The Petersen Automotive Museum

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Don’t put off today…

It was a somewhat emotional moment for me recalling the first time I had ever heard of the Petersen Automotive museum. I was 11 years old when my now deceased Grandmother pointed to a picture of the museum as it stood along the edge of Wilshire Boulevard in an article that ran in the L.A. Times. Knowing how much I liked cars she thought it was worth sharing and mentioned taking a trip over. Up until February of this year and 19 years later I had never been to the Petersen, which in retrospect seems shocking having grown up in L.A., but it’s so easy to miss even the biggest landmark attractions in the fast paced culture of the city even as a native Angelino. In December of last year a remodel of museum concluded to much fanfare and controversy, though if you ask me it looks pretty awesome and ready to draw in even more visitors.

The Welcome

Beyond the thoroughly modern architecture, one of the first things you notice after getting inside the museum out in the lobby are the few cars providing a preview of what’s in store for all visitors. Having come and gone to the museum a few times since it appears these cars are switched out and moved around, which is pretty cool considering part of the museums mission in being a staple for car culture on the West Coast: There’s always something new to look forward to.

From the Third Floor Down

The makeup of the Petersen Automotive Museum consists of three stories, each with varying themes supported by the cars themselves. Admissions recommend starting on the third floor where you’ll find the first automobile, the Benz Patent Motor Car.

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As a car guy, this is a genuine treat as I remember arguing with other guys in middle school that the Model T was not in fact the first car as many of us probably believed at some point, or possibly still do. To think where the industry is headed with autonomous drive, comparing and contrasting this, “one man’s vision”, and relatively utilitarian concept is a bit surreal. One of the more notable exhibitions in the entire museum also found on the third floor is, “Automobiles in Movies”, where you’ll find the most recent Bond car, the 1 of 10 (or less counting the wrecked cars used in the film) Aston Martin DB10 and at one point the stillborn Jaguar CX75, which I can report since revisiting the museum again this past Saturday has since been removed and replaced by Zao’s machine gun equipped XKR from, “Die Another Day”.



Other cars worthy of mention a part of this collection are the original TV series “Batman”, Batcycle; “Batman Returns”, Batmobile; and Dominic Toretto’s hopped-up, off-road Dodge Charger from, “Fast & Furious 7”. The latter is a personal favorite of mine due to its butch looks and rough-and-ready attitude. One has to wonder how well this thing performs on some loose gravel, though few will actually ever know.

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2nd Floor wonders

Moving to the second floor where even more excitement is contained for the car enthusiast lies several static and interactive exhibitions. One of them is a dedicated facility for Art Center of Pasadena’s Transportation Design department. Being a world renowned school for cranking out some of the most notable car designers of our time (Chris Bangle – BMW, Jay Mays – Ford, Wayne Cherry – GM, Franz Von Holzhausen – Tesla, amongst many others), it’s great to see they’ve established a presence within a landmark such as the Petersen to engage the public and inspire young minds that may be looking to Transportation Design as a potential career path. Not only that, but the work from students is on display for all to see and show where the future of Transportation Design might be headed.



No doubt, one of the most popular places to visit within the museum is, “Race Cars for The Road”, where there is an original MK III Ford GT40 road car on display across from a clay buck (read: not a runner)of a ’17 Ford GT. Such rarefied air (even if the new car is not a runner) is a real feast for the eyes and it’s such a treat to take in the lines of the new model being that it doesn’t even go on sale til the end of the year, albeit in extremely small and widely dispersed quantities. From the movie cars to clay static models direct from OEM’s, you can attribute such access to being located in Los Angeles where the museum is within ear shot of major Hollywood production studios and 40 or so minutes away from Ford’s Irvine design studio. L.A. is beyond a shadow of a doubt a mecca for car culture in the U.S.


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What is one of the most important performance cars in history (and among the most unobtainable and desirable) is a part of the,“Nearburg”, collection, a Gulf liveried Porsche 917K. Other members of this highly regarded collection are a 936 K3, a Rothman’s 962 and a 935 K, and yes all the aforementioned cars are Porsche’s, though there are other non Weissach born items on display.

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If you’re more into performance of the two-wheeled variety you’re not left out at the Petersen. I’m by no means a motorcycle enthusiast, but I can appreciate them and the inspiration they provide for some of the most outrageous performance cars of our day. The designers of this exhibition for, “Two Wheeled Transportation”, did a fantastic arrangement of the vehicles on display, especially with the ramp style platform which suggests movement even though all vehicles on display are stationary.

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The future of the automobile has a nicely executed and large presence in the, “Alternative Power”, exhibition where you’ll find the ubiquitous Tesla Model S, albeit sans body and interior components. Obviously, the point is to examine and call to attention the alternative propulsion battery pack and drive system. Also on display is the “you-can-hate-it-but-can’t-miss-it-if-you-tried”, Toyota Mirai. Other alternative power vehicles are also on display from decades prior that indicate the dialogue of what will power the automobile of the future has been a long running conversation and one that will probably continue for some time.

“Precious Metal”, is a collection that contains what is undoubtedly among some of the most highly valued and desirable  vehicles ever made, everything from the McLaren F1 road car to beautiful silver colored 50’s era Ferrari Testa Rossa Race Car. There is very little not to like about this collection, that is unless you think silver is a bit ordinary.

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A gradual good-bye

The first floor is only a fraction of the size of the first two floors collection-wise, but car lovers will not be left wanting, that is if you have an appreciation of classic, vintage and high-end machinery. Coming down the stair case to the first floor you’re greeted by what might be one of the most sought after and well known cars in automotive history, the Bugatti Atlantic Type 57SC..

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Forget that the value on these cars goes upwards of $30 plus million and the fact that only 4 were ever made, the way the aluminum body was constructed by way of exposed rivets that are especially visible along the “spine” of the car, is something to behold. Growing up I didn’t have much of an appreciation for antique and vintage automobiles, but thanks to the digitization of car design these days seeing cars like the T57SC and other vintage metal is a breath of fresh air and a painful reminder that the most original of car designs may have come and gone. Throughout the rest of this collection, aptly named, “Rolling Sculpture”, are other examples from car makers that specialized in coach building, which produced many a one-off design. A prime example of this approach to building cars also on display is another Bugatti that was given as a gift from the manufacture to the Prince of Persia for his wedding, a ’39 Type 57C.

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While it would be easy to judge this particular vehicle as an, “acquired taste”, there’s no denying its uniqueness and artistic value.

Rounding out the first floor and on the way out of the museum is a small sliver of BMW Art Cars, among them the stand out E9 3.0 CSL by Alexander Calder. Besides the beefy aero added to that car as fit for DTM, what makes this particular car so special is that the livery was executed in such a way it looks as if it could have rolled off the assembly line as is. With the other art cars disproportionate smatterings of paint are applied and though chalk full of artistic value, prove to be harder to be won over by and more an acquired taste. As they say, “to each their own”.


In all, the updated Petersen Automotive Museum has something for everyone, and with the ever changing exhibits and slew of events held throughout the year for the automotive enthusiast community, there’s always a reason to come back and enjoy the sights and accompanying fanfare. Prices vary for admission from children ($7 – if they’re under 3 they’re free!), adults ($15), to seniors ($12 – must have an ID), but the cost is entirely reasonable for all. For an additional $20 you can take a 75-90 minute tour of, “The Vault”, which sits under the museum and where even more unique and storied automotive icons are kept and meticulously maintained. It should be said that photography either by phone or camera is not permitted in this section of the museum.

This cultural and entirely unique to L.A. landmark holds much excitement for today and the future with its rich collection and huge diversity of vehicles on display. The Petersen is no doubt a worthy pit stop to add to your list of places to see. For up to date information on the museum a link to their site is provided here.



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