Motoring writer Jez Spinks was in paradise when he recently visited LA’s landmark Petersen Automotive Museum.
Contemporary art museums that are as striking to look at as the modern masterpieces displayed within aren’t uncommon, though one displaying historical automobiles is a greater cultural rarity.
Sitting at one end of Los Angeles’ famous Miracle Mile is a car museum to match the visual aura of the likes of New York’s Guggenheim or Paris’s Centre Pompidou – a red-box building encased by 100 tonnes of swirling stainless-steel ribbon.
The controversial façade created a critical stir when it formed part of a US$90 million renovation in 2015 for the Petersen Automotive Museum, which was founded 21 years earlier by late publishing magnate and philanthropist Robert E. Petersen.
There’s normalised modernity inside, rightfully leaving it to the 300-odd cars on display to be the focus of attention. The main museum comprises three levels, with the ground floor dedicated to artistry of the car, the second focused on industry (and including a working in-house design centre), and the top floor exploring the history of the car.
More than 100 touchscreens bring an interactive element to the otherwise static exhibitions. The museum regularly interchanges displays to encourage repeat visits, and runs special feature displays. Our visit included sections devoted to US racer Dan Gurney and an impressive Bugatti collection.
There are plenty of cars, though, worth seeing multiple times. In the ‘Precious Metal’ section, five cars worth about US$130m alone include a 1954 Mercedes W196 ‘silver arrow’ race car driven by legends Juan-Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, a 1962 Ferrari 250GT, and a 1964 Porsche 904 Carrera GTS.
For fans of cars from the big and small screen, the Film and TV section includes the Back to the Future DeLorean DMC-12 that’s on permanent loan from Universal Pictures, the Batmobile from the Michael Keaton Batman movies, a Herbie Beetle, and the ‘Duesenberg’ driven by Leonardo di Caprio in The Great Gatsby remake (it’s a replica based on a Ford F150 ute).
They’re set against a technically sophisticated multi-screen backdrop, where footage runs seamlessly across the different screens thanks to a Panasonic stitched-seam projection system.
Across the levels, there are also automotive treats such as Steve McQueen’s 1956 Jaguar XKSS, a 1967 Toyota 2000GT, a 1966 Volkswagen Type 265 Double Cab Pick Up, Ken Block’s 2011 Fiesta ‘gymkhana’ car, and – for the kids – a full-scale Lightning McQueen.
All these cars and more can be viewed for the US$15 entry price, though below ground lies The Vault. An extra US$20 unlocks the ‘door’ to this large warehouse-style basement where the Petersen stores an assortment of automotive oddities along with vehicles on a break from the main museum.
There’s another 100 or so vehicles down here. Without revealing all the surprises, highlights include the 1910 Daimler used by King George V, the 1925 Rolls-Royce that was Fred Astaire’s daily driver, a real 1932 Duesenberg, Franklin Roosevelt’s bulletproof presidential Lincoln, and a ‘Sergio’ Ferrari roadster concept of which only five exist – built in tribute to famous car designer Sergio Pininfarina.
The whackiest car is undoubtedly the Texas Bullshit Spreader – a crude-looking, cowboy-wagon-meets-combine-harvester Frankenstein of a vehicle that was a humorous gift from US comedian Bob Hope to actor John Wayne.
It’s the last car anyone would want to buy from the Petersen, though none is for sale.
On the site of what previously housed famous department stores, the Petersen Automotive Museum is a fantastic shop window for cars – even if it’s for browsing only.