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Petersen Museum

by John Heilig

In downtown Los Angeles, you would expect that even an automotive museum would have something different. Such a museum would put a different spin on automotive museum style. And if that museum is created and backed by one of the most prolific automobile magazine publishing companies in the world, then one might also expect that it would be comprehensive and wide-ranging.

All you expect is true in the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Opened in 1994 by the Petersen Publishing Company and now under the directorship of Ken Gross, one of the most respected automotive journalists in the world, the Petersen has a little bit of everything, with special emphasis on the California culture.

For example, not many museums in the world can devote a special section to street rods, that peculiar phenomenon of the California hot rod scene (covered in Hot Rod Magazine) that has spread all over the country. On display are a half dozen examples of street rods that range form the simple '34 Ford with a small block Chevy V8 engine to the more outrageous custom creations of people like George Barris.

Almost all the vehicles on display at the Petersen are on loan from owners or collectors, so the exhibits change often. The temptation is to say they change constantly, but the rate of change is never that quick.

An offshoot of the street rod culture was the dry lake racers, and the Petersen has several examples of the vehicles that drove over the surfaced of places like Murad and, of course, Bonneville. One classic example is the "So-Cal Special," built with a flathead Ford engine and installed in what had been a teardrop-shaped fuel tank from a World War II bomber. This car, now owned by collector Bruce Meyers, set several records and was once driven by hot rod writer Dean Batchelor at speeds approaching 200mph.

Racing is an important part of the displays at the museum. Another significant car on display is a 1945 Bell Special sprint car with an Offenhauser engine. There is a Stutz "White Squadron" racer that won the Santa Monica classic, along with newspaper clippings and photographs of the car during a pit stop and in the race.

A special section devoted to the 1950s includes an MG TC, which was the genesis of the sports car revolution in that decade.

Many of the exhibits at the Petersen are parts of dioramas, which have been shown as an effective method of displaying vehicles in the habitat they might originally have seen. For example, there is a 1932 Duesenberg, donated by James M. Carron, that is in a 1930s-era street scene that includes an insurance store and a grocery market, as well as a pair of other vehicles. There's even a recreation of a classic California drive-in restaurant.

The Cars of Hollywood display includes such diverse autos as the Flinstones car from the movie, a cutaway car used by Laurel and Hardy, and several cars that were owned by people such as Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.

Motorcycles are another important part of California culture and there is an excellent homage to Harley-Davidson currently on display at the Petersen. Twenty motorcycles, from the early part of the century to modern high-risers, are featured in the exhibit, as well as an explanation of what makes Harleys "special."

On the third floor there is an automotive art display, and it's the only area not open to photography by visitors.

Special exhibits highlight the Petersen's displays, and it was significant that an exhibit honoring the Ferrari should be the feature display in our visit, which also signified Ken Gross' early tenure as curator. "Ferrari at 50" has more than a dozen cars on display, from a World Championship Formula 1 car to a Daytona convertible to a modern Testarossa to an unrestored car from the early 1950s. The full heritage of Ferrari in racing and production cars is shown and is well documented.