The Petersen Automotive Museum’s 10 Best
On the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, at the beginning of Los Angeles’ “Miracle Mile,” sits the Petersen Automotive Museum. Founded in 1994 by magazine magnate Robert E. Petersen, the Petersen Museum rose to become one of the world’s premier automotive museums and today attracts visitors from all over the globe to view the approximately 150 cars on display at any given time. With an inventory ranging from Ferraris to Fords, the Monkeemobile to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s custom 1942 Lincoln and a countless number of rare and classic cars that come through the museum on loan, the Petersen Museum has something for everyone.
Founded with the idea that all the museum’s cars would not be on display at the same time, the Petersen Museum has 8 permanent exhibitions that it compliments with a variety of temporary exhibits. Given the principle of not putting all its cars on display at the same time, the museum rotates cars in and out of exhibits to keep the museum feeling fresh every time a visitor returns. With permanent exhibits including the famed “Streetscape: The Car and the City in Southern California,” “Hollywood Gallery: Cars of Film and Hollywood” and “Discovery Center” as well as temporary exhibits like “Braving Baja: 1000 Miles to Glory” and “Fins: Form Without Function,” it’s lucky for our boss that the Petersen Museum isn’t located in New England, as it’s doubtful CarGurus employees would ever show up to work with such a collection in our backyard.
1. When first entering the Petersen Museum, we’d recommend making a beeline straight to “Aerodynamics: From Art to Science,” one of the coolest exhibits the Museum has to offer, as it won’t be there much longer. Opened on June 16, 2012, and set to close on the 27th of this month, the exhibit explores the various styling developments that brought us to where cars are today, specifically exploring the relationship between art and science that has given us some of the most outlandish, as well as the most beautiful, cars this world has ever seen. Loaded with everything from a 1928 Martin Aerodynamic to a Bugatti Veyron, this exhibit satisfies both the inner nerd and the speed demon in us all.
2. The product of a bygone era, our next favorite Petersen Museum exhibit is itself a part of a bygone era: the early 2000s. Opened on June 1, 2001, and running until January 1 of the following year, “Cars & Guitars of Rock ‘n Roll” was a natural hit, pairing some of the world’s most famous guitars with the awesome cars that chauffeured them from concert to concert (ok, probably not). A crowd favorite in its time, the exhibit included such machines as Billy Gibbons’ (ZZ Top) 1948 “CadZZilla,” Bob Weir’s (Grateful Dead) 1963 Corvette, Sammy Hagar’s 1967 Shelby Mustang, Elvis Presley’s 1976 Cadillac Eldorado and 1972 De Tomaso Pantera (still sporting bullet holes in the floor and steering wheel, caused after the King became frustrated that the car wouldn’t start) and, of course, the Monkeemobile (based on the 1966 Pontiac GTO). Not to leave music-lovers in the cold, the exhibit made sure to have an impressive selection of axes on display, too, showing off Bob Dylan’s Martin D-28, one of Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocasters, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Hamiltone custom Strat and B.B. King’s “Lucille,” just to name a few from the long and impressive list.
3. Based on a popular 2006 exhibit, this now-permanent exhibition, “Alternative Power,” is both all and none of what one would expect it to be. Boasting a wide array of ground-breaking and trend-setting electric cars, including a General Motors EV1, the Museum pays tribute to the trail-blazing cars that made it possible for cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model S to become household names today. That being said, the exhibit delves into much more than just electric power, showing off a variety of cars and engines powered by turbines, fuel cells, biodiesel and ethanol. If that’s not enough for you, be sure to check out the steam engine from an 1899 Locomobile sitting prominently on display.
4. Our next favorite exhibit celebrates raw speed and power: “Muscle Cars: Power to the People.” Although it was only open for a brief, 4-month period in 2005, this exhibit was an instant hit, drawing to it all that loved the roaring, tire-squealing rides produced from 1955-1971. Drawing on the production of all 4 major American manufacturers at the time (Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and American Motors), the exhibit displayed powerful muscle cars from each and gave us a look at both the stylistic and technological advances that brought muscle cars to the forefront of American society for that brief, magical time.
5. While muscle cars (along with their exhibit at the Petersen Museum) may have had a limited lifespan, our next exhibit does not (and neither do the cars in it): “The Bruce Meyer Gallery: Hot Rods.” One of the museums eight permanent exhibits, the Bruce Meyer Gallery celebrates all that is good about cars. Featuring 1932 Fords, T-Buckets and anything else that can be chopped, lowered and transformed into some of the coolest, fastest and loudest cars on the planet, the exhibit showcases these gems of the American road.
6. Our next Petersen favorite celebrates the legacy of one man: Chip Foose. A tribute to the Southern California-born custom car builder and Overhaulin’ star, “Chip Foose: From Pen to Pavement” was a feature exhibit at the museum from March to November of 2006. One of America’s most famous custom car builders, the exhibit looked at all that Foose put into his cars, from the early design stage, to fabrication and, ultimately, final product. However, visitors didn’t only get to see Foose’s 1935 Chevrolet “Grand Master” (2001 Street Rod of the Year and 2002 Ridler Award winner), 1927 Ford Roadster (Hot Rod Magazine’s 50th Anniversary Cover Car) and 1934 Mercury “Stallion” (2003 Ridler Award winner), they also got an inside look at Foose’s personal and professional life, with the exhibit chronicling his early influences and rise to custom-car stardom.
7. While Chip Foose’s approach is to take cool cars and make them insanely awesome, our next favorite exhibit explored a national industry that tends to skip that step and just produce cars that are downright remarkable from the get go: “Sculpture in Motion: Masterpieces of Italian Design.” There is no country out there whose auto industry gets kids and adults dreaming about beautiful cars as much as Italy, home to the likes of Lamborghini, Ferrari, Lancia, Cisitalia, Bertone and Alfa Romeo. For an all-too-short period of time (February 2012-Feburary 2013), the Petersen Museum played host to this spectacular exhibit, showing off some of the most aesthetically pleasing cars to ever hit the road, including a 1970 Lancia Stratos concept and a 1947 Cisitalia (the first car to be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).
8. Named after a long-time publisher of the Los Angeles Times (and car and motorcycle aficionado), the “Otis Chandler Gallery: Motorcycles” shows off some of the greatest two-wheeled wonders to ever see pavement. Another of the Petersen Museum’s permanent exhibits, the Otis Chandler Gallery is the home of some of the rarest and most unique motorcycles in the world, including a 1907 Indian, a 1948 Vincent HRD, loads of Harley-Davidsons and a 1946 Jordan Twin Crank Four (designed and built by one of the first motorcycle officers of the California Highway Patrol). The exhibit takes a look at the development of the motorcycle and pays special attention to bikes that were technologically advanced for their time.
9. If there were one type of car synonymous with the City of Angels, it would be the convertible. In the year 2007, the Petersen Museum paid homage to the car seemingly designed specifically for the picturesque climate that is Southern California with the exhibit: “Going Topless in Style: The American Convertible.” Playing on the long history and legacy that the convertible has in the region, the exhibition explored the development of the American convertible from its early days to the 1970s production halt and then again from the 1980s resumption up to the modern day. With a Ford Model T, 1939 Plymouth, 1958 Dual-Ghia and 1930 Packard on display, this is one exhibit we’re very depressed we missed.
10. Where can you see Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 Chrysler Imperial, an 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, a 1903 Cadillac, a 2008 Ferrari Superamerica and a 1939 Bugatti Type 57C? At our favorite exhibit at the Petersen Museum: “The Vault.” Home to an impressive collection that would make Jay Leno jealous (if he wasn’t such a fan of it), the Vault sits in the museum’s basement, well away from the hubbub of the museum floor. If you are in Southern California and decide to visit the Petersen Museum, be warned that the Vault is not open the same hours as the rest of the museum. Requiring a special ticket ($25), guests can only visit the Vault on guided tours with a museum official and are recommended to make reservations before visiting. Considering that guests get an up-close and personal look at some of the world’s most famous cars in the Vault (i.e., no velvet ropes), we consider the additional $25 cost to be a steal.
The Petersen Automotive Museum is located at 6060 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, and is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 AM–6 PM, year-round. For more information, visit www.petersen.org or call 323-930-CARS (2277).
Have you visited the Petersen Automotive Museum? Which exhibit(s) impressed you most?