A car museum is usually little more than a few rows of interesting and somewhat randomly accumulated vehicles, presented with or without interpretation. It has been this way ever since my very first tour of a car collection, one amassed in a Quonset hut by Leo J. Bongers, of David City, Nebraska. The Bongers collection wasn’t open to the public, but my Aunt Margie and Uncle Denby Horacek, who lived in that town, got us admitted. The cars were run-of-the-mill Nebraska cars, nothing fancy, but word was that Bongers hoped the state government would acquire them as the nucleus for a museum. Even I could see how dumb that idea was. After Bongers died, the collection was auctioned off on a bitter January day in 1994, and little more has been said about it.
The template familiar from the Bongers collection has held true for pretty much every car museum I’ve visited, from the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, in Auburn, Ind., to the Gilmore Car Museum, in Hickory Corners, Mich. In fact, I more or less gave up on car museums. Even America’s Car Museum, a.k.a. the LeMay collection, in Tacoma, Wash., lines up cars in rows, if its website is an accurate indicator. The Automobile Driving Museum, in El Segundo, Calif., distinguishes itself not through its exhibit space but instead with a program of taking guests for rides in cars from the collection.
The Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, had distinguished itself by displaying its cars within dioramas. This struck many people as kitschy. But as I say, I’d given up on car museums and had only been to the Petersen for press events. Then, in 2013, I ended up with the assignment to write a 4000-word piece about plans to remodel the museum. This was for Finish Line, the magazine that goes to museum supporters. I interviewed the architects and museum board chairman Peter Mullin, among others, to learn all about it, and when the 10-page story appeared my byline was misspelled.
Now, two years later, the new museum has opened. I couldn’t make press day in December, but when my friend Angela Riechers, a writer and art director, came to town in January, we arranged to go. Our approach was on Wilshire Boulevard from the east. While I like the voluptuous cladding, the new Petersen doesn’t exactly harmonize with neighboring buildings. It sure manufactures its own excitement, though.
The museum is meant to be seen starting on the third floor. Here is an introduction gallery and other exhibits that present a broad overview of the automobile from horseless carriage days to the era when fanciful bodies were created for dream cars of the 1950s. Appraising the latter, I leaned to Angela and said two names: Ghia and Bortz. We had seen Ghia-bodied cars a few weeks earlier at the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival and Concours d’Elegance. And I told her about Joe Bortz, the Chicago collector. Bortz made me miserable one summer when I was assigned to write about a dream car he’d restored; he kept calling me late at night to demand duplicates of my photos. Indeed, one of the dream cars in this display was Bortz’s, so I got away as fast as possible, escaping to the row of movie cars.
Yes, a row. There had to be one. The 300,000-square-foot building started life in 1962 as the Seibu department store. By the early 1990s, it was abandoned to transients. The publisher Robert E. Petersen rescued the building from foreclosure and opened the Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994. Not much changed in the next 19 years before the redesign and re-launch of the museum was announced.
“The current state of the building is kind of a depressing place,” I was told by Trent Tesch, design principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, of New York. “I do feel it doesn’t highlight the potential of what you feel on the inside.” With the museum board now led by Peter Mullin, David Sydorick, and Bruce Meyer, the commission to KPF was to enliven the place.
“Trent and I sat down and thought, ‘How in the world can we do this and make it special?’” A. Eugene Kohn said. “We came up with the idea of stainless steel beams.”
There was more involved than just exterior furbelows, though. Lighting, music, and graphic projections for the exhibits are unlike that in any other car museum. Instead of the usual presentational hucksterism–gas station signs and automotive bric-a-brac–each displays is an exaltation; interpretive material is kept concise, and the viewer gives his full regard. A spiral staircase connects the three floors, a nice touch that somewhat mitigates the fact that, as Kohn said, the building is “a big box, basically, as department stores were.” A clever wall of motor scooters in the second-floor’s Richard Varner (another museum board member and former Nebraska Cornhusker football player) Family Gallery generates exuberance. Meanwhile, the Precious Metal exhibit is ethereal.
Not that we were sold on every car. Looking at the vast, silver Hispano-Suiza, which was bodied by Saoutchik, Angela couldn’t help herself. “It’s like a fat uncle who won’t shut up,” she said.
Moving from the second floor, which emphasizes aspects of the auto industry (especially design), to the first level’s Peter and Merle Mullin Artistry Floor, we swept into a gallery of “the most artfully designed vehicles ever built, often regarded as rolling sculptures,” the brochure says. Indeed, the scalloped trim and singular checked upholstery of the Voisins, the gladiatorial Bugatti Atlantique, and even the Saoutchik-bodied, sharknose 1938 Graham—a car I’d hardly ever thought about—combine to produce a feeling of transcendence, an uplift that has never been this firmly fixed to automotive displays.
Everybody named in this summary, along with the museum curator Leslie Kendall and executive director Terry Karges, deserve plaudits for effecting this amazing transformation.
On Angela’s next visit, she’s bringing her fat uncle.