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Exterior view of the Petersen Automotive Museum| Courtesy of Josh McNair/
Exterior view of the Petersen Automotive Museum| Courtesy of Josh McNair/

Car-Obsessed Culture: California's Petersen Automotive Museum

Picture of Stephen Cooper
Updated: 9 January 2017
The 308 steel ribbons billowing over a cherry red shell boldly announce to patrons of the newly renovated Petersen Automotive Museum that they are about to see something special – something unlike anything they’ve seen before.

Reopening in December 2015 after a 14-month, multimillion dollar redesign, observes that the Petersen’s new digs sit ‘atop the existing structural system like the body of a car mounted to its frame, [with] the steel ‘ribbons’ evok[ing] a sense of speed and movement [that] are brushed to avoid creation of glare. The design offers a contemporary interpretation of the mid-century, space age ‘Googie’ architectural style that characterizes Los Angeles.’

A mite less charitably, dyspeptic Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne opined that the museum’s avant-garde skin is ‘happily tasteless.’ (Hawthorne’s review also morbidly recalls ‘that the corner anchored by the Petersen happens to be the spot where the rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., was killed while riding in the passenger seat of a green Suburban by a man driving a black Impala SS after leaving a party at the car museum in 1997.’)

Putting aside the Petersen’s storied and vibrant exterior, like any car, it’s what’s under the hood of the newly overhauled museum that matters, and the Petersen’s turbo-charged engine positively hums with content. Writing for Fortune, Valli Herman notes that the museum now has ‘[25] new galleries contained in three themed floors [which] explore in interactive, multimedia exhibits how cars are built, raced, adored and driven into our collective consciousness.’

As astutely observes: ‘What’s most important about the Petersen Automotive Museum is that it is so much more than simply engines and sheet metal. The museum presents carefully executed themes that surround the automobile. Among them is how people travel and the transportation decisions that they make, social and geographic settlement patterns, how architecture and cityscapes have emerged around the automobile. There is also repeated emphasis on the recreational and fun aspects of motoring.’

For gamers, there is even the Forza Motorsport Racing Experience where, as described by the Orange County Register, kids (and adults) of any age can test out their virtual driving skills on ‘[ten] driving sleds and six hand-operated gaming consoles [that] lets visitors play the racing game Forza 6, speeding exotic cars like the Ford GT along world-class tracks.’

And, as Herman’s article notes, ‘[f]or budding car fans, the museum partnered with Pixar Animation Studios on a new, interactive exhibition, the Cars Mechanical Institute which explains helpful things such as how brakes, suspension and engines work.’

Indeed, impressive hi-fi projectors, flat screen TVs, monitors, tablets, and other sleek interactive media line the walls of the Petersen’s three floors of exhibits, but as it should be, it’s the cars that take center stage – like the 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet.

COOPER_PHOTO 4_A Cathedral For CA’s Car-Obsessed Culture At The Petersen Museum (1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet)

1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

Parked on the museum’s first floor, the silver and chrome 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet’s powerful lines and voluptuous elegance evoke the words of David E. Davis, Jr., the late editor and writer The New York Times described as having ‘transformed automotive journalism’; Davis wrote that finely crafted cars have the power ‘to transport us, not just in the sense of getting from home to work, but by showing us a side of life we might otherwise have missed . . . . [T]hey remind us of a time when automobiles represented the sum of human progress.’

Gazing at the gleaming two-tone blue color scheme of the Saoutchik-designed 1948 Talbot-Lago Type 26-GS – posing just across the way from Horch’s Sport Cabriolet, its teardrop fenders coyly hiding its rear wheels – visitors of the Petersen Automotive Museum will find it hard to disagree with Davis’ conclusions.

COOPER_PHOTO 5_A Cathedral For CA’s Car-Obsessed Culture At The Petersen Museum (Saoutchik-designed 1948 Talbot-Lago Type 26-GS)

Saoutchik-designed 1948 Talbot-Lago Type 26-GS | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

The placard in front of the Talbot-Lago notes that despite its ‘flamboyant body,’ it was ‘one of the fastest touring coups of its day,’ and ‘was displayed at the 1948 Paris Auto Salon and the 1949 Brussels Auto Salon where it was widely acclaimed.’ In a slideshow called, Glory days of automotive design: From Bugatti to Voisin, when vehicles didn’t look like the Nissan Cube, The N.Y. Daily News reported that a ‘T26 Grand Sport model won the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans in 1950,’ and had a ‘top speed of 125 mph.’

Interviewed by (for a piece called ‘No, millenials aren’t the end of ‘car culture’’), Sheryl Connelly, a ‘futurist’ with Ford Motors, said that the ‘sense of freedom and independence that used to come with getting a vehicle has been arguably displaced by the cell phone,’ and with the meteoric rise of Uber, Zipcar, and other ride-sharing services – all available at the press of a touchscreen – it’s hard to discount Connelly’s argument.

However, as the Petersen Museum, one of the best alternative museums in L.A. proves, car culture is deeply and forever embedded in this country’s character. This is particularly so in California where, as put it, ‘urban and suburban planning typically assumes that every adult has access to a car, and nearly all tourist facilities, shopping centers, workplaces, etc. are built on the assumption that almost everyone will get there by car.’

Moreover, the death knell of America’s love of cars seems premature given that just last summer the International Business Times reported: ‘There are now a record-breaking 257.9 million sedans, trucks, and SUVs on U.S. roads. That’s four vehicles for every five people in the United States.’

With precious few exceptions, however, none are as cool as the cars at the Petersen.

Located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue at the start of Museum Row on L.A.’s famed ‘Miracle Mile,’ the Petersen is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. General admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students (with ID), $7 for children to age 12, and free for active duty service members and educators (with ID), as well as children under three. An additional fee can be paid to take a 90-minute tour of ‘The Vault,’ a subterranean parking structure where an approximate 150 additional contemporary and classic model cars are stored. Drago Ristorante, owned and operated by renowned L.A. chefs and brothers Tanino and Giacamino Drago, is projected to open inside the museum in August.

Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, USA, +1 323 930 2277