Petersen Automotive Museum: A Tribute to the Love of Cars
The introduction of the Model T in 1908 made car ownership possible for the average man. Henry Ford could not have foreseen that his vision, beyond making Ford Motors a household name, would forever change the American way of life. The timing for this vehicle couldn’t have been more perfect. The massive growth of assembly line production in the early 1900s not only ensured that the means for mass production was present, but that American workers would have greater wealth (compared to their European counterparts) in order to afford such a purchase. More car ownership influenced U.S. planners and engineers to skew development away from the former urban centrality (which relied on mass transit) and toward the building of roads and bridges, which led more to urban sprawl.
Yet as much as car ownership influenced the American landscape, it had an even greater effect on American minds and hearts. Taking on a much greater importance than a means of transport, vehicles have become an extension of their owners’ beliefs and values. Car choice can project prudence or extravagance, off-road leanings or urban eco-friendliness, and casual driver or serious fanatic. Add customization, vanity plates, and stickers declaring anything from family size to social issues, and it’s clear that Henry Ford did more than develop a product. He created a phenomenon—an American love affair for cars.
Nowhere is that more evident than Los Angeles where single-driver traffic jams are the norm and scoping out rare and luxurious cars a pastime as common as sighting celebrities. Even this year’s Oscar winning hit, La La Land, focuses on a seemingly endless line of gridlocked cars doubling as a multi-leveled stage for the opening scene’s flash mob style song and dance routine. LA has earned its reputation as the epitome of car-centricity, making it the perfect location for one of the largest and finest automotive museums in the world, the Petersen.
As much as I appreciate the sleek lines of a luxury car and the adrenaline rush of a powerful engine, my interest quickly wanes as talk turns technical. Torque? Turbo cylinders? I have no idea what those terms mean and honestly don’t care. So what interest does a car museum hold for someone like me? That’s precisely the magic of this place. Whether your interests are to flirt with Lamborghinis and Bugattis, delve more deeply into automotive history and design, understand the process of restoring rare and abandoned cars, get up close and personal with cars of Hollywood fame, or understand that “techie” stuff under the hood, the Petersen has something for everyone.
Founded in 1994 by magazine publisher Robert Petersen, its collection of cars and memorabilia was first housed in the Natural History Museum. It moved a year later into the historic, but empty, Ohrbach’s Department Store located in the 1½-mile stretch of Wilshire Avenue between Fairfax and Highland, known as Miracle Mile. A $125 million dollar renovation, completed in December of 2015, added 15,000 sq. ft. and transformed this moderately sized display of auto history into the most thorough discourse and assemblage of all things vehicle. With that, it received a new facade to equal or eclipse the inventiveness and quirkiness of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Previously adorned with 1950s car-themed “fins,” the entire building is now wrapped in sweeping stainless-steel ribbons meant to capture the feeling of constant motion, aerodynamics, and speed. That metal is attached to the building with red aluminum support tubing anchored to the red concrete block walls underneath. During the day those ribbons sparkle like the shiny grillwork of a new car. At night that same facade stops traffic as drivers catch sight of what looks like a glowing red neon beast, thanks to its integrated exterior lighting.
Inside that dazzling edifice are more than 100 vehicles, memorabilia, and artwork displayed in 25 galleries spread throughout the three floors. The remaining car collection is kept in a basement vault open to visitors for an additional fee. While the sheer volume of content could overwhelm guests, the Petersen instead lays it out in an approachable and predictable manner. The entrance level engages visitors immediately with one extravagant vehicle after another, all chosen to showcase automotive artistry. The second floor emphasizes engineering, design, and performance through interactive teaching exhibits, while the top floor chronicles the history of the automobile and car culture of Southern California. The gift shop is second to none for car-themed items and the restaurant, Drago Ristorante, is classic Italian at its best. Part of LA history itself, the Drago family is widely credited for bringing authentic Italian cuisine to LA for more than 40 years.
A perfect spot to spend a few hours, the Petersen is located next to three other major museums on Miracle Mile. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (lacma.org) is comprised of a number of mini-museums representing the diverse cultures of the LA area with an outdoor sculpture garden, which presents concerts during the summer months. La Brea Tar Pits is the world’s only active, urban Ice Age excavation site (tarpits.org), and the Craft and Folk Art Museum houses an ever changing display of both domestic and international folk art (cafam.org).
The area’s must-see sites aren’t limited to museums, however. Bordering on the northeast corner of Miracle Mile is the historic residential neighborhood of Hancock Park. Developed in the 1920s around the grounds of a private golf club, its tree-lined streets and architecturally distinctive homes definitely warrant a “drive-through.” Located two miles further west is The Grove with its outdoor shopping, restaurants, and general entertainment space. Attached to the Grove is LA’s historic Farmer’s Market (farmersmarketla.com). Selling fresh produce and meats, the market has restaurants, bakeries, and shops as well. Once home to the Gilmore family’s 256-acre dairy farm, the dairy was sold off when oil was discovered while drilling a water well. In the 1930s a small “village” was added at 3rd and Fairfax for farmers to sell fresh produce out of their trucks. Instantly popular, the Farmers Market has become an iconic part of LA’s history, still owned and operated by the 6th generation of the Gilmore family.