Los Angeles’ Museum Row Gets New Landmark Look
The exterior treatment of the new Petersen is stunning, especially at night.
As media reaction to the new Petersen Automotive Museum exterior’s hot rod flame treatment rolls out it’s difficult not to be reminded of how critics panned the design of the Disney Concert Hall downtown.
Our most vivid recollection is of someone remarking that it looked as though they’d left the architectural model sitting out in the rain. A while back we had an extended opportunity to experience it on a daily basis, and it seemed everyone who passed was admiring it. Look at any rack of postcards in the area and you’re sure to find pictures of it. It’s become something of a symbol of the city.
In our opinion, the new Petersen is headed toward that kind of acceptance. It will be the southwest anchor of the Miracle Mile and Museum Row in Los Angeles, and as one critic admitted, the public will probably love it.
The Penthouse Deck on the fourth floor retains the original tea room from the days of the original Seibu Department Store that constitutes the bones of the building, with the exuberant treatment of the building exterior flowing overhead.
You don’t have to pay the admission fee to see a few great cars at the Petersen. The Mullin Family Concourse is open to the public, giving access to all of Museum Row from the Petersen’s garage, and teases with a few automotive treasures to entice you in.
Walking into the concourse, one of the first cars you see now is among the most famous of the Petersen Collection, this 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I – the “Round-Door Rolls.”
Originally an open car, the Round Door Rolls was rebodied by truck builder Jonckheer of Belgium in 1934, reportedly for the sole purpose of winning concours. It worked. The car won the Prix d’Honneur at the Concours d’Elegance at Cannes in 1936. The car had a short show-biz career in a carnival, painted gold and passed off as the Prince of Wales’ ride. Found in derelict condition, it is one of the few cars in the collection actually restored under the Petersens’ care.
The previous Museum’s first floor consisted of a Streetscape, depicting the history of Los Angeles and the cars that facilitated its sprawl, illustrated in dioramas and exhibiting cars from the times. The second floor had an alternative fuels exhibit and several galleries for rotating exhibits based on themes. The third floor had offices and the Discovery Center where kids could learn about cars and play with automotive-themed artifacts.
The trouble with that scheme was that it severely limited how many of the over 300 cars in the Petersen Collection could be displayed at any one time, not to mention any cars loaned from other collectors and museums.
Now all three floors are chock-full of cars, arranged in three themes. They are arranged so that they are best experienced from the top down.
The Third Floor
Administrative offices went to the basement and it’s now themed as the History of the Automobile, arranged by themes rather than chronology.
It starts with one of the Museum’s Crown Jewels, the Steve McQueen 1956 Jaguar XK-SS, in front of a screen showing a film about what we like about our cars, what we do with them, and where we go with them.
On this floor there’s everything from the Collection’s 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen to one of the earliest pilot production Dodge Viper SRT8s.
There’s a row of cars associated with Hollywood, including the Volkswagen van from Little Miss Sunshine, one of Fatty Arbuckle’s cars (a Renault), Elvis Presley’s DeTomaso Pantera, complete with the bullet holes it got when he shot it for failing to start, the Magnum P.I. Ferrari, and an Aston Martin DB10 from the James Bond movie Spectre.
One of the James Bond Aston Martins, a DB5 FHC from Goldfinger, complete with ejector seat and tire slicers, is included in the Precious Metal exhibit. This one, a DB10 from Spectre, closes the Circle to date, and is among the Hollywood cars on exhibit, a small sample of the Museum’s extensive collection.
There are rods and customs, including two of the nine America’s Most Beautiful Roadsters (AMBR) in the Petersen’s Collection. One is the very first rod to win the AMBR award in 1950 at the Oakland Roadster Show (now the Grand National Roadster Show, held in Pomona).
We’re not alone in considering this the most beautiful custom car ever built. 26 years ago Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist for ZZ Top commissioned legendary customizer Boyd Coddington to create CadZZilla on a 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Sedanette foundation based on a concept Gibbons imagined with Cadillac designer Larry Erickson. Gibbons shows the car here and there, but usually it calls the Petersen home.
Recently deceased George Barris partnered with his brother Sam in 1952 to create the quintessential ’49-51 Mercury “Kustom Koupe,” chopping the top and removing the “B” pillars, among other features.
Appropriate for a museum founded by the Petersens and co-chaired by prominent hot rod collector Bruce Meyer, hot rods have a significant presence, including one that pretty much set the pattern for Deuce roadsters.
The genesis of the Doane Spencer Roadster, currently a key component of Petersen Co-Chair Bruce Meyer’s collection, goes all the way back to 1944. It’s the first Deuce to be fitted with a DuVall windshield (Hot rodders keep track of these things.) and introduced other features later copied on other Deuces. At one time it was prepared to race in the Carrera Panamericana, receiving extra chassis bracing and exhaust was channeled through the frame rails for improved ground clearance.
The “Niekamp” Roadster, winner of the first AMBR award. Like most rods, it’s made up of pieces from four or five different cars, with some custom fabricated parts. In the Background is a mildly customized Mercury, and the largest-selling motorized vehicle in history, the 50cc Honda Cub.
In 2010 Scott’s Hot Rods were racing literally up to the last minute to meet the 12:00 deadline for entering “Possessed” in the AMBR competition, facing setbacks like wrong-size tires and a freeway snarl between Oxnard and Pomona 90 miles away. They arrived at the scrutineers with the trailer dragging traffic cones and chased by parking attendants, at 11:59. The story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they hadn’t won.
General Motors didn’t want any of its concept cars to fall into private hands, and ordered them destroyed. Fortunately for us, several were discovered in pieces in a junk yard by Joe Bortz, who rescued them and restored them. This is the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne XP37, whose lines hold up pretty well today. Sharp eyes may recognize some design elements that showed up in the Corvette and Corvair.
The Second Floor
The Second floor is dedicated to the Automotive Industry. Everything from the earliest stages of product planning to the showroom floor is explored. There’s even a studio that’s an extension of the Art Center College of Design, where design students will work on their projects.
Car construction is illustrated with a cutaway of a Jaguar XKF.
The new Discovery Center lures the kids (of all sizes) in with interactive displays created by Pixar, using its Cars characters (with the actual actors voicing them) to demonstrate how cars work, and allowing the participants to design their own cars.
Lightning McQueen, in full size, gets star billing in the new Discovery center. The movie character was actually engineered according to current NASCAR practice to insure accurate depiction of the car’s behavior on the road or track (up to a point, of course) in the movie. As a result, the interactive displays that show his inner workings are both correct and true to the character.
There is an exhibit showing the stages of building a Maserati Quatroporte, one of the most beautiful four-door sedans available today. Here is the Final Product.
Motorsports as a driver of design and engineering is a major theme on the second floor. One large room displays significant racing cars from the Nearburg Collection, with a 180 degree wrap-around film depicting racing in all its varieties and nuances.
Road racing in the early ’50s was contested by the greats – Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, etc. Not to be forgotten is Lancia, whose D24s won both the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia. This 1953 D24R is the car that Juan Manuel Fangio drove to victory in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana.
In the electronic age, it is not just racing that manufacturers use to convey an image of performance. Ford reaps tremendous PR from the YouTube exploits of Ken Block in his 650 horsepower all-wheel drive Ford Fiesta.
In many cases, it was the work of back-yard mechanics and the shops that served them that pushed American manufacturers to improve performance in their cars. Young men who had learned skills in the service during WWII came home and continued a tradition begun long before, of building their own cars from pieces of others, perhaps scavenged in junk yards.
Robert Petersen was the first to recognize the popularity of hot rodding and put the sport in print. In January of 1948 he published Volume One Number One of Hot Rod magazine. Regg Schlemmer’s roadster graced the cover of that issue (inset), and served as the inspiration for Roy Brizio’s tribute car, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the magazine.
Two Wheels Only
There was a short period in transportation history when the fastest form of travel was by motorcycle. The Petersen’s extremely compact motorcycle exhibit spans from a 1903 Thor to a 2015 Kawasaki supercharged liter bike with over 300 horsepower. In between there are bikes with one, two, four, six and eight cylinders (unaccountably omitting the Triumph and BSA triples), and an example of some of the most significant motorcycles ever. The word “iconic” is grossly overused but certainly applies here.
Other motorcycles, such as Steve McQueen’s Indian Big Chief and an example of the first four-cylinder motorcycle can be found on the third floor.
Anyone who has seen the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia has seen a Brough Superior. T. E. Lawrence owned at least four of these expensive motorcycles, and it was on one of these that he crashed in 1935 as seen in the movie. This is “Old Bill” the prototype SS80 that George Brough himself raced to great success in hill climbs. The Red machine behind on the left is a Crocker, built in Los Angeles and said to outperform the Indians and Harley-Davidsons of the day.
Today we seem awash in silver cars. At one time though, the combination of silver paint and lots of bright metal was a feature of the most elegant and prestigious cars, going back to AX201, the 1907 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce. For its opening, the Museum presents ten stunning silver cars, ranging from a Ghia Fiat Supersonic two-liter V8 to the all-conquering “Silver Arrow” Mercedes Benz W196.
Standing in one place, one is within feet of three cars that have won the prestigious title of Best in Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Viewed over the starboard wing of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, on the right is the Nethercutt’s 1933 Duesenberg J Rolston Arlington Torpedo Sedan called the “Twenty Grand” for it’s purchase price. On the left is Jon Shirley’s 1953 Ferrari 375 MM, originally owned by film director Roberto Rosellini who had it rebodied by Scaglietti. Behind it is the 2009 Best in Show 1937 Horch 853 Cabriolet, with a few period-correct enhancements added since it won.
The Mullin Collection’s 1938 Hispano Suiza Dubonnet Xenia with aero bodywork by Saoutchick. There are more typical examples of French coachwork in the first floor Mullin gallery, but none more impressive than this. The doors open parallel to the car’s axis on patented parallelogram hinges, and the suspension design by the heir to the Dubonnet aperitif fortune, André Dubonnet, was bought by General Motors.
The First Floor
Art on Autos, and Vice Versa
In 1975 Hervé Poulain persuaded BMW Motorsport Director Jochen Neerpasch to supply a car for him to race at Le Mans. He then commissioned American artist Alexander Calder to unleash his creativity on the car, creating the first “Art Car.” The idea caught on, and BMW bought into the idea, commissioning 17 other artists to create their own versions. The Armand Hammer Foundation Gallery was devoted to an exhibition relating that series.
The car that started it all. 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL Le Mans race car with decorative paint job by Alexander Calder. Behind it is the BMW 850si painted by David Hockney, and on the wall are pictures and descriptions of the other BMW Art Cars.
It’s one thing to paint a car, but BMW got creative and used a car to paint. This is a section of a huge “canvas” created by taking the BMW Z4 displayed and applying paint to its tires with squirters, then driving it as directed by the artist, Robin Rhode.
Cars as Sculpture
The Art Deco movement affected every aspect of design. On cars it manifested as an attempt to capture the idea of speed and motion in the design of the vehicle itself. Aerodynamics were studied and applied. The result in many cases was a car that looked as though it was moving fast while standing still.
Since the French were at the forefront of the movement, there are bound to be mutterings that the Museum’s Board Co-Chairman Peter Mullin is turning a museum founded on hot rodding into a French car museum, but with an entire museum of his own in Oxnard devoted to that theme, there’s little to fear.
The upside of the Mullin connection is that the Petersen gets to show some of the most stunning cars ever built. The car rumored to have set a record for the private sale of a car ($35 million), the 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic above, was in the Art of the Automobile display.
With almost 100,000 square feet of display space, the reader will understand that only a tiny fraction of the experience is documented here, and no photograph can convey what you experience seeing it in person. On top of that are all the interactive features, including the Forza Racing Experience, where you can drive a simulator and compete with real racing drivers and your friends and neighbors. During the real Le Mans race in June you can actually race in real time as though you were there.
So the obvious admonition is to get down to the Petersen Automotive Museum yourself and experience it personally. Admission fees are reasonable (Adults: $15, Students and Seniors: $12, Kids: $7, Under 3 free). The first 20 minutes of parking is free if you want to dash in and buy a Holiday gift at the store.
CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility
Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist: Dick Stewart.
All photographs are by the author unless attributed otherwise.