There are great classic car collections all around the world. There are great classic car museums around the world.
And then, there’s the Petersen Museum.
A mecca for petrolheads worldwide, the museum has become an attraction for anyone with even a passing fancy for objects with wheels. The way that they organise their cars serves as a model for auto collections everywhere. The renown that surrounds this active monument to the automobile has reached such heights, that it has become a household name.
With a reputation for wowing all those who walk through its halls, it was the last stop that I planned to make on my trip to Los Angeles. I too, wanted to see what treasures lay behind its rather formidable steel walls.
Leaving Period Correct at noon, slow moving traffic put me close to downtown at about 2 in the afternoon. Slightly weary from the stop and go congestion, I was grateful to be moving at a steady and consistent pace, on Wilshire Boulevard. Deep in Beverly Hills, I began to see why the area is known for its wealth. Numerous supercars zipped by me, and it reminded me of Dubai, just for a second. I grinned however, when I stopped at a set of traffic lights parallel to a very clean, dark blue BMW E28 535is which proceeded to keep pace with me all the way to the Petersen.
Finding a parking spot at the Museum was straightforward, and after grabbing my camera, I started to walk towards the entrance. An Inka Orange BMW 2002 and a lovely Alfa Romeo Junior lengthened my journey by a few minutes, but I reached the doors a few minutes later only to find out that a local Alfa Romeo dealer was holding an event there. After navigating my way through numerous potential customers and getting my tickets, I was urged to start my visit from the second floor and then work my way down.
There was good reason for this advice, since the Petersen is organised in this way. Leaving the elevator, the signs told me that I was on the history floor. Beginning my tour, I was met with three wheeled vehicles that had formed the very beginning of the car industry(think Daimler and Benz). A Toyota 2000 GT, a VW work truck, an International Scout, an early Indian and a Chevy Bel Air gave visitors a bare taste, inviting them further into darkened corridors.
A section for movie cars was extraordinarily well furnished. The Dark Knight’s Bat Cycle, Gatsby’s Duesenberg and Magnum’s 308 were part of this stand, something that both kids and adults could easily recognise and learn to appreciate. Each car had its own information plaque and even clips from their respective movies playing on the wall behind them. Nothing like a bit of context, especially for the automobiles that played their lead role to perfection.
After spending a few minutes looking at the movie stars, I descended to the first floor, or the ‘Industry Floor’ according to the signs. That is when I struck gold.
This particular floor was dedicated to appreciating how the auto industry has grown as a whole and the high notes of that rise, engineering wise. That’s not to say there weren’t a few left field examples.
The first thing I caught sight of was Lightning McQueen, from Pixar’s Cars. A full size example, the car was a major hit with the kids. As I wandered around, I turned a corner and got hit with a blast of Jaguar. A 1937 SS 100, followed by Steve McQueen’s(!) XK SS, followed by a XJ220. This single exhibit, in my opinion, speaks volumes more than any book on Jaguar can ever tell you.
Admiring the gorgeous British racing green machines from Coventry, I headed towards the design labs. Front and centre, a bare carbon fibre bodied McLaren P1 stood on sentry duty, with each ripple in the weave being amply illuminated by the powerful lights above.
Stopping for a few seconds to peer at a clay model of the new Bugatti Chiron, I walked on. While all the cars had been more than drool worthy till now, I was looking for something that truly blew me away. Entering a smallish hall, I found it. The Precious Metals Exhibit.
Eight cars, all with their own pedestals, all in silver. Remembering to breathe, I somehow propelled myself forward to the closest one – a stunning N.A.R.T. Ferrari 275 GTS/4. The long lines and the simple beauty only served to reimpress upon me the elegance of 1960s Italian coachwork. At this point, I am going to let the photos do the talking, because I feel that any words that I put down will be inadequate.
A Fiat 8V Supersonic by Ghia, a very rare Pininfarina Ferrari Sergio, a 1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SLR, a Porsche 904, a ’57 356A coupe and a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. All in silver, their clean, curvy bodies devoid of any decals or any markings.
I don’t know how long I spent there, genuinely losing track of time. There came a point when I knew that if I stayed a minute longer, I’d never leave. Reluctantly walking onward, I came to the motorcycle section, which reminded me of my visit to the Harley Davidson Museum. Indians, Harleys and a few other classic two-wheelers were perched on a flowing platform.
Circling around, I discovered a couple of hot rods. One of them was a lovely blue 1929 Tudor, with incredible detail. Powered by a supercharged 276 Ford ‘flatty’, the cabin was heavily inspired by aviation, a design language that translated into the gauges and the rivets that were found all around the interior.
Eventually I decided to climb down to the ground floor. Taking my first few steps on the stairs, I noticed a massive Bugatti logo imprinted into the floor at the bottom. Intrigued, I followed it down and entered the ground floor. Naturally, the whole space was filled with classic Bugattis.
When it comes to Bugattis, I must admit that I was never as enamoured of the brand as others. While I could always appreciate the mind-bending numbers of the Veyron and then the Chiron, I could only a feat of engineering between its four wheels. It didn’t look beautiful, at least not to my eyes. I was about to receive an education in what the seven-lettered French carmaker was truly about.
Opulence, elegance, luxury, attention to detail, speed, power and size. Turn all these attributes to eleven and you can imagine how I felt. Add to this that most of the these cars were built and driven in the prewar era and it becomes all the more impressive. Meant to be enjoyed during an era when luxury was a way of life destined only for royalty and heads of industry, the Bugattis in front me were beautiful automotive monoliths.
The Type 35C, the Type 50 S, the Type 54 were the first few that I came across. Marvelling at the cost-no-object build quality of these automobiles, it seemed to really drive home the ‘they don’t build them like they used to’ adage. Nothing today seems like it could hold a candle to these cars. I hadn’t even got to the big hitters just yet either.
The Bugatti Type 65, the Type 57 Ventoux, the 57C Atalante, the 57C Aravis, the Type 41 Royale (which was destined only for royalty) and my personal favourite, the Type 57 SC Atlantic. These days, our benchmarks for opulent luxury are Rolls Royce Phantoms and Bentley Mulsannes. Put either of them next to the massive automobiles I was looking at and I’m certain your definition of ‘over-the-top’ would have changed forever.
Trying desperately to regain my bearings, I stopped to admire a classic Land Rover Defender art car, before heading out. I was in a daze. How the people behind the Petersen managed to pack so much automotive goodness in one building is beyond me, but I knew that seeing all those automobiles truly changed my world. So, until I see something better, I will consider the Petersen the benchmark for the best classic cars in one place going forth.
As I headed back into the California sunshine, I looked back at the formidable structure and smiled. I don’t think I could have ended my trip to Los Angeles on a better note. Until next time!
And with that, we end our series of stories about Los Angeles. We hope you enjoyed keeping up with us.