Automotive museum opens where else? in Los Angeles, home of car culture

June 19, 1994|By Elaine Louie | Elaine Louie,New York Times News Service

Like American automobiles of the 1950s, the Petersen Automotive Museum, which opened in Los Angeles last week, has fins: 10 gray steel ones that soar from the sidewalk 70 feet into the air, extending 15 feet above the four-story building.

To nearly everyone, the fins spell automobile, says Marc Whipple, a partner in Russell Group Architects in Beverly Hills, Calif., which renovated the 1961 building, originally a department store.

The museum is not High Culture. The videotapes, exhibits and dioramas are a mix of Disneyland and scholarship, "hear-me, touch-me, smell-me" tableaux in which sparks fly and steam hisses.

Perched on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the building, clad in white brick and black reflective glass, fits easily into a landscape in which commercial buildings look like the products they sell: Hot dog stands were built to look like hot dogs, and orange juice was sold from round orange spheres.

At this museum devoted to the automobile and how it reshaped Los Angeles, both name and address are apt. Robert E. Petersen, the publisher of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines, and his wife, Margie Petersen, donated the first $15 million of the $40 million used to buy the building and create the museum, a branch of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

And the address is to automotive history what Hollywood and Vine are to the movies. Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues was called the Miracle Mile, the first shopping district designed with cars in mind, in the 1920s, says Matthew Roth, the museum's curator. Everything -- department stores, theaters and parks -- was designed to be car-accessible.

In Los Angeles, the car has never been just a mode of transportation, and what the museum shows, in galleries that occupy a third of its 300,000 square feet, is how the car changed lives: how people travel, live (with garages), eat (at drive-ins) and shop (at malls).

On the museum's first floor, 17 dioramas trace the evolution of one mythical Los Angeles street. The twisting, curving journey begins with a tableau set in 1911, the beginning of the car age. An American Underslung is mired in mud. Steam spurts from the radiator, and California quail and scrub jays chirp (via sound effects). The glamour of motoring -- a spin around Las Tunas Canyon in Malibu -- has gone awry.

XTC Despite perils like this, the automobile quickly became a part of the American dream. Another diorama depicts that dream made reality: a 1920s' bungalow, a patch of grass, a Willys-Knight in the driveway and a snug garage. In the air drifts the faint, sweet-spicy scent of an apple pie baking in the oven.

In another scene, cars are parked at a small mall whose L-shaped building brackets its corner lot, a location chosen because two curb cuts made it easy for cars to enter and exit. "The L-shaped malls were born in Los Angeles," Mr. Roth says. "It adapted the drive-through elements of gas station design to a different form of business."

By the 1930s, motorists whirred down Los Angeles boulevards at 35 mph, and to catch their eye, billboards exploded in size. "The bill board was media's response to the automobile," says James D. Olson, the museum's director of exhibits. In the diorama illustrating this, the life-size billboard comes complete with a motorcycle patrolman behind it on his Harley-Davidson.

Car buffs can revel in the museum's 200 automobiles, many of them on display on the second and third floors. The cars will change every three to six months, since 80 percent of them are on loan.

Among them is the 1966 Mongrel T, which George Barris, the master customizer, designed for the Elvis Presley movie "Easy Come, Easy Go." The car, loosely based on a Model T, is a patchwork of colors, materials and automotive parts. The grille is from a Rolls-Royce and the seat backs resemble surfboards.

For those who like their cars sleek, there is Jean Harlow's gleaming brown 1932 Packard, a dual-cowl phaeton. But standing nearby, mud-splattered and proud, is the 1980 Volvo 245 DL station wagon that Garry Sowerby, a Canadian, drove around the world in 74 days.

The Airomobile is pure whimsy, cartoon-like in its shape. The bright red car looks like a bulbous airplane fuselage without wings. Carl Doman and Ed Marks, automotive engineers, designed it in 1937 to be mass-produced, selling for less than a Ford or Chevrolet, which were then priced at under $1,000. But the project never got off the ground, and only one Airomobile was built.

For the Walter Mitty yearning to be Mario Andretti, there is a 1985 Lola that ran in the Indianapolis 500. Visitors can climb in and fasten on a helmet, surrounded by a photo mural that shows a pit crew leaping out to service the car.

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