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A Car Lover’s Paradise: The Petersen Automotive Museum



A Car Lover’s Paradise: The Petersen Automotive Museum

Performance Technic

During our trip to LA for Bimmerfest, we decided to take some extra time to stop by a place we’ve wanted to visit for a very long time: The Petersen. The best way to describe the museum is that it falls somewhere in a happy median between an automotive enthusiast’s paradise and an architecture fan’s dream land. Everything about this place screams, “ART!”

Depending on which side you enter the main lobby from, you’re either greeted by an unobtainable Toyota 2000GT or an absolutely massive, jet black Rolls Royce. Along the wall opposite to the Rolls is a '67 Alfa Romeo Giuila TZ2 (the last one ever produced). If you’re a fan of learning, this is the place for you. Want to know about the smallest details of obscure cars you’ve probably never heard of? This is the spot. Do you crave knowledge pertaining to some of the most iconic cars ever built? This is also the spot. Essentially, this is a place for just about anyone to come to learn, whether you’re an automotive newbie or a well seasoned mechanical veteran.

For the sake of blog size, I’ve reduced the content in this entry to the vehicles I found most interesting. Plus, we have to leave some to the imagination so that you’re motivated to visit. We decided it would be fun to partake in not just the base level of museum touring, but also what the curators call “The Vault” tour. This tour is restricted to small groups of people, and photography is absolutely forbidden under any circumstance. That said, I have no proof of what’s in the vault, but I highly recommend taking the tour. 

The first room we visited outside of The Vault tour was the BMW Art Room. On display were the original 3.0 CSL Art Car (#1), the 850CSI, and a Z4 Roadster, which wasn’t technically an Art Car. We’ll start with my favorite (and the highlight of the museum for me): the CSL.

This 1975 3.0 CSL was owned originally by a French racer named Herve Poulain. Back in the 70s, Poulain wanted a car that could be raced at Le Mans, but he dreaded driving just another race car. The solution for him was found in the creative talent of Alexander Calder, who was the inventor of the mobile (of the art variety; not the auto). The goal was to create a vehicle that blurred the definition between traditional and mechanical art. As you can see, there isn't much uniform flow in regards to the way Calder painted the car. Lines seem to make straight darts in various directions, not obviously coinciding with the CSL's body lines. This was the artist's intention: to create an eye catching, bizarre, and beautiful piece of rolling art. This CSL was the beginning of the Art Car movement, and it will likely make an appearance at Festorics this year. Make sure you attend, because it is absolutely worth seeing in person.

(Slideshow above, be sure to watch it!)

The other Art Car in the exhibit room was a 1995 850CSI. This piece was completed by artist David Hockney during car’s production year. Compared to the CSL across the room, the style of this car is very unrefined, and even a bit stressful to look at. It seems chaotic, as the brush strokes are rough and imprecise. Unlike the CSL, there is a heavy use of texture in the design, mostly in the green areas. Viewing the car from the front, one may notice that the art displayed across the bonnet and nose resembles that of the engine within. The artist’s intention was to create a landscape full of motion. I would say he achieved this, as the leading lines across the car carry the viewer from front to back easily. 

The third vehicle, which is not an official Art Car, was used in the making of BMW’s ad campaign for the second generation of the Z4. Robin Rhode is responsible for this splattered spectacle of a car. This Z4 was essentially used as a large paintbrush. Rhode instructed a driver in the car on where and how to turn to drive it across a 20,000-square-foot plywood canvas. From his standpoint, he remotely controlled when and where paint would be applied so that the car would strategically spread it around. Shown behind the car below is a section of that painted plywood, framed for gallery viewing.

The next exhibit centralized around the world of custom coach building, which was very popular in the early to mid 1900s. The room, titled “Rolling Sculpture,” was full of exactly that: massive vehicles that looked more like they belonged in art galleries than on the road. Everything from a ’37 Delage D8-120 Coupe to the “Rakish Rolls” pictured below.

This 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom I (above), built by New York based Brewster & Co., is dubbed the "Windblown Coupe." It's obvious that the name reflects the styling, as the car literally looks as if it's being blown back by wind current as it travels down the road. Believe it or not, the car was customized so that it actually sits lower than it otherwise would have. The spare tire was hidden in the rear, the trunk was streamlined into the rest of the body, and the coachwork was essentially widened so that the car would sit at a lower ride height. To those of us who modify cars today, this isn't necessarily what we envision when we think of lowered vehicles. However, all of this building cost the owner at the time (in 1930) a tremendous $20,000. Someone certainly thought it was money well spent!

The artistic vision that it took to build these cars is astounding. There simply is no equivalent to these customs today. While we arguably customize on a more intense level in today’s world, these vehicles will remain timeless. They will never not be referred to as pure art.

“Precious Metal” could not have been a more accurate title for the next exhibit. This room was entirely monochromatic in color scheme, as were the cars inside. The theme of this area was to accentuate the importance of the use of silver in automobile history. The briefing described the excitement of the public when chrome plating was established in the early twentieth century. This spurred the popularity of silver cars as opposed to the nickel and brass plated styling of the past. This room certainly conveyed the highest level of prestige; its residents included a ’94 Bugatti EB110, a ’37 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet, and a ’57 Ferrari 625/250 Testa Rossa, among my favorites.

This Bugatti is a significant piece of history for the manufacturer. An Italian by the name of Romano Artioli took control of the Bugatti name in 1989, and shortly thereafter produced this vehicle (1991). The EB110 is powered by a 3.5 liter, quad-turbocharged V-12 engine, and put down 552 HP with a top speed of 210 MPH. The model was named in homage to Ettore Bugatti, and numerically labeled to coincide with the late founder's birthday. He would have been 110 years old that year, and only 126 of these vehicles were produced.

Here's one you might not be familiar with: the 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet, by Voll & Ruhrbeck. The name is a mouthful and the sight is an eyeful. The sweeping body lines of this car are incredibly artistic, and it's easy to get lost in the details. If you're like me, you haven't heard of Horch. It was an extremely high class luxury vehicle in the early 1900s, and customers could go as far as ordering these cars custom built from private coachbuilders. It was basically a way of saying, "I'm fancier than you" to those who may do business with more public coachbuilders, who were often readily available. This specific vehicle was produced by Voll & Ruhrbeck and screams "Art Deco." Eventually, Horch merged with DKW, Wanderer, and Audi. Obviously this car is 1/1, and despite its extravagant looks, it only had an estimated top speed of 87 MPH, and produced about 120 HP.

This '57 625 Testa Rossa is rich in Motorsport history. Specifically built for John von Neumann for the 1957 race season, the small platform hides a 2.5 liter Grand Prix engine under the hood. It produced a respectable 320 HP and could reach speeds of up to 170 MPH. This car is one of two, and is considered to be the most celebrated racing Ferrari ever.

The exhibit branched off into a mix of low riders/hot rod customs and a couple of cars that may be more familiar to the younger generations of car enthusiasts. The Bulletproof Automotive Varis FRS was on display alongside Ken Block’s famous Ford Fiesta, seen in the wildly viral Gymkhana videos.

The car that I was most impressed with in this room was not Ken Block’s, nor Bulletproof’s, but rather, a custom Cadillac known as “CadZZilla.” The ’48 Cadillac Sedanette fastback drew heavily upon inspiration from Japanese film monsters of the time (notably, Godzilla). It was customized on commission by Billy F Gibbons, the guitarist for the Rock group ZZ Top. Everything from the sloping top line to the rich royal purple color is just captivating. Dubbed the “Rock ’N’ Roll Monster,” this land yacht is powered by a mountainous 500 cubic inch Cadillac V-8, producing around 375 HP. This car was completed in 1988.


At the end of our visit, we entered a room that easily could have been titled, “Porsche, Porsche, and More Porsche.” If you want to see racing legends in the flesh (or rather, metal), this is the room for you. The ’80 953 K3 Sachs, ’69 917K Gulf Wyer, ’80 936/80 Martini, and ’86 962 Rothman all rested before a panoramic screen backdrop, which played “A Day at the Races.” It was a one minute film showing some of the most exciting moments in motorsport history, and conveying what it felt like to be in the moment at the track. Watching the film enveloped us, gave us a small shot of adrenaline, and left us wanting more. Standing before these icons was special, and there wasn’t much talking happening. Only looking.

Before this blog fills the potential to become a full blown series, we'll leave it at that. The verdict: the Petersen Museum is a must if you're ever in the LA area. There was far more to the establishment than shown in this blog, so we recommend paying a visit if you're local or making a trip out of it if you aren't. The selection of vehicles is usually in alternation as new vehicles come into inventory when others leave upon lease closure. Research what you'd like to see or follow them on Instagram to keep up to date with their displays.