WORLD’S BEST CAR MUSEUM?
LA’s Petersen Automotive Museum was always good – but it’s just undergone a $100 m revamp, mixing artistry with innovation. Octane was there for its grand reopening
IS THIS THE WORLD’S BEST CAR MUSEUM?
Surely the famous Petersen Automotive Museum always had it all. Location? Yes, on the section of Wilshire Boulevard that’s known as the Miracle Mile. Actually, better than that; on the section of the Miracle Mile that’s known as Museum Row, because on the opposite side of Wilshire begins a line of institutions that include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, the Craft and Folk Art Museum and even the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, where the weirdly sticky ground was found to have preserved Ice Age creatures.
And it had the cars, not just those bought by publishing magnates Robert E and Margie Petersen, of Hot Rod magazine fame, amongst many others, but also by the local car collectors – this being just down the road from Beverly Hills, surely the highest concentration of topend classic car enthusiasts in the world.
Which leads neatly into funding, normally the bane of every museum director’s life. The Petersens (Robert passed away in 2007, Margie in 2011) left a covenant to keep the museum running, but extra donations and fund-raising comes from the Checkered Flag 200, probably the most affluent group of car enthusiasts in the world.
So that just leaves the building itself, built in 1962 for Japanese department store Seibu, and bought by the Petersens in 1992 to make public their car collection. With a useful basement, covered parking – a precious commodity on the Miracle Mile – and a dramatic rooftop, this was near-perfect. Since its opening in 1994, the Petersen Automotive Museum has drawn great acclaim – and visitors – from around the world.
For the museum directors, though, it wasn’t quite perfect enough. The Petersen told the story of Los Angeles car culture, but not so much of the story of the car worldwide. It needed to attract more visitors, and hence to stand out more from the outside. And then the inside would surely have to match, and allow more display space. But there could be no extension, no tearing down and rebuilding, and closure time had to be as short as possible.
Peter Mullin, a former Petersen director, collector of famed Art Deco era cars and founder of the Mullin Automotive Museum, was tempted back as chairman by the influential Beverley Hills collectors and museum board members Bruce Meyer and David Sydorick. They pulled in Terry Karges, ex-Rousch Performance and Disneyland, as director. And David, over a glass of wine or two, quizzed leading architect Gene Kohn on how to transform the plain-Jane building into something distinctive and world class. Gene’s company, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, had designed important buildings – including New York’s Museum of Modern Art – in every major city in the USA, except for Los Angeles…
‘The question was, how could we express what was within the building,’ Gene explained. ‘It started with looking at the aerodynamic qualities of the car, and we came up with these ribbons representing speed.’
Some way down the line, the ‘ribbons’ had turned into huge aluminium and stainless steel creations, built by fabrication specialists Zahner, painted red where they weren’t bare stainless, and suspended on the outside of the
‘Certainly it’s up there with the Mercedes-benz, Porsche and ferrari museums – and, of course, it’s more varied’
building by a network of steel tubes or ‘trees’. At night they’re backlit, to stunning effect.
With this going on outside, the interior was remodelled around the existing structural pillars. The offices were moved into the basement and a car elevator installed, along with a central spiral staircase to link the three main floors.
But what would be on those floors? The museum brought in Ulf Henriksson of The Scenic Route to help plan the interior layout.
‘Peter Mullin showed me the exterior renderings and said “We want one of the greatest automobile museums in the world.” I accepted on the spot. We produced a unified vision for what the directors wanted to see, what I wanted to do, what the staff – who have been there for years and knew Robert and Margie Petersen so well – wanted, and we spent seven months working through the masterplan. I’ve put everything into this; if people don’t like it, there’s no-one else to blame.’
So what did we see, at the grand opening a mere 14 months after the museum’s temporary closure? Let’s start at the beginning, in the new lobby, which now connects the car park with Wilshire Boulevard, allowing passers-by to wander though without charge, and not only to visit the shop but also get a free glimpse of the Floor 1 exhibits through the all-glass walls.
Paying visitors will be ushered into the lifts and taken directly to Floor 3, the History floor. This tells not a straight history of the automobile but dips in and out of concept cars, technology, culture, film cars and bikes, customising and local area history.
Then it’s down to Floor 2, the area that moves car museums onto a whole new level of operation. This is the Industry floor, so of course there are exhibits on how cars are designed, tested, built… except that the design side is covered by a live studio, a satellite campus to LA’s renowned Art Center College of Design, of which a huge proportion of the most successful car designers of the last few decades are graduates. The Art Center transportation course students will be working on live projects from the museum studio, with visitors free to pop in and out as they work.
Further along, exhibits from BMW Mini and Maserati show off construction techniques, while opposite the studio are the museum’s GT40 MkIII and Ford’s 2017 GT – the Petersen is the only place currently guaranteed to have the new GT on display throughout 2016.
‘What about the kids?’ you cry! Now this is where the Petersen really tops anything that’s gone before. It has teamed up with Pixar Animation Studios to produce a Cars themed exhibit that enables children to design a race car on a tablet device, guided by Cars characters at each step – Mater as the main guide, Flo for initial design, Luigi for the build
process, Fillmore for fuel, Ramone for paint, Sally Carrera for optimisation – then Lightning McQueen authorises the newly designed car to be raced. The process allows choice of engine, transmission, tyres, livery and even racing lines. Each stage takes place at marked stations around Floor 2. I defy anyone, from three years old to positively ancient, not to be entranced.
Linked to this is the Pixar Mechanical Institute, which explains the workings of Lightning McQueen – actually the running gear of a 2007 NASCAR – linked to instructions and animations on touch-sensitive screens.
Around the corner is the Forza Motorsport Racing Experience, with ten race simulators allowing virtual racing in a Ford GT on a choice of circuits. In mid-June, it will even be possible to virtual-race a GT in real time at Le Mans from the museum.
But back to actual metal, it’s over to the motorcycles, displayed on a sinuous plinth inspired by the Isle of Man TT. Up ahead, glass doors now lead out onto the roof where events and car gatherings will continue to take place. To the side is the Motorsport gallery, in which iconic race cars (currently including Porsche 917, 935, 936 and 956) are displayed in front of a 165ft-long 180° screen showing an evocative compilation of archive footage from all disciplines of motor sport. It was seen to bring tears to the eyes of more than one viewer.
And now to the Special Exhibits Gallery, courtesy of Bruce Meyer, who has arguably done more for the museum than anyone other than Robert and Margie themselves. In here is the Precious Metal collection, linked simply by the colour silver – and utterly stunning for it.
Downstairs to Floor 1, the Artistry floor, and this is where the incredible Art Deco machinery of Peter Mullin and others is shown off, along with a collection of three BMW Art Cars in the next room along. For most, the centrepiece fabled Bugatti Atlantic will rightly be the main attraction, though, as with every display, the cars will change every few months.
What a place. Peter Mullin modestly said ‘I think it’s in the top ten car museums in the world’ but personally hopes that perhaps it’s top five, or even top three. Certainly it’s up with the Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari museums – and, of course, it’s more varied. So we think it might just be number one.
Clockwise from top Alternative fuels display; the Motorsport gallery, with 180º
screen that shows a film depicting race days across the world; industry area features a working Art Center College of
Design studio, with various mock-ups and design studies. The revamp has resulted in an extra 15,000sq ft of display area.