Petersen Automotive Museum – It’s Really a Time Machine

The entrance to the museum features an ever changing display car and a gift shop that will make a car enthusiast drool. Unfortunately, the day we were there this non-Mopar was in the foyer. We forgive them.

For most of my life, when I heard the phrase, “we’re going to the museum today,” I was immediately filled with dread and a sense of pending boredom. But throw the word “automotive” in there, and that’s a different story. We arrived at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California at the end of the famous Miracle Mile district on Wilshire Blvd at a comfortable 10 o’clock in the morning. Richard Kratz and I met with David Marks from marketing just inside the front doors and began our tour of the museum. I could tell this was going to be a fun museum, the collection of incredibly rare and valuable cars doesn’t just start within the doors of the museum, they are parked outside by the front doors, in the parking garage and in a display by Wilshire Blvd. This museum has such a collection of cars that they can afford to dazzle onlookers as they drive by the museum.

The museum was founded in 1994 by the late, great Robert E. Petersen who started Hot Rod magazine and upon its foundation built a publishing empire.  Mr. Petersen was looking for a building in which to consolidate the headquarters of Petersen Publishing when he found the empty ex-department store building on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. After thinking about it, he realized that the large nearly windowless building was less than ideal for an office building but that it would make an excellent museum. The lack of windows was a boon both for security and to prevent the sun’s UV rays from damaging valuable automotive history.

Chief Curator Leslie Kendall told us that Mr. Petersen had an amazing eye for cars that were destined for the museum. He already had an extensive car collection by the time he acquired the building and for the rest of his life had an uncanny knack for buying vehicles that the museum would need one day, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent.

The museum is divided into three main floors and a subterranean vault for storage of cars not on display. The main floor greets you with a special vehicle on display right as you enter. The vehicle reflects something going on at the museum, either on display or a special event, and changes frequently. On the first floor the museum displays vehicles in “streetscapes” and this is the genius of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Instead of just lining up rows of cars like in a car show, they are displayed in dioramas that place them in their historical context with period correct architectural elements, props, and mannequins dressed in period clothing. These dioramas tell a story, about the car, about the state of technology at the time this car was manufactured, and about our society and culture at the time. The main floor isn’t a museum, it’s a time machine that took me back and dropped me off at various points in time from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

The second floor of the museum consists of rotating exhibits that group cars together not by a timeline as the main floor does, but by themes. When we visited there was an exhibit on the history of aerodynamic automotive design and one on Italian bodied American cars. Again, the museum is telling a story, but by theme rather than by chronology.

The third floor is a Discovery Center especially designed for younger visitors where they can interact with displays and learn about the science of the automobile. Richard admits that he was sad when his son expressed that he was too old for this floor now — he misses playing with the displays himself!