The Van Goghs and Rodins of the world have museums to showcase their heart-stopping art. So why not the Bugattis and Ferraris? That was the simple premise behind the founding of Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994. Create a home for classic cars in a city that was defined by them. The late Robert Petersen’s life was catapulted to financial fame thanks to a small hot rodding magazine that blossomed into an empire, and he was eager to dedicate a space to celebrating the art and impact of the machines that were responsible for his success.
But despite a great mid-city location and the best of intentions, the museum’s road was a rough one. Initially linked to the city’s National History Museum, wildly optimistic attendance figures were never met and there was a feeling that the non-profit enterprise could founder. Those fears, however, have just vanished. Margie Petersen, Robert’s widow, recently announced a $100 million gift to the museum that promises to permanently anchor “The Petersen,” as it’s known among car enthusiasts, to the L.A. firmament.
“Margie’s gift is nothing short of spectacular, and it allows us to immediately institute our five-year plan,” says Buddy Pepp, the museum’s executive director.
Specifically, he says there will be a full-scale interior and exterior renovation of the Wilshire Boulevard property, a development team will begin looking into starting an endowment, and staffing requirements will be revisited, with the hope of boosting some frozen salaries and even adding a few new positions.
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We are so auto-centric here in Southern California. Remember, where most cities grew up, into high-rises, we grew out, into suburbs. All thanks to the automobile. - Leslie Kendall
Pepp says he doesn’t expect or need big increases in visitor numbers, which are holding steady despite the recession at around 160,000 a year. Admission is $10; the museum also buses in around 9,000 L.A.-area school kids annually at its own expense.
“The appeal of our museum is that it’s not just a bunch of cars stacked up like cordwood,” says Pepp. “We work very hard to display cars in context. We have the Hollywood Gallery, the Racing Gallery and even dioramas that explain the automobile’s role in the growth of L.A. We’re trying to show people history as much as the cars themselves.”
One thing that will not happen is the purchasing of more vehicles, at least for the moment. Currently the museum has nearly 400 classic cars in its vaults — from stately Duesenbergs to wild hot rods — and the $100 million adds “135 cars, plus it gives us ownership of the building we’re in and an undisclosed but substantial amount of cash,” says Pepp.
No one is more pleased by the gift than Bruce Meyer, a major car collector who has been involved with the Petersen since the day its doors opened to a curious public. He says he spent many years as the “ombudsman” between the Petersen and the Natural History Museum, where he was on the board of directors, which initially housed the collection before it moved a few blocks away into a former Ohrbach’s department store.
“Let’s just say that you either have cars in your DNA or you don’t,” Meyer says with a laugh. “If you’re the kind of person who has to ask what cars he needs in the collection, then it’s not in your DNA.”
Meyer says the Natural History Museum’s expectations were out of line. “They thought we’d be bringing in a million visitors a year out of the box, which was absurd,” he says. “We quickly became a cash drain on them.”
Meyer recalls that the disconnect was so bad that “we weren’t really sure if the museum would survive.” But Petersen stepped in and used his financial clout to move his collection down the street. Now, says Meyer, “this latest gift of Margie’s, if properly managed, will take us through the ages.”
The collector, whose Bruce Meyer Gallery at the Petersen showcases some of his prized hot rods, agrees that buying new cars “is the last of our priorities. Simply put, we can borrow anything we need, so there’s little point to owning anymore.”
He feels instead that some of the new funds should be used to develop educational programs that will in essence help spread that car-DNA to a new generation of enthusiasts. To that end, executive director Pepp says the Petersen “should absolutely have a dual role, one of which is promoting and explaining the transition we’re going through today to alternative energy vehicles, and the other being simply looking back on the history of the automobile in our city.”
Indeed, if any city warrants an automotive museum it would be Los Angeles, whose freeway-anchored car culture would fast become a part of the American cultural identity.
“We are so auto-centric here in Southern California,” says Petersen curator Leslie Kendall. “Remember, where most cities grew up, into high-rises, we grew out, into suburbs. All thanks to the automobile.”
Kendall is equally buoyed by the Petersen gift, but unlike Meyer he never felt the museum was in any jeopardy. “I knew Mr. and Mrs. Petersen wouldn’t let this just disappear,” he says. “It was too important to them, and to L.A.”
The donation’s biggest impact is to solidify the museum’s standing in the eyes of collectors worldwide, he says, which will make it all the more easy to either solicit loans of famous cars or, ideally, outright gifts of entire collections. Some of them perhaps even without cars.
“One thing I’d love to push hard on is the development of our library, which already has a substantial collection of brochures, manufacturer information and automotive blueprints,” he says. “I know there are many collectors of automotive history out there that are looking for homes for the paper documents they’ve amassed over the years, and we’d like to be a place they consider turning to for that home.”
Kendall says he hopes to have funds earmarked toward building climate-controlled environments for such arcane — to keep them safe from the ravages of time — as well as for hiring automotive experts to curate the archives. “All this would then be available for scholars to pore over,” he says. “We want to be the central rallying point for automotive enthusiasm.”
Frankly, it’s hard not to get enthusiastic about the automotive arts — these freewheeling, man-made sculptures in steel, glass and gasoline — when cruising through the gleaming halls of the Petersen. About 100 cars are always on display at any one time, and among the collection’s highlights are true classic car gems.
Sure, there’s a new Bugatti Veyron — but the $2 million supercar almost pales in comparison to a 1939 Bugatti that was given by the French government to the future Shah of Iran on the occasion of his first wedding. The Type 57C is a vision in black, its cartoonishly swooping lines and outrageous proportions speaking to an age when the rich truly ruled the roads.
And when it came to L.A.-area byways, they were (and remain) plied by celebrities; no doubt Rita Hayworth snaked through the Santa Monica Mountains in her red 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe, a very un-Cadillac-y car that was bodied by Italian coachbuilder Ghia and showcases a look that screams Maranello more than it does Detroit.
Some L.A. stars took their cars seriously, none more so than part-time racer and actor Steve McQueen. The Petersen proudly displays his 1956 Jaguar XKSS, a lithe bullet of a racing car that he found impossible to drive slowly. In fact, his license was suspended twice during the first year he owned the car. Drive on Mulholland Drive today and you’re right in the tire tracks of legends such as McQueen.
That’s the kind of stuff the Petersen Automotive Museum wants you to not just know, but feel and experience for yourself. For the directors and staff, it’s never been just about the cars. It’s about living with cars. And this $100 million gift has just breathed new life into that mission.