I’d been reading about the Petersen Automotive Museum since it opened in its brand-new building last December. The reviews have been sensational (except for the building — that’s been divisive), and I knew I’d have to make a stop when I traveled to Los Angeles.
All I can say is, Whew.
You can argue over the impact of the automobile on modern culture — though, let’s face it, the car pretty much is modern culture. No automobile means no freeways, no drive-thru fast-food restaurants, fewer and differently shaped suburbs (streetcar suburbs predated the car, but the classic sprawling sidewalk-less developments of today are all car-inspired), and a much poorer selection of Top 40 classics, just for starters. (What would Chuck Berry have done with himself?) The automobile has dictated the shape of the postwar world.
Anyway, there’s no sense protesting the car at the Petersen. The museum is a temple to Detroit iron, Stuttgart steel and Italian style, with a room dedicated to race cars and several examples (too many, for my taste) of customized vehicles. You may as well go with the flow.
And what flow. I’m no gearhead, but it’s impossible to look at a 1954 Bonneville concept car and not admire its sleek lines, or take in a 1930s Duesenberg and not be impressed by its sheer elegance. (Years ago, I asked a valet what it was like to drive a Rolls-Royce. “Like driving a house,” he said. There are a lot of houses at the Petersen.)
There’s also a display of Hollywood vehicles, including the “Back to the Future” DeLorean and Walter White’s “Breaking Bad” Aztek, and some quirky transports, such as the VW van-pickup. (I saw an Isetta behind the glass doors of the Petersen’s offices — put it out on the floor, people!)
It’s not restricted to just cars. There are several displays of car-related materials, including dashboard dials, cutaway engines, and a selection of maps. As a cartography geek, I could have spent my entire time just studying the 1922 booklet of U.S. highways, a time before route numbers and Interstates.
Best of all is the Vault, the Petersen’s working underground garage, where hundreds of vehicles are stored. Here’s where you’ll see presidential limousines, early Model Ts, an original Tucker, one-of-a-kind designs and even a sample from the Soapbox Derby. Fred Astaire’s 1927 Rolls is there, complete with his Louis Vuitton luggage and golf clubs, and so is director John Frankenheimer’s Rolls, which Robert Kennedy used to get to the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968. After Kennedy was assassinated, Frankenheimer was so distraught he sold the car.
There was so much information the docent barely had time to take questions.
The Vault tour isn’t cheap — $20 a ticket, and you’re required to buy a $15 museum ticket first — but well worth the price. In fact, the Petersen as a whole is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. And you know what? One day you’ll even be able to take the train.