The Petersen Automotive Museum – II

There is nothing permanent except change

– Heraclitus

Keep ’em Coming Back!

The PetersenAtNight02

When Board Co-Chairman Peter Mullen cut the ribbon on the newly renovated Petersen Automotive Museum back in December, 2014, one of his stated goals was to reverse the ratio of first-time attendees to repeaters, which had been somewhere around 65/35 before the remodel. To improve attendance and widen the educational impact of the Museum such a switch was mandatory.

The many new interactive displays helped a little. The museum is now stuffed with screens that can be swiped and clicked for hours, making it impossible to experience it all in one, or even two or three visits. So far, it’s worked. Repeat attendance is up.

The Gallery Displays

The focus of any automobile museum though, is the cars. They are the candy that tempts the kids (of whatever age) to trek to a wild-looking building on the southwest corner of the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. Until they do that, all the fancy screens and Jay Leno narrations are just so much inert hardware.

So they began rotating cars out of the exhibits. The first ones to rotate were the Precious Metal cars in the Bruce Meyer Gallery on the Second Floor. If you showed up for the first days of the New Petersen, you saw some spectacular cars finished in silver. If you waited to show your friends, some of your favorites might have been replaced.

Yes, this is a color photograph – Ferrari, Horch, Duesenberg and a fender of 007’s Aston Martin DB5. On Opening Day of the New Petersen, the Bruce Meyer Gallery was host to (among others) three winners of the prestigious Best in Show award from the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. If you didn’t get to the Museum in time, you missed two (and the Aston).

The Hollywood Cars also rotate frequently. At the opening, one of the Aston Martin DB10s from the James Bond Feature Spectre was shown, but only briefly. In that slot, the exhibit now features the replica Duesenberg used in the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby.

The novel The Great Gatsby was set in 1922, six years before the introduction of the Duesenberg Model J, but reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s car, it matches this recreation of a Duesenberg J Dual Cowl Phaeton perfectly. Of course no collector would risk a real J in the scenes portrayed in the Robert Redford film.

The Grand Salon

On October 23, 2016, most of the Art Deco Cars of the first exhibit in the Peter Mullin Great Salon were replaced with a new exhibit, the Art of Bugatti.

The Bugatti family was prolific in many art forms.

The installation features not just cars, but art in various media from various members of the Bugatti family, including original paintings and drawings by Carlo, Rembrandt and Lydia Bugatti from the Mullin Automotive Museum and elsewhere. The most compelling for us are Rembrandt Bugatti’s bronzes, but you’ll pardon us for concentrating on the cars.

Sympathetic Sculpture

The story of this member of the Bugatti family is particularly heart-rending. Born in 1884, Rembrandt Bugatti showed early talent in sculpting, and combined his skill and a deep empathy with animals to create remarkable renderings of animals he befriended and studied in the Antwerp Zoo. He suffered from depression, and when he returned from ambulance duty in WWI he found that feed shortages had led the Zoo to euthanize many of the animals he had come to love. He took his own life in January, 1916.

Above: Mes Antilopes. 1908. Cast Bronze. National Arts Program, USA.
Below: Grande Girafe, Tete Basse (Grand Giraffe, head lowered), 1913, Cast Bronze. From a private collection on loan from The Slademore Gallery, London. One sold for an estimated $1/$1.5 million in 2010.

Crouching Jaguar. Cast bronze. 1908. From the Mullin Automobile Museum.

The Cars

Not all the cars from the opening exhibit were replaced, since there is a substantial overlap between the Art Deco Era and Bugatti’s cars.

Jean Bugatti’s Masterpiece

Jean Bugatti created what is considered by many to be the ultimate expression of Art Deco automotive styling, the Aérolithe coupe, shown at the 1935 Paris Auto Salon. Its body was constructed of one of the Elektron alloys of aluminum and magnesium produced by the British company of that name. Magnesium burns intensely, so it could not be welded. As a result, standing seams and aircraft-style riveting were employed. The styling affectation was adapted to the three “production” examples built, though they were constructed of an aluminum alloy without the magnesium component.

Three Type 57SC Atlantic coupes (“S” for “Surbaissé” [Lowered], and “C” for “Compresseur” [Supercharger]) were built. One was destroyed in a collision with a train. This is the one owned by a consortium that includes Petersen Co-Chairman Peter Mullin, and normally resides in his museum. The other is owned by Ralph Lauren. Both have won Best in Show at Pebble Beach.

Royally Resplendent

Envisioning an automobile fit for a king or queen, Ettore Bugatti produced the consensus greatest luxury automobile of the Classic Era, the Type 41, called the Royale, though no royalty ever took delivery. Alphonso of Spain was deposed before he could accept his car, and the car on display spent WWII in the sewers of Paris without ever making it into the possession of the King of Romania. Only six were built, and only three sold to the public.

To offer some perspective, the Bugatti Royale’s chassis is over a foot longer than the long chassis Duesenberg Model J, and its engine is 360 cubic inches (85%) larger. The Chassis alone cost $30,000 – about $2.0 million in today’s money. Coachwork, perhaps another $5,000 worth, ran the gamut from an incredibly long and flamboyant roadster to stodgy formal limousine.

Their twenty-four inch wheels prevented what might have been a disastrous wheel-to-body proportion, and the cars appear surprisingly well balanced considering their size.

This is the second Type 41 (other than the prototype, which was destroyed), chassis 41111. Originally bodied as a rumble seat roadster, it was rebodied in 1938, and is known as the Coupé de Ville Binder, after the coachbuilder. Now in Bugatti’s own collection. The Rearing Elephant mascot (Shown: example from the Type 41 in the Henry Ford Museum) is from an earlier sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti.

Word is that a 57SC Atlantic and a Type 41 Royale have never before been shown together.

The Home Team

Among those shown are several from the Petersen Museum’s own collection, including a show winner with royal provenance.

Bugatti Type 57C “Prince of Persia.” In 1939 the French government commissioned Vanvooren to create this virtual copy of the contemporary Delahaye 165 Cabriolet by Figoni et Falaschi, right down to the retractable windscreen. Unconfirmed reports claim Vanvooren got the commission because Figoni et Falaschi asked for too much money for the work. The French presented it to the Prince of Persia, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, future Shah of Iran, as a wedding gift. It won the French Cup at Pebble Beach in 2014.

The Atalante

The Type 57 chassis was foundation for some of Bugatti’s most elegant cars. Many of them were designed by Ettore’s son Jean, like this 57C Atalante “Long Tail” that we might call a “sunroof coupe” today. Executed by Gangloff, the Petersen’s is the only one with that roll-back roof and chrome side spear. 

Not technically a Petersen car, but its owner Bruce Meyer is Co-Chair of the museum, so the exhibit’s 1935 Type 57 Ventoux Coupe is a family member. Said to be one of the purest of Jean Bugatti’s designs, this one entered a private collection in France and spent over forty years hidden away.

The Mullin Cars

Peter Mullin’s Type 57C Atalante, without the Petersen car’s long tail, looks a little blunt. His is a rare postwar car, built by Jean Bugatti to his prewar design from leftover parts in 1949.

There was some stirring of concern when Peter Mullin, owner of the eponymous museum in Oxnard that features French cars exclusively, was made Co-Chairman of the Petersen. The fear was that a museum founded in California car culture, dry lakes racing, and the hot rod (Robert Petersen’s first publication was Hot Rod magazine), would become a satellite of the Mullin.

Maybe it did not, but an argument could be made that as of now it looks as though his gallery at the Petersen is.

With an opening exhibit of cars from the Art Deco era, many if not most of which were French, and many of those from his museum, the argument might have had some support. When it was followed here by an exhibit dominated by perhaps the most well-known French car of the classic era, the Bugatti, many of them his, it’s difficult to avoid an impression that this is a trend.

But really, who can blame him, or the Petersen? He has one of the greatest Bugattis (see the Type 57SC Atlantic, above), perhaps the greatest collection of Gallic road art extant, and the connections to see to it that any he does not own are graciously put at his disposal for an exhibit that is hard to fault on curatorial grounds.

The car that cemented Bugatti in the history of auto racing was the Type 35C. Instantly recognizable features include the most classic version of the horseshoe radiator, and one-piece, radial spoke, alloy center-lock wheel/brake drums. These cars were nearly unbeatable on the track, winning over 1,000 races in their day, including five consecutive Targa Florios from 1925 through 1929. Chassis 4634, above, a 1925 car, was acquired by Peter Mullin in 1991.

Before he allied himself with Ovidio Falaschi, Giuseppe Figoni created many custom bodies for a variety of European automakers. The Type 43 fitted one of his elegant open bodies to the Type 43 racing car that was based on the Type 35. This 1928 one was fitted with a Type 44 engine in 1959. Materials do not explain the reference to Parma on the bonnet.

Carriage-style bodywork characterized the 1929 Type 44 Fiacre. One of the more stately styled Type 41s had similar coachwork on a larger scale. 

The Type 46 was designed as a smaller version of the Type 41, more powerful than the 43 or 44, but significantly more accessible than the Royale. Nearly 500 Type 46s were built, of which this convertible coupé is one of only 30 to survive.

In 1931 Bugatti introduced a light and powerful version of the 46, powered by a 5.0 liter version its 5.4, designed after the Miller engines that ran at Indianapolis. In supercharged form the Type 50 produced a torquey 225 horsepower, causing some trepidation among British agents about the prospects of these speedsters tearing up narrow British country lanes. It requires little imagination to visualize this car’s previous owner, legendary automotive journalist Ken Purdy, doing the same on American roads.

gnore the horseshoe radiator and center-lock one-piece alloy wheel/brake drums and this could be an MG, Morgan or SS Jaguar – probably accounting for our affection for the car. The Type 54 boasted an impressive 300 horsepower in 1931, and only ten were built, mostly in open-wheel racing form. The literature states that they tended to throw their tires.

After the type 54 it’s hard to justify the Type 55, with a mere 130 horsepower, as the “ultimate sports car” as stated in the accompanying literature, but it certainly looks more “Bugatti-ish.” Based on the Gran Prix Type 51, it carries the unmistakable Jean Bugatti Style.

Of the Type 57s, this Aravis is said to have been Jean Bugatti’s favorite. One of the eleven with body executed by Gangloff, the other eight were built by Letourneur et Marchand.

After the War

Revival Attempts

Contemporary style and power, with hints of Jaguar XK in the nose and room for four did not capture the imagination when the 101 was introduced in 1950. It’s chassis was little changed from the Type 57 and although no price is quoted, it was said to be high. Chassis number 101501, this is the only 101C, indicating it is supercharged. Now in the Mullin Collection, it was once a feature of the Pantheon Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

New Management

Romano Artioli bought the Bugatti trademark in 1987 and commissioned Giampaolo Benedini to build an ultramodern factory outside Ferrari hometown Modena.  Both the Petersen and the Mullin have examples of the only product of that endeavor.

The EB110 (“EB” for Ettore Bugatti, “110” for the 110th anniversary of his birth in 1991) was the first “supercar” to feature a carbon fiber chassis. Its 3.5 liter five-valve V12 was quad-turbocharged and rated at 611 horsepower in Super Sport trim (as in the Mullin car above), driving all four wheels. In that form it was the fastest car available at the time, surpassing by five the Jaguar XJ220’s measured top speed of 213 mph.

Volkswagen Takes the Helm


The trademark name Bugatti and its logo were acquired by Volkswagen in 1998, and development of several projects was begun. The only production product of that development was the EB 16/4 Veyron, introduced in 2001 but not sold to the public until 2005.

The Veyron on display has a clear coat over its blue-dyed carbon fiber body. The roof scoops identify it as the “base” car ($1,260,000). The Super Sport (1,200 hp, top speed 267.856 mph but limited to 258 to spare the $25,000 Michelin PAX Pilot tires), has NACA ducts to reduce drag.

The original Veyron simply set the standard for road-legal “production” cars. Jaded writers accustomed to picking apart any car with pretensions of superiority were reduced to babbling about the insufficiency of superlatives. With 1,001 horsepower (Rated. In truth it was around 1,010, but who’s counting?) from its four-bank, four-turbo 16.4 liter “W16,” it was tested by Car and Driver on Volkswagen’s Ehra-Lessien test track and achieved 253 miles per hour. At that speed it would drain its gas tank (26.4 gallons) in 19 minutes – 80 miles.

After eleven years, the claims of various specialty manufacturers regarding top speed need to be addressed. One-off Bonneville racers are obviously disqualified. As to production cars, we cite the FIA standard that was applied to GT cars in order to be considered “production” in the ’60s – a minimum production run of 100 identical cars. 450 Veyrons have been produced to date, while none of the challengers have produced 100.

Cooling an engine with 1,500 horsepower takes a lot of air, and Bugatti has cleverly incorporated a classic Bugatti styling “swoop” into the intake system of the new Chiron. All the statistics for the Veyron are bumped up a notch, and it’s only a matter of time before this car is declared the new top speed record holder. Volkswagen claims they make a profit on them at $2.6 million.


In 1939 Jean Bugatti began work on a Type 64 chassis and body. Three Chassis, with a 130 inch wheelbase and powered by a 4.4 liter DOHC 16-valve straight eight, were completed, but the Atlantic-style body, with its signature “papillon” doors, never was. Peter Mullin acquired one of the chassis in 2003, and organized a project to complete the car as close to Jean’s vision as possible.

Following “decades of research” Mr. Mullin challenged the Art Center College of Design students to realize Jean Bugatti’s project. The final result is the product of the school’s Chair of Transportation Design Stewart Reed’s design, and Mike Kleeve’s Automotive Shaping’s execution. A full-size mahogany buck was constructed and body panels were hammered in the traditional manner and checked against the body buck,

The body was unveiled at The Art Center’s annual Car Classic on October 27, 2013.

Marine Experiment

The plan was to offer several sizes of self-powered dinghy, the Type 75, designed and executed with typical Bugatti thoroughness.  Somewhere between five and ten prototypes were built, and thousands of brochures published, but the planned 1948 launch at the Maisons-Lafitte boatyard never happened. Called the “You-You,” it was to have been powered by a 170cc engine of about five horsepower.

Constructed of mahogany and spruce using thousands of small copper rivets the Type 75 “You-You” dinghy on display was so fresh from the shop that the faint scent of linseed oil still hung about it.

A New Attraction

The re-imagined Petersen Automotive Museum was a hit from the day it opened. The new displays in the Mullin Family Gallery contain enough automotive gems from the Bugatti oeuvre to bring people back and satisfy the car buff, with sufficient information for the casual visitor to come away informed. In addition there is considerable scholarship available in the displays and interactive features for those seeking deeper background.

One of the goals of the Museum is to put the automobile and its history in a larger context, the non-automotive parts of the new exhibit would seem to advance that goal well.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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4 Responses to The Petersen Automotive Museum – II

  1. RW Klarin says:

    As always Dick, you’ve offered an insightful and perspicacious review of the exhibits of Peterson Museum, I dig the Peterson, but I deplore their interest in what I call ‘ersatz cars:’ Cars that are made exclusively for movies/ TV. (By the way, there is almost an infinity of ‘vehicles’ that could be placed in such a museum.) I see it as a blatant appeal to a bigger audience. I LIKE niche places====in this case, ‘car museum.’ I salute your effort to highlight the Bugattis, real cars with innovative design. Calling out the ‘dinghy’: pure boguscity, as our late brother might call it. But with all respect, what do the sculpture pieces have to do with cars? I feel you’re seeking a theme here. Please don’t devolve into anything ‘transportation’ as the website—Fine but that isn’t the gist of a good story. What’s the angle? Enough said. Don’t devolve into the format of ‘Hot Laps…”

    • Well you succeeded in putting me on the defensive. The theme of the exhibit is Bugatti, and that name encompasses more than cars. I’m reporting on what’s there, with my own emphasis on the cars. As I said, they are the candy that draws people in. Someone in the management wants to expand the museum’s cultural scope, and thereby increase its supposed intellectual legitimacy. It’s a conceit I do not support, but what could I do? Ignore it? I reported it as briefly as I could in good conscience. The sculpture story touched me.

      • RW Klarin says:

        I understand and respect your pov. I needed to voice as a loyal and avid follower of your blog. In the ardor of the moment, I didn’t write the name of the other website, let ‘hot laps…’ suffice. Thanks for identifying the ‘supposed intellectual legitimacy.’ My understanding is ‘descends into pandering.’

  2. Someone at the Petersen (No names, please, I sent a link to their publicity department.) thinks that cars are not a legitimate enough cultural or artistic study to stand on their own, apparently.

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