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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 25, 1998

Periodically I make a pilgrimage to an automotive museum and "review" it, much like we review a new car. Last year it was the Transportation Section of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC., an interesting if somewhat disjointed collection of everything from a 1950 semi-tractor to a traditional Latino Lowrider. Before that it was the William Harrah National Automotive Museum in Reno, Nevada.

But this year I toured a very regional auto museum that chronicled an area that is arguably the car capitol of the world. Los Angeles is universally accepted as the place where interesting automotive things happen and it is also the site of the Peterson Automotive Museum.

Robert Peterson is a long-time Southern California auto enthusiast as well as having been a mover-and-shaker in the publishing business until he sold his company several years ago. Long-time readers of Hot Rod magazine know that Peterson was one of the founding fathers of that periodical in 1948. By donating $15 million a few years back for land purchased at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. (a classic Los Angeles address), he got the ball rolling for his the museum.

As a boy of 15, I bought one of those first copies of Hot Rod and have been hooked ever since, so walking down through the first floor of the Peterson Museum is like walking into my own past.

The Museum encompasses four floors of displays, educational facilities and meeting rooms. My favorite is the bottom floor, where rather than being lined up side-by-side in static displays, the vehicles and memorabilia are shown in original settings. A '22 Willys-Knight stands in the driveway of a reproduction of a typical California "bungalow" of the '20s and '30s, its stark detached garage standing in the background. As kid and a young married man, I lived in several of those houses and worked on many of my early automotive acquisitions in those drafty garages, usually on top of a dirt or board floor.

Close by is a full-sized replica of an early gas station - complete with an overhang covering two hand-pumped fuel dispensers and an all-glass "office" that holds automotive merchandise for sale. This display is almost a ringer for the first business I had on my own in Oakland in 1957. When I moved in, the gas pumps still worked and were certified annually by the state as legal for the sale of gasoline.

Further on there are two auto showrooms from the early days. One contains a pair of Cords and an Auburn sedan, all circa 1930. It shows how new cars were offered in opulent settings during the Depression. Another showcases three 1936 Lincoln Zephyrs and I can still vividly remember visiting those types of showrooms with my dad in the late '30s. When new cars were "officially" presented to the public back then, they were was always nighttime affairs complete with searchlights, model car giveaways and extensive newspaper coverage.

The full-sized "Dog Cafe" is built in the shape of a sitting bulldog and replicates a small diner that was popular in Los Angeles near the beach. While we didn't have an identical cafe in my area, the Dog Cafe was typical of novelty eateries that were popular in the '30s. In Oakland, there were several that were built in the shape of hot dogs, but my favorite was a restaurant built in the shape of a Dutch windmill. Its specialty was Dutch apple pie ala mode, topped with a thick, sweet syrup. It was our favorite when Dad would take us for a nightly ride on summer evenings.

In the first issue of Peterson's Hot Rod magazine (January, 1948), there was a section devoted to an early form of hot-rod competition that involved timed runs across the El Mirage dry lake in the Southern California desert. I wasn't surprised to find in the collection the "So-Cal Special," a single-purpose, single-seat racer featuring hopped-up early Ford running gear. The body of the car is actually a war-surplus "belly tank," so-called because its original function was that of an auxiliary fuel tank on a military aircraft.

Since the beginning of the automobile there have been jokes and cartoons about motorcycle-mounted police hiding behind billboards waiting to pounce on speeding motorists. The Peterson museum has reproduced this scene with a mannequin dressed in an early '30s California Highway Patrol uniform hiding behind a period-piece billboard along side his '32 Harley-Davidson.

The second floor of the Peterson museum is devoted to five large, rotating exhibitions that features displays of racers, concept cars, classics and muscle cars. In the Bruce Meyer Gallery of early-day California street rods, I recognized the '32 Ford "high-boy" built in 1950 by Doane Spencer, a racing acquaintance of mine from almost 40 years ago.

I'm sure that almost everyone who has had an on-going love affair with automotive "things" will find an old flame in the Peterson lineup. It may be something as simple as a kid's peddle car that Dad bought for Christmas in 1965, or the full-sized twin to the '66 Pontiac GTO Muscle Car that provided transportation to the senior prom in 1972.

Where else can car buffs from all eras find so many memories for only seven bucks admission?