as it relates to its surroundings. The entire first floor is about that; it takes people in a roughly chronological tour of Los Angeles through the windshield. It gives people an understanding to see how the car relates to its environment and how the environment was built around the automobile.

“For the second floor, we decided to strip all the context out and group cars by similar categories, so people could see every function and purpose behind particular kinds of vehicle. We didn’t want the context to distract from the vehicles themselves. So it’s a two-pronged approach, and it’s really worked – people love it.”

Kendall is The Car Guy within the museum – when the powers that be decide on a new theme, or new idea, he’s the man that fleshes out the concept and finds the cars ­themselves.

“I usually have an immediate idea of what I want; I know the direction I want to go,” he says. “The first thing I do is put together a ‘shoot-the-moon’ list, where, in a perfect world, if I get everything I want, this is what the list would look like. Then I dial it back a little and start looking for the difficult stuff first. Other things reveal themselves as more people find out what I’m looking for. I visit the car shows and I keep an active file on people who make the cars available to us. I approach them, car clubs and other automotive museums to borrow cars. I also go to manufacturers, who have wonderful collections.

“We buy cars, too. Not as frequently as sellers hope, but if a car hits a very highly targeted collecting need and we understand that there’s no reasonable expectation that we will ever be donated that vehicle, we do have a modest budget.”

Exhibitions are conceived to try to strike a balance between providing what the public expects and surprising them with what they don’t know about.

“We try to keep our ear to the ground and keep up to speed with what people consider relevant,” Kendall says. “If there are certain things that are a big deal to the general public, we want them to be a big deal at the Petersen museum. We‘re here to serve the public; we don’t want to put stuff out there that nobody’s interested in. But what we also do is put things out that people don’t think they’re going to be interested in until they get here. For example, if I did an exhibition on muscle cars, I’d better have a Pontiac GTO, but do people really understand that the 1950s Chrysler C300 was arguably America’s first muscle car? So you put one of those out there, too, and people start looking at it a little bit differently.”

At just 20 years old, the Petersen is young in the museum world, and there are plans to expand its building, with work starting at the end of the year to revamp the exterior and provide more floor space for more cars. This will give Kendall and his team a chance to showcase yet another angle of automobile appreciation – the art of car design.

“We’re going to start treating the automobile a little more explicitly as an object of art,” he says. “A lot of people don’t even consider that cars are designed objects and they have beauty as well as function. They can be appreciated as art. Indeed, the New York Museum of Modern Art got its first car in the 1950s, and they’ve had at least one car in the collection, to my knowledge, ever since. It’s a legitimate art form akin to sculpture.”

The revamp, made possible by donations to the museum as well as the entry fees paid by visitors, should ensure that the Petersen becomes even more of a must-see for car enthusiasts visiting Los Angeles. In the meantime, if you’re not able to get to LA, keep an eye on car shows around the world – the Petersen’s outreach programme involves lending cars to a wide variety of other events both in the United States and internationally.

“We want to make the public aware of what we are,” says Kendall. “We want to bring our objects out there. We don’t want to just sneak them over into the garage at night and hide them under a cover; we want to trot them out and show ­people.

“We want to say: ‘Look at these spectacular things, aren’t they great? And if you think this is special, wait until you see the ­museum.’”

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Published: July 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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