Petersen Automotive Museum Reopens with New Architecture and Old Cars

Sometimes all the pieces fit. Sometimes form follows function in an artist expression. Such is the case with the new Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which reopened last month after a $100 million renovation.

Built to house some of the world’s rarest and coolest cars and motorcycles, the structure is not only a giant warehouse, but it also a massive, sweeping architectural statement unto itself. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) Associates, the building’s new façade was inspired by the form of a car, creating a new “body” around the chassis of the existing museum that evokes images of race car speed and the curves of an automobile.

Reopened to the public on December 6, the Petersen features a constantly rotating exhibit of priceless and historic vehicles. To keep the things “fresh,” museum owners decided not to display their entire collection at once. Instead, about half of the 300-plus cars and motorcycles are on display at any one time in the roughly 100,000 sq-ft facility. The other half of the collection sits in on-site storage, awaiting a chance to go on exhibition.

One of the highlights of my recent getaway to the Petersen was the exhibit entitled “Rolling Sculpture,” which showcases autos from the 20s and 30s, when “manufacturers began to use the styling of a car as a means by which to distinguish it in the marketplace.” In this area I discovered a humongous, shiny and new-looking, 1933 Duesenberg SJ that was built to “outclass” any other car on the road. Boasting a supercharged 320-horsepower straight-eight engine, this beast was made for the wealthy and came with a staggering $20,000 price tag.

Another current exhibit is “Two-Wheeled Transportation,” which displays gorgeous motorcycles from the present back to the turn of the 20th Century, when they were little more than modified bicycles with primitive single-cylinder engines. One of the coolest motorcycles I examined was a 1927 Big Indian Chief, once owned by actor Steve McQueen. Equipped with a 24-horsepower engine, the bike could reach 90 mph and cost $350 new.

And speaking of Steve McQueen, the actor’s 1957 Jaguar XKSS is also being exhibited at the Petersen. Dubbed the “Green Rat” by McQueen, the rare Jaguar is one of only 16 such models built.

Of all the flashy, space-age, historic and experimental autos that I viewed at the Petersen Automotive Museum, one of my favorites was the 1961 International Scout 80, which was designed as a farm truck. Built with a half cab and a fold down windshield, this boxy, unassuming off-roader, is the perfect combination of simplicity and ruggedness.

Besides classic cars, the museum also features a gift shop, a soon-to-arrive dining facility, and an interactive Xbox game room, where visitors can get behind the wheel and experience the intense thrill of racing a car in one of 10 racing simulators that simulate famous tracks around the world.

After touring the three levels of exhibits, I walked outside and down the street to get a good look at the museum’s iconic architecture. The design is highlighted by a corrugated aluminum rain screen that wraps around the building, while “ribbons” of angel hair stainless steel and red painted aluminium flow around the structure.

“Sitting atop the existing structural system like the body of a car mounted to its frame, the steel ‘ribbons’ evoke a sense of speed and movement and are brushed to avoid creation of glare,” says the architect’s website. “The design offers a contemporary interpretation of the mid-century, space age “Googie” architectural style that characterizes Los Angeles. The result is one of the most significant and unforgettable structures in Los Angeles.”

The Petersen Automotive Museum is located at 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036. Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors; $7 for children; free for under 3 yrs. For more information, visit: www.petersen.org

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