California Car Culture: Petersen Automotive Museum

         For better or for worse, we tend to believe that the culture of “wheels” really arrived during the 20th century. Yet that’s not entirely true. Humanity has long had a fascination with a variety of forms of carts and wagons. And throughout the ages people have honored wheeled transportation in a manner that enhanced the intrigue surrounding “independent” travel.

        To the extent that the culture surrounding the automobile has blossomed in the 20th Century, nowhere can it be said that the car is more central than in Southern California. Southern California has served as a springboard for automotive symbolism and lifestyle integration.

        Remember the adage “necessity is the mother of invention”? As an example, consider the fact that the world’s first motel (motor-hotel) popped up just north of Santa Barbara. When the recently-closed Motel Inn first opened its doors in San Luis Obisbo on December 12, 1925, the “101” was just a narrow two-lane highway. But you can bet that a place of lodging that allowed you to park your car adacent to your room was a real hit with those weary motoring travelers.

        Welcome to California — the spirit of the pioneers, innovation, new trends, freedom of expression unlike any other region in the world and the pervasive influence of …cars.

Capturing the Culture of Cars

        While all of Southern California comprises what many refer to as the car capital of the world, neighboring Los Angeles is truly the mecca of wheels. And with more than 13 million cars on the streets of greater LA, what better setting for an automotive museum? This was just one element in the vision of Robert E. Petersen, after whom the largest automotive museum in the nation is named.

        As chairman and founder of Petersen Publishing Company (Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Car Craft), it was Petersen who, with his wife Margie, provided the momentum for the project by donating $15 million to acquire a former Ohrbach’s department store and launch its renovation for an automotive museum. In June of 1994 the Petersen’s witnessed their vision become reality. With the opening of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Southern California now hosts one of the world’s most unique shrines for the world of wheels: more than 200 or the world’s most valuable and historical automobiles, racing cars, motorcycles, unusual vehicles, accessories, dream cars and cars of the future.

$40 Million on the Miracle Mile

        In addition to intial impetus from the Petersens, the $40 million entertainment and educational museum comes with strong institutional credentials. The 300,000-square-foot facility is the newest addition to the award-winning Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. And its location on the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. on the famed Miracle Mile section of Wilshire makes it easy to access for tourists and local residents alike.

        What’s most important about the Petersen Automotive Museum is that it is so much more than what most people might expect at a “car museum.” For that matter, it’s noteworthy that non-car enthusiasts seem to enjoy the musem as much as car buffs. This is because the museum takes in much more than simply engines and sheet metal. The museum presents carefully executed themes that surround the automobile. Among them is how people travel and the transportation decisions that they make, social and geographic settlement patterns, how architecture and city scapes have emerged around the automobile. There is also a repeating emphasis on the recreational and fun aspects of motoring.

An Adventure in Four Stories

        On the first floor of the four-story building, visitors walk through time in “Streetscape” experiencing authentic scenes, lifestyles and actual vehicles that marked the milestones of the automobile. Southern California motoring lifestyle vignettes on the first floor include “The Dog Cafe,” a roadside landmark of 1928; a “Good Life” 1920s bungalow style house, complete with an early detached garage (one of the first architectural symbols equated with the car), a 1932 L-shaped strip mall (another auto-tailored first in Southern California) and even a replica of a drive-in restaurant.

        One particularly intriguing sight is the facade of a Cadillac dealership that at the time of the visit I am recapping in this moment featured a 1932 V8 Town Sedan, a 1932 V12 Victoria Coupe and even a V16 display engine — taking you right back to how it was in those glory days of yesteryear. You’ll almost be expecting a salesperson to come out and greet you with an era-like, “Say folks, would you like to take one out for a test drive? These sure are a swell model!”

        Along the way you can also go back in time to see other rare models on display in the American Classics of 1930 to 1940 section. Currently in this showcase there’s a 1932 Duesenberg, a 1937 Cord 812 with a supercharged V8 and a rare 1930 V16 Cadillac. Now, if that doesn’t get you going, check this one out: a 1933 Franklin with the only air-cooled V12 ever produced! These will warm you up for what you’ll see more of at this year’s fast approaching Santa Barbara Coucours D’ Elegance — where automobiles of the 30s will also be highlighted.

        How about show biz stuff? You can’t think about cars and Southern California without recognizing the Hollywood influence. The red Corvette Stingray that Sam Malone drove in “Cheers” sits right before you — and you’ll even see a tight squeeze (read accident) with Laurel and Hardy in an original 1922 Ford Model T Touring (from the 1930 movie “Hog Wild”). And if you’re a motorcycle fan, you’ll marvel at seeing the last Harley-Davidson pinstriped by legendary artist Von Dutch before he passed away.

        On the second floor there are five galleries showcasing the automobile as an object of art, design and technology. Among the rotating displays is a time period focus that’s currently aimed at the 1955 to 1960 period. Zowie! Here you’ll find a 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa — one of only a handful built and considered one the most desirable of all Ferraris. From America, you can see the 1957 Corvette featuring (hey, don’t we all have this now?) “fuel injection.”

        The third floor features some of the world’s finest art galleries dedicated exclusively to the automobile. Displayed works include photography by internationally recognized artist Jane Gottlieb and masterful collages by Peter Tytla.

        Up on the fourth floor there is a handsome glass penthouse conference center and the Founder’s Lounge along with a full-service catering kitchen to support special events and commericial gatherings.

When the Story’s Told

        Once you’ve spent a few hours — or even all day — at the Petersen Automotive Museum, you can enjoy an automotive-theme meal at an AM/PM restaurant next to the facility. Along with the truly spectacular visual adventure that you’ll experience when your tour the museum, having lunch or dinner at the AM/PM restaurant will leave you half expecting James Dean to stroll in swinging his sunglasses and his Porsche car keys. You can even imagine what he might have said … “Yeah, car culture — it’s just California, ya’ know what I’m saying?” James Dean would have been proud.

        The Petersen Automotive Museum, located at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax Ave. Phone ahead for current admission prices and hours, but you can always know that junior car buffs (under 3 years old) are free!  For more information call: (213) 930-2277 or visit the museum website at <>

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