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A peek inside the revamped Petersen Automotive Museum

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Photo by David Zaitz/Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the outside of the recently revamped Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles; and, if not, we’ve got a picture (and time-lapse video) here to show what we’re talking about. To say the new facade of the building on the famed Wilshire Boulevard has been controversial is a bit of an understatement. But the truly important part of what marks the museum’s significance lies inside the walls, and the general public got their first chance in a year to experience it firsthand when the doors reopened on Monday, December 7.

Inside what was once a department store (twice, really; more about that below), the Petersen offers 25 galleries on three floors. Like the best all-wheel-drive cars shifting power to the wheels that need it, the Petersen promises an ever-changing mix of cars in its permanent collections, along with temporary displays from other collections, intimating that the mix could range from as much as 100 percent museum-owned assets up to up to 90 percent visiting pieces. From the start, the revised museum opens with BMW’s Art Car display, with several cars on loan from the Munich-based manufacturer. Another exhibit opening with the museum features 10 racing machines from the Charles Nearburg collection, including a quartet of racing Porsches: 917, 935, 936 and 962.

Photo by David Zaitz.

Given the Petersen’s West Coast/Hollywood connections, there will be not only plenty of Hollywood film and TV cars on display (Magnum’s Ferrari 308, anyone?) but also kid-friendly interactive exhibits, including a permanent presence based on the Disney/Pixar hit Cars, known as the Cars Mechanical Institute. Visitors will be treated to Pixar-created content made exclusively for the museum explaining how real cars functions. Even Cars lead actors Owen Wilson (the voice of Lightning McQueen) and Larry the Cable Guy (Tow Mater) participated in the exhibit. The exhibit has plenty of other hands-on, in-depth exhibits for kids (apparently of all ages), including tablets that can be checked out for a guided tour.

Photo by David Zaitz.

Of course, the real cars are the stars inside the Petersen. In the galleries that include the hot rods and low riders—quintessential California car culture, some of the automobiles are raised in the air for visitors to get a good look at the hard work and craftsmanship that went into building them. Like seemingly any modern museum, there are corporate sponsorships that help keep the lights on and the bills paid. The museum has announced sponsorships from not only BMW, but also Ford, Maserati, AAA, Microsoft’s Xbox and AIG insurance. The Xbox collaboration includes racing simulators on site, again for the big and small kids.

Before becoming the Petersen Automotive Museum, the building at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue originally opened in 1962 as the lone American outpost for Seibu, a Japanese department store that closed a couple of years later. With almost no windows in it, the building was later occupied by Ohrbach’s, another department store. At the end of 1986, Ohrbach’s shuttered, too, and left the building empty for several years until Petersen Publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen and his wife, Margie, opened the Petersen Automotive Museum there in 1994 after a multi-year renovation.

Photo by David Zaitz.

Designed by New York-based architects John Kohn Pederson Fox, the controversial new exterior of the one-time Japanese department store has garnered its fair share of criticism and controversy. But this must be by design as the museum’s board chose the outlandish façade. In the Los Angeles Times, it has been referred to as “happily tasteless,” and the “Edsel of architecture…gloriously bad.”

Photo by David Zaitz.

Photo by David Zaitz.

Whatever your take on it, the next exterior gets noticed. Period. When the architecture and museum buffs are foaming at the mouth talking about a car museum, it’s clear that the culture of such entities now transcends the busted knuckles with grease under their fingernails crowd. And that’s okay, because that means more and more of our society as a whole will be eager to take a look at cars not just as transportation, but as art. Sure, it’s high-falutin’ (as is the change from the museum’s old Johnny Rockets restaurant to one run by the Drago brothers of Beverly Hills fame), but it’s also an easy case to make.

General admission remains at $15 a head for adults, $7 for children aged three to 12, and $12 for students and seniors. Children under three, active-duty military personnel and educators all can enter free of charge.

For more information, visit:

Petersen Floor 1

First Floor

Petersen Floor 2

Second Floor

Petersen Floor 3

Third Floor