Visiting the Petersen Museum
Petersen Museum is still prime time.
Story Bob Stevens Images Bob Stevens & Earl Duty - September 29, 2011 12:00 PM
“Numerous cars once owned by the stars of Hollywood are on rotating display.”
A 1911 American Underslung Model 50 Traveler is mired in mud as the motorist appears perplexed by his predicament, which includes a steaming radiator. The American Underslung was produced by the American Underslung Co., of Indianapolis, Indiana, from 1911-14, but it was also made from 1906-10 as the American.
2 This is a 1913 Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo. Weighing 3,200 pounds and powered by one of the industry’s first V-8 engines, the Bi-Autogo featured two large wood-spoked wheels that the rig rolled on once underway. It also had two pairs of smaller outrigger wheels for stability at low speed. The V-8 produced 45 horsepower. Half motor car and half motorcycle, the Bi-Autogo first appeared in 1912, was the brainchild of newspaper heir James Scripps-Booth, and carried three people. The prototype cost $25,000 to build, and the car never entered production.
3 A dealership showroom from the 1930s is a permanent display with the marques shown rotated. During our visit, Oldsmobile-Pontiac-LaSalle automobiles were displayed inside the General Motors dealership. On display in the showroom is a 1939 Pontiac woodie wagon and a 1938 Oldsmobile six-cylinder display chassis.
4 There is a tribute in the museum lobby dedicated to Robert E. Petersen. Petersen, who died in 2007 at the age of 81, started Hot Rod magazine in 1948, and then Motor Trend, Motor Life, and Motorcyclist. He also donated many cars from his personal car collection.
5 Numerous cars once owned by the stars of Hollywood are on rotating display. This is a roadster built by the custom coachbuilder Bohman & Schwartz using a 1936 Buick and later a 1936 Chrysler in an update. It was built for the movie Topper, starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. The studio sold the car to Gilmore Oil Co., then to Movie World in 1970 in Buena Park. Legendary striper Von Dutch did the Movie World graphics.
6 A permanent display is the hobby shop where a freshly chopped 1950 Mercury coupe is being heavily customized, including lowering, nosing, and decking. It typifies the garage of a customizer back in the ’50s.
7 In the “What Were They Thinking?” exhibit, truly unusual creations such as this 1974 Fascination with more window glass than a Greyhound bus. Created by Paul M. Lewis, the Fascination was produced by his Highway Aircraft Corp. in Lakewood, Colorado. The factory shut down after three prototypes were built, including this one, the second of the three. They used a 1.7-liter four-cylinder Renault engine.
8 A fine lineup of two-wheelers awaits the museum tourist. This 1904 FN was the world’s first four-cylinder motorcycle. Its 362cc engine was started by pedaling as on a bicycle. It was made by La Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN), a munitions maker in Belgium.
9 When we toured the museum, there was a special salute to Trans Am racing with examples of Mustangs, Camaros, Javelins, Firebirds, and this 1970 Dodge Challenger driven by veteran driver Sam Posey. The car’s chassis was built by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers shop and assembled by Ray Caldwell’s Autodynamics. It packed a destroked 303ci V-8 cranking out 460 horsepower.
10 Built for the 1970 Trans Am season, this ’70 Pontiac Firebird was driven by Jerry Titus in its one outing for the year. It was used primarily as a promotional car for the race series, a show car, and a car for photo shoots for sponsor BFGoodrich. It has seen duty in more recent times, competing in historic racing events.
11 No museum is complete without the almighty Duesenberg, and the Petersen has one of the best in the form of this 1932 Model SJ Convertible Coupe with custom coachwork by Walter M. Murphy of Pasadena, California. Of the 481 Duesenberg Js built, the Murphy firm bodied more than 50 of them. The SJ was, of course, the supercharged model and only 36 Duesenberg SJs were supercharged by the factory.
12 One of the most magnificent cars in the museum is this huge 1919 Pierce-Arrow touring car originally owned by Hollywood actor and movie producer Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who ordered the car fitted with large all-white tires. Current owner James Schenck convinced Coker Tire to reproduce the special 36x6-inch tires with the all-white finish. The car won a first-place award at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2007.
13 A recreated Richfield service station has all the right components, from original visible pumps to oil dispensers. A 1921 White tanker truck appears at right, a 1929 Chevrolet AC Imperial Landau is under the canopy filling up, and to the left is a two-tone green 1930 Nash 482R coupe twin ignition six.
14 In 1963, Chrysler made 50 production turbine cars (plus five prototypes), all painted bronze with black vinyl tops (the prototypes were painted various color schemes). After a lengthy consumer test, Chrysler destroyed 46 of them, as was the practice of the day. Some have been donated to museums, but a couple have gotten into private hands, including one owned by Frank Kleptz, of Terre Haute, Indiana, and one in the Jay Leno collection, in Burbank, California. Leno’s is one of three still running.
15 This blue 1948 Davis is a three-wheeled compact that has a single bench seat that fits four abreast, an aluminum body, futuristic styling, and disappearing headlights. Its creator, Gary Davis, envisioned making thousands of them, but only 17 were constructed in his hangar at the Van Nuys Airport before legal problems put him out of business. He was convicted of fraud and was buried in lawsuits from investors, dealers and buyers who had lost their deposits.
16 This yellow 1904 Winton “Flyer” is a fictional take-off of one of America’s earliest autos. Bicycle maker Alexander Winton, an immigrant from Scotland, made his first motorcar in 1896 – a one-cylinder experimental with a driver and a passenger up front and two passengers in the back facing the rear. In 1897, the Winton Motor Carriage Co. was formed. In February 1924, the company ceased auto production but continued on as a manufacturer of diesel engines. This custom-built replica was constructed by Von Dutch and driven by Steve McQueen in The Reivers, a 1969 comedy.
17 A reproduced Chrysler billboard promotes “the finest motor car since the invention of the automobile,” referring to the aerodynamic Airflow. Parked in front of the billboard is a 1929 Austin Seven Chummy four-seat Tourer that would run at highway speeds and deliver 50 mpg.
18 Small town stores, such as grocery markets, barber shops, insurance agencies, and drug stores, provide the backdrop for many of the “streetscape” exhibits. Parked out front of this drug store is a 1939 Packard Super Eight Phaeton with Derham coachwork once used by Juan and Evita Peron, president and first lady of Argentina. The dual-cowl phaeton took several months to build and cost $10,000, the price of an upscale suburban home in 1939.
Keeping a car museum fresh, active, and relevant is a tremendous challenge in fast-paced times, but the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has managed to do just that.
Each visit to the “Pete” is meaningful, entertaining, and educational, as well as just plain fun. They’ve oriented this special place to the adult with an interest in automobiles and history, but they haven’t forgotten the “little people,” providing numerous exhibits and activities designed for kids of all ages up through the teen years. As a result, many of the adults look forward to the special kids’ programs so the whole family can enjoy a day.
Some of the rarest, most valuable and most historically significant automobiles ever produced by American and foreign manufacturers are on display. It’s a rare treat, but one that needs to be experienced frequently to appreciate all the vehicles rotating into the museum and all the new exhibits and different themes promoted. At the Petersen, the history of the automobile is chronicled in dramatic detail.
The museum, which owns 200 cars, usually has about 100 cars on display. A number of cars are loaned by other museums or private owners. Founded on June 11, 1994, by Robert E. Petersen and his wife Marjorie, the non-profit Petersen Automotive Museum is housed in a former department store built in 1962 at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. The five-story facility has an adjacent parking garage. The $40 million museum is open year ’round; check times and dates on www.petersen.org, or call (323) 930-2277 (CARS). The museum is closed on Mondays, except for holidays.
Petersen, founder of Hot Rod, Motor Trend, and numerous other enthusiast titles, left the world a huge legacy in the form of the incredible museum bearing his name and containing many of his prized automobiles and motorcycles. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who was a most passionate automotive enthusiast himself.