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

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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.

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