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.