Guest Post: A Visit To The Petersen Museum

Our youngest contributor, teenager Bryce Himelrick, returns with a recap of his September 2016 trip to the Petersen Museum. Check it out! — jb

I amble out of the Uber onto the sidewalk. I look up at the building with wild eyes. The stainless steel glistering in the warm Los Angeles sun on this halcyonic September day. The building loomed overhead with red accents complimenting the futuristic looking stainless steel flanks. Rather imposing. It looks like a building straight out of an architecture student’s dream. Pictures don’t do it justice, it has more of a presence once you are there, a futuristic stainless steel building shining from the sun on museum-lined Wilshire Boulevard. The building is new and contemporary from first glance, but its roots stem from an old department-store-turned-museum that was completely renovated just recently. Maybe “renovated” is an understatement. The exterior most definitely reflects the inside. You walk into the lobby, a shiny concrete floor gradually trailing down with cars visible ahead. A Toyota 2000GT is the first thing that greets you, lone, the only car before the ticket desk. It truly is a sculpture on wheels, I never imagined that I would lay eyes on this car, and here I am, jaws to the floor, looking at it. I haven’t even bought my tickets yet. I walk to buy my tickets, and immediately I realize that this surreal feeling will be present all day.

I’m at the Petersen museum, a museum that, like the 2000GT, seemed like a faraway dream only achievable by living vicariously through photos and videos. But I had an opportunity to go to California, and the Petersen was first on my list of activities to fill my time in the most car-crazed city on earth. I walk down the shiny concrete floor, got my tickets, and signed up for the vault tour, which we will get to later. There are many doors and elevators I can take to rooms filled with different eclectic mixes of cars. I already feel rather jaded. :ooking in one direction you see a room full of art cars. Glance the other way and a glass door opens up to a room of Bugattis. I decide to go the normal route and take the elevator upstairs to the third floor.

The selection there is a bit of a melting pot, everything from a Volkswagen type 2 transporter, the “Breaking Bad” Pontiac Aztek, to a Delorean from “Back To The Future” is present. An exhibit devoted to movie cars is there as well with specimens such as the Charger from “Fast and Furious 7” and the “Magnum P.I.” Ferrari 308GTSi. A personal favorite on this floor is the GM EV1, largely because it represents one of the first mass market electric vehicles, but also because almost all of them were crushed in what has been regarded as one of the worst PR failures in automotive history. I highly recommend watching “revenge of the electric car” to learn more about that. I have seen 2 of the remaining ones in person: one here and one at the Henry Ford museum.

The second floor is nirvana for an enthusiast of eclectic wheels. This is subjective, of course, because every enthusiast of the automobile has a different niche filling their enthusiastic palate, but for me, It is a plethora of European cars and bikes, and rare quirky models of pedestrian cars, BMWs and Porsches too, but those come in later. I enter the second floor down a long staircase, and I immediately realize that this is the place for me. The first part I go to is the precious metal exhibit, which features silver vehicles, but not just any. A fiat 8v Supersonic, one of only 8, then a Bugatti eb110, the Bugatti that no one remembers, and a McLaren F1, considered to be the holy grail of supercars.

I was feeling overwhelmed that I was in walking distance of the cars that have fueled my untouchable dreams. I step outside into the hall, natural light abound, to process what I have just seen. But to no avail, because I immediately notice a Kawasaki Ninja H2, quite possibly the best motorcycle of all time. I walk back in to see that 8v, one last time. After leaving the 8v, I walk through the door on the other side, seeing a Ken Block fiesta and a Brz drift car. But after that, an exhibit on fuel cell vehicles catches my attention, where I see a bunch of California exclusive vehicles, a Honda FCX Clarity and original Honda Clarity among them. As I walk around, I feast my eyes on a Ford GT (Sadly only a shell) a Fisker Karma, and a 1st generation Dodge Viper.

I make my way down to the first floor, where the “Rolling Sculptures” Exhibit is. It isn’t an oxymoron in any sense. As this floor contains many Bugatits, but not the Veyron kind. Rather, I’m seeing the Bugattis that show no heredity with the Veyron such as the Type 57 SC Atlantic, cars that were more expressive art than brute force. These cars are crafted sculptures, and I cannot fathom driving such a piece of artwork. More than any car here, they belong in a museum.

After a while gazing at the masterpieces on display, it was time for lunch. I leave the building, not in any sort in a hurry, and walk past the 2000GT. I take a breath of Los Angeles air, and walk to the food truck, walking like a normal human, but mentally drenched in the surreality of the hours before. I eat my lunch on a concrete wall outside of an office building, the perfect weather and light breeze seeping in. I would have stayed outside for a few more minutes, but I had other plans.

The vault is the basement of the museum, where you cannot take pictures or video, Its an extra $25 to go on the tour, but it houses what I consider to be some of the coolest cars in the museum (There were too many cars down there to write about, and I could fill a novel with them, so I’ll just stick to my favorites) Curiosities such as one of the American Express gold Deloreans, a DeTomaso Pantera or two, one belonging to Elvis and a pair of Porsches that look like an ordinary 356 and 911, but have more complex and interesting stories than just being vintage Porsches.

The seemingly normal 356 (Hey, am I so jaded that a 356 is “normal”?) is actually a 356 Continental, North American car importer Max Hoffman, who also brought us the 300SL Gullwing, wanted to bring the 356 to this side of the pond, but he did not think that the numerical name of “356” would appeal to Americans, so he named it the Continental. It was a top of the line 1500cc 356, the only indication of it being anything but a normal 356 was the Continental badge. Ford Motor company was none too pleased with this, as they were already producing a Continental, so legal action was taken, and settled in favor of the blue oval, thus bringing an end to the “continental” Porsche. The other classic Stuttgart automobile sat next to the Continental, and like that car it had a story with its name. Here we had the Porsche 901, a car built for the Paris auto Salon in 1964, after it debuted, french car maker Peugeot objected to Porsche using any 3 digit number with a zero in the middle, so the name was changed from 901 to 911.

After the Vault tour, I see some other pieces of the museum, BMW art cars, a BMW Alpina 2002tii race car, and the original BMW M1. Then, it was time to leave. I walked out after I bought a die-cast Porsche Carrera gt. I hopped in my uber back to my hotel, and I was sort of unaware of my surroundings, blissful, it felt like I was half awake half asleep, I wasn’t tired, but more because I could not process what I had seen. No exaggerations here. I got back to my hotel, but there was a question inside my head, and the answer didn’t hit me until recently.

Why was this so special? Was it the rarity? The intricate details that abound? Or was it simply the fact that these are the cars that fueled my wildest dreams? Those are factors for sure, but it was more than that. When I explain cars to people, I explain that it is not about the facts and figures. But rather the fact that cars are cultural timepieces, one of the only permanent markings of the events and cultures of a certain time in history. When you look at a ford pinto, the extremities of the fuel crisis are suddenly made more real.

To me, cars are the representatives of the time that they were built. Economic prosperity means better materials, faster engines, and more striking designs. But its not all halcyon times in automobiles. There are struggles, whether in performance, build quality or designs. As much as there is struggle, there is triumph. Legends and flops, one hit wonders, and cars that live on for decades, sometimes in name only. This is what makes being a car enthusiast so interesting. It is not just the cars themselves, secondary sources and matters play a role, the history, good and bad, is what makes going back in time in this museum so great. It cements the philosophy I just laid out, it makes you realize even more so what cars mean. It is the antithesis of the “A car just gets you from a to B” philosophy. That is what makes it special, and I would do it all over again.

16 Replies to “Guest Post: A Visit To The Petersen Museum”

  1. Bill

    OK, you convinced me. Visited a decade or so ago. I read what so many unhappy people have written about the revamping it put me off. But while all change is not progress, progress is not in all cases a bad thing.

    Great writing by the way! What phone app did you learn on?

    • Panzer

      “What phone app did you learn on?”

      Come on now, you’re just being mean.
      Not all of us young ‘uns were turned into fuckwits by the public school system bequeathed to our society by the boomer liberals..

  2. Bigtruckseriesreview

    That McLaren F1 LM is a demigod.

    I’d take that over the Veyron and the Chiron.

    Stupid McLaren needs to build a central-seat replacement with a SHIT LOAD of power before I can appreciate their cars again.

  3. Ronnie Schreiber

    When I was in LA last year to drive a McLaren, they gave me only 200 miles and a couple of days. I figured out that using Matt Farah’s canyon run I could do the Mullin Museum in Oxnard and the Petersen without going over my mileage limit. As it turned out, I was also able to visit the Nethercutt collection.

    The Nethercutt is worth a visit – any place with a Tucker is worth the visit, and they have a number of other significant, interesting, and cool cars.

    Peter Mullin’s private museum is terrific, if you like classic French cars and the art deco period. He has one of the world’s great collections of Bugattis, plus a number of Delahayes, LeMans racers and stuff devoted to Etore Bugatti and his very talented family.

    The Mullin museum is well done, but the Petersen is about as good as it gets. The Vault downstairs is way cool, but I think my favorite part is the Precious Metal gallery that has the McLaren pictured above, one of Stirling Moss’ Mercedes Benz racers, and Bill Mitchell’s Stingray. It also has the original Duesenberg Twenty Grand (that’s how much it cost to build the show car), arguably the most magnificent American automobile ever made.

    I do think, though, that Peter Mullin, who is the chairman of the Mullin, has a little too much influence on what they show at the Petersen.

    • Disinterested-Observer

      You ever check out the museum at Luray Caverns in VA? I think the cars are included in the ticket for the cave but I might be wrong, if it’s not the kicker is pretty low. The way I remember it they had a nice collection of very old stuff, I guess the original owner must have been the car guy and they stopped buying when he died. I think they have a Stanley Steamer and some pre-war Lincolns and even a Bugatti or two, but nothing after 1950.

    • Acd

      I’ll second a visit to the Nethercutt. There are actually two facilities: the museum with 100+ cars and the Collection which consists of two levels of cars, a mezzanine of automotive collectables and the upper level filled with mechanical musical instruments. Neither has an admission fee but the Collection is a guided tour and advance reservations are necessary. The Grand Salon in the Collection is sensory overload for anyone who has a passion for 1920’s-1930’s classic cars.

      I’m still not sold on the exterior renovations to the Petersen but will return because I really enjoyed the two previous visits I had made. On the last visit I took the basement tour a few years ago and it was my favorite part of the museum and worth the extra cost.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        I like museums in general and I would have checked out the Nethercutt Collection if I had the time. Since then, I’ve gained an interest in the electromechanical organs popular in the mid 20th century, so next time I’m in LA I’m sure I’ll schedule a visit. I recently acquired a Hammond M-111 tonewheel organ and when I can arrange picking it up, there’s a Wurlitzer electrostatic reed organ that cost me just $50.

        Churches created a market for pipe organs, but not every church could afford a Skinner or Wurlitzer. There was a demand for less expensive organs that still sounded like organs. Pump organs were popular in homes, but I’m guessing they weren’t loud enough for big spaces like a church sanctuary.

        The development of radio and electronic amplification created an opportunity for technological solutions (and new products that could be sold).

        By the 1930s, tube electronics had developed to the point where they could make oscillators to create tones but tube based organs were big, heavy, and hot because they had something like 80 12AX7s. Lowrey did use tubes (look at the back of the Heritage DSO-1 that the Beatles used and imagine how much a complete re-tubing would cost) but Hammond and Wurlitzer used electromechanical tone generators. Because they were electromechanical, I’d argue that they weren’t producing perfectly pure tones and thus had a distinctive aural signature.The Wurlitzer electrostatic reed organs are mostly a footnote in musical technology history, but the tonewheel Hammonds are one of the great sounds of modern music, right up there with single coils, humbuckers and Little Walter’s cupped taxistand microphone.

        Interestingly, like Leo Fender and George Fullerton, Laurens Hammond was not a musician. An MIT graduate, he had invented a synchronous motor that was very accurate because it locked onto the frequency of the AC current’s 60hz cycle. It was low torque and really only suitable to running clocks but it created a business foundation for Hammond. He probably didn’t invent the tonewheel, essentially a sprocket that spins past an electromagnetic pickup, creating an AC signal that can be used to generate tone, but his motors made them very accurate. Using ideas from Thomas Cahill’s 200 ton Telharmonium, which established practices used by just about every electronic musical keyboard device since then, and the ear of his chief engineer Hanert, Hammond eventually developed something that sounded like a flute. Not only was Hammond not a musician, he had a tin ear, i.e. he was tone deaf. He thought Leslie’s speakers made his organs sound worse (but sold a competing rotating speaker and the Hammond company eventually bought out Leslie). Most of Hammond’s early employees, no matter what their job descriptions were, were also experienced musicians who had an important role in making their boss’ invention sound musical.

        After solid state electronic devices made electronic tone generation practical, it has still taken about 40 years of development to make an electronic synthesizer that can convincingly fake the sound of a Hammond B-3 and I’m still not convinced that any electronic Leslie simulator driving a single fixed speaker can really simulate the physical effect of a wavefront moving around a room from a rotating device.

  4. Tony LaHood

    First, a very well written article. The Petersen is indeed a magical place, and those of us who live in So Cal are fortunate to have it and the Nethercutt relatively nearby. I have yet to visit the Mullin Museum, in Oxnard, but I hear wonderful things about it.

    Re: Nethercutt, the coolest single thing I have ever seen was there, and it was not an automobile. It was a Hupfeld Orchestrion, a musical instrument, and I encourage you to Google it because I cannot describe it adequately.

    Nethercutt, who founded Merle Norman, collected everything from cars to railroad cars to jukeboxes to, well, you name it. It’s all on display, and admission is free. There must be a whole lot of profit in cosmetics.

    • Acd

      Before my first visit to the Nethercutt Collection I never knew beasts like orchestrions existed and you’re right Tony, they need to be seen and heard in person to get the full experience. Opening up the cabinet and looking inside is a sight to behold–it makes the engine compartment of a Citroen SM look simple and DIY friendly.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      Supposedly, the average American woman spends enough money on cosmetics in her life to afford a Ferrari.

      Figure out a way to sell cosmetics to a generation of feminized millenial men and you’ll retire rich.

  5. Pey-droh

    re: Tucker Model 48 – the Petersen has Preston Tucker’s personal car down in the Vault
    re: Precious Metal exhibit – at the end of this month that is being switched out to “Seeing Red: 70 Years of Ferrari”
    re: Nethercutt – simply divine. Be sure to tour the Collection (make arrangements in advance) to see the cars as well as the musical instruments. The Bosendorfer Imperial Grand piano, the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ and the many Orchestrions are very impressive.
    re: the Mullin – I believe their new exhibit on Citroen just opened. The first exhibit dedicated solely to Citroen ever presented as I understand it. I’m told that Citroen’s head honcho was so excited that she arranged for the company to assist the Mullin (financially? with cars? I’m not certain)

    If you have time, check out the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo (near LAX airport). On Sundays (weather permitting) they pull out about 3 cars from the collection and give visitors rides. Last time I was there it was Joseph Stalin’s Packard Phaeton, an Edsel Pacer and a Plymouth Valiant convertible. You haven’t lived till you’ve ridden in the back of that Packard (I was alone) – I felt like a king!

  6. Sobro

    Nice, Bryce! . If you are enamored of Euro cars rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic, a trip to Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum should be on your bucket list. Their extensive collection is fun and interesting. Plus they have events where you can drive some of their examples.


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