Despite being an avid car enthusiast since the late ’80s and working in the automotive media field for the last 20 years, I had never visited the Petersen Automotive Museum before. It was a conspicuously unchecked line on my bucket list I intended to remedy this year. So during my recent travels I made plans to visit the famous Petersen in Los Angeles for the first time. And what good timing, as the museum had just opened a brand new exhibit called “We Are Porsche” that celebrates the automaker’s 75th anniversary by honoring the cars and people that steered its course in America.
You can’t miss the Petersen on approach. The red building is three stories or so tall and wrapped in a skeletal cocoon of metal. The architecture is arresting, just like the designs of so many cars that call the museum home. And the fun starts before you even enter the lobby, with cool cars strategically displayed in the parking garage, including an actual Tesla semi posing on the red carpet right by the entrance.
There were three things I wanted to accomplish on the day of my visit: experience the museum’s main halls on each level, tour the Vault, and check out the new Porsche exhibit. With my gracious, patient, and lovely spouse by my side, we took the stairs down to the basement to visit the Vault first.
Every museum should let visitors tour their vault. The Petersen’s vault resides in its basement and costs an extra $25 per person on top of your $19.95 general admission ticket. Don’t be cheap; it’s worth it.
Unlike the perfectly staged displays in the halls upstairs, the Vault is more like a storage facility with around 250 cars parked close together and even double parked in some cases. Some of the cars have placards with information about their history, though many do not. And forget about order and organization; while there’s some method to the madness in terms of how the cars are grouped together, in many cases it seems as though they were parked wherever they fit.
My favorite vehicles in the Vault were an early ’80s Toyota Celica Supra similar to the Celica GT I drove in high school (sans louvers), a Jaguar XJ220 parked next to a first-gen Viper (both of which are in my dream garage), a 1969 Corwin Getaway Prototype (designed by an LA-based photographer with a business plan to improve economic conditions for African American communities where it would be built), and an OG GM EV1 that looks more like an afterthought sitting there than the groundbreaking and extremely rare car it is.
Up in the main halls, we took in the current exhibitions that the Peterson has running. The first floor is dedicated to Tesla, which we found interesting being former Model 3 owners. In particular, this exhibit reveals details about the early days of Tesla we never knew and includes the original AC Propulsion TZero that inspired the Roadster. It was a test drive in this car that supposedly helped convince Elon Musk to invest in the company.
The Cybertruck is on display as well, although it’s staged unflatteringly in its squat position with the truck ramp extended. We also got a kick out of the early Model X prototype on display that still has the grille from the original Model S design it would later drop before reaching production.
Another floor up we found the Hypercars: The Allure of the Extreme exhibit. Talk about a dream garage. Rimac Nevera Concept. Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport. Ferrari FXX-K. And my personal favorite: an Hispano Suiza Carmen Boulogne covered in purple carbon fiber. There’s more I won’t mention; it’s a fun surprise to see what’s on display at the time of your visit. This particular room of cars, while small, is worth climbing the Petersen’s spiral staircase for.
On the third floor we found an impressive lineup of movie and TV cars including Keaton’s Batmobile, an original K.I.T.T., Eleanor from Gone in 60 Seconds, and Doc’s DeLorean Time Machine. Marvel fans will be particularly geeked about the Lexus LC500 used in the first Black Panther movie with actual claw marks in the sheetmetal.
Other highlights of this floor come from the anals of automotive history and include the very first practical car ever built, the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Parked close by is a Bugatti Type 57 C Atalante, an original 1948 Tucker, and a 1949 Willy’s Jeep Station Wagon outfitted as maybe the first overlander ever sold, among others.
I’ve saved the best for last. The “We Are Porsche” exhibit begins in the lobby with a cool Porsche Safari car, life-size Matchbox Porsche, Porsche art car, and more fun oddities. The meat of the exhibit, though, is on the second floor.
This exhibit showcases not only some amazing cars from the brand’s history in motorsport and road cars, but emphasis is also paid to the people who made Porsche the iconic automotive brand it is today. They include names you know like Dan Gurney, Hurley Haywood, and Ken Miles, and some you might not like Vasek Polak, John von Neumann, and Max Hoffman.
The cars, however, are the star of the show. Some of my favorites on display were Dan Gurney’s 1962 Porsche 804 Formula 1 car, which claimed Porsche’s only two F1 victories, Steve McQueen’s 1976 911 Turbo that last sold for nearly $2 million, and the movie cars (I’m a sucker for movie cars) including Porsches from Top Gun: Maverick and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Describing any more of the exhibit in words would do it a disservice; it’s a “You had to be there” kind of experience. Fortunately, the “We Are Porsche” exhibit is included with your general admission ticket and has a generous run through April 2024 during which cars will be rotated in and out.
To say my visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum lived up to my expectations would be an understatement. I’ve been to a few car museums in my day, and place the Petersen at the top of the heap. Bucket list item… checked.