Sam McManis

Discoveries: L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum is gearhead Valhalla

Herbie, the car from “The Love Bug,” is on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Herbie, the car from “The Love Bug,” is on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

I was not overwhelmed by the newly renovated Petersen Automotive Museum here on the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard they call Miracle Mile.

No, I was just whelmed enough.

The fault falls squarely on me, not the museum.

This place may now be, as many in the know have raved, the country’s foremost museum dedicated to what undoubtedly is America’s favorite form of transportation. The $90 million spiffing up, including a snazzy stained-steel exterior adorned with red ribbons to look like a hot rod’s racing stripes, is now top of the line, mint condition, absolutely cherry. Look under the Petersen’s hood, and you’ll find some of the most expensive and rare vehicles arranged lovingly on three floors, not to mention the high-tech flourishes such as Microsoft Xbox Forzas to simulate the race-car driving experience.

The only problem – maybe, frankly, just my problem – is that you have to be really interested in cars, see them as far more than merely a means of conveyance, to fully appreciate all that the Petersen offers.

Sorry, but I’m just not that into it.

Yes, I can appreciate the 1934 La Salle 350 Coupe for purely aesthetic reasons: its voluptuous art deco body with bullet-shape headlights, vertically endowed grille and Ruben-esque fenders. And, sure, who wouldn’t want to take a gander at the first Jaguar ever produced, a 1937 SS 100? After a while, though, all that shiny chrome detail, buffed bodies and tooled leather interior bears a certain sameness to my uneducated eyes.


Full disclosure, I was much more drawn to the wing dedicated to cars used in the movies (“Herbie the Love Bug,” the Volkswagen van from “Little Miss Sunshine,” the black ’65 Lincoln Continental convertible used in “Entourage”) than the vaunted Bruce Meyer Family Gallery (“Presented by Rolex”) featuring some of the world’s most outrageously expensive cars all finished in gleaming silver.

I tried – really, I did – to let out the clutch on my inner gearhead, embrace that fuel-injected feeling believed to be inside everyone bearing a Y chromosome, but I don’t like faking it.

I thought perhaps if I hung around the Petersen long enough, glommed onto to the right people, something of a Stockholm Syndrome might take hold and I would be transformed into that guy who not only knows what a Hemi V8 engine is, but could expound on subjects such as surface-to-volume ratio.

So I plunked down another $20 and signed up for the Vault Tour. It was advertised as a “behind the scenes tour of some of the most unique cars in the collection … some of which have rarely been seen by the public.” The Vault, I figured, would draw the hardest of the hardcore, and things looked promising as I waited by the front desk for the docent to lead us into the bowels of the building – really just the mechanics’ garage, but “Vault” sounds so much more regal.

Waiting, I eavesdropped on three middle-aged men in khakis and polo shirts engaged in a heated discussion about the relative merits of a Gremlin vs. a Pacer, apparently some type of ’70s AMC nostalgia smackdown. Two men on the far side of 60 shuffled over wearing identical blue and red Hot Wheels trucker hats that would look pretentious on hipsters half their age but totally appropriate on them, given this milieu. All around me, testosterone hung in the air like so much Old Spice.

There were women on the Vault Tour, too. Oh, yes, let’s not gender-stereotype here. They seemed to be split into two camps: 1) Those who are self-identifying gearheads themselves, like the blonde whose eyeliner matched her black, sleeveless Harley Davidson T-shirt; and 2) Those who shifted from foot to foot, arms folded, staring into the distance, in what probably was the same body language their husbands adopted when the couples go antiquing.

Best of all, we had a docent, Saul Miller, who clearly knew his stuff, could rattle off obscure performance statistics, enthuse about monocoque or unibody chassis structure and weigh in on the rise, fall and maybe rise again of the American auto industry. But – and this was crucial – he also could relate to those functional automotive illiterates out there who just want to hear some historical nugget or amusing anecdote about specific cars.

You can probably guess which category I fell under.

Before we descended into the Vault, Miller laid the ground rules.

“It’s a working garage,” he said. “I know that some of you would like to get close to the cars. We can’t allow you to do that. A few years ago, we had an incident. Someone was wearing a jacket and his zipper put a nice scratch in the $16 million Bugatti. So, OK?”

Then I could’ve sworn he looked straight at me when saying, “We’re going to be talking about cars for 90 minutes, so I hope everybody’s interested in cars. If not, bummer for you.”

Fortunately for me, Miller got me hooked at the first stop in the Vault. We stood before a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe convertible, black as midnight and gorgeously appointed with white-wall tires on red rims, tan leather interior, a blood-red dashboard and a shiny winged angel hood ornament as an exclamation point. Others may have been rapt by the facts Miller supplied: customized exterior to remove chrome siding, a 346-cubic-inch V8 engine, how this was the last model built before the United States entered World War II. I however, fell for the story about the owners, a “super-couple” bigger at the time than Brangelina is today.

“It was purchased by Clark Gable and given to his wife, Carole Lombard,” Miller said. “He had just completed filming ‘Gone With the Wind.’ She drove it until 1942 when she was killed in a plane crash. He couldn’t look at it after that, let alone drive it, so he sold it to Roy Del Ruth, a Hollywood director. Roy gave it to his 17-year-old son to drive to school. Lucky kid.”

What followed was a lot of gearhead gawking at high-performance sports cars such as a 1955 Porsche Continental, one of only 50 made, or old-timey Model T types, the most notable being a 1910 Daimler 57 HP limousine used by England’s King George V.

Miller also gave a nice hat tip to recently deceased Sacramento native George Barris, who made a career by designing cars for Hollywood, including “Greased Lightning,” the hot rod John Travolta drove in “Grease,” given a prominent spot in the Vault.

Every once in a while, though, Miller would throw in a great story to placate the automotive dilettantes.

Here’s one: “This is a 1971 DeTomaso Pantera. Owned by Elvis Presley. He got into a fight with his girlfriend at the time, Linda Thompson. He went out to try to start the car and couldn’t get it to start. Out of frustration, he got out, took out his revolver and shot the car 3 times. You can see the steering wheel, right? There’s some material missing. Caused by one of the bullets. There are two other bullet holes. One put a hole in the floor.”

And this about a DeLorean DMC 12, with a 24-carat gold finish, built in 1981. “Cost $86,000. It had a stock body (made of) stainless steel. … The idea was that stainless still didn’t require you to wax it. … Three people actually purchased it. One was the president of the Snyder National Bank in Dallas. It sat in the bank’s lobby for a number of years before it was donated to the museum. When the museum received it, there were only 7.4 miles on the odometer. They never put any fluids in it. Never started the engine, never driven on the road. Think about it, if you were to drive it on the road and get a scratch, how expensive would it be to replace it with 24-carat gold?”

The Vault Tour went on and on, a 90-minute road trip. As with any car ride, you get a little weary near the end.

But that’s just me. The dude next to me in a Dodgers T-shirt couldn’t get enough. At one point in the Vault, mechanics drove a vintage dune buggy in for repairs. The only thing more sensory-assaulting than the noise reverberating off the walls was the noxious exhaust. The guy turned to me and said, “God, I love that smell.”

Petersen Automotive Museum

Where: 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Cost: General admission: $15 (adults), $12 (seniors and students), $7 (children to age 12). Vault Tour: $20.

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