How I Found Love 20 Feet Under Wilshire Boulevard With An Old Car Key

This is a story about how I found the basement for the world's most storied auto museum with a key from an old Volvo and realized I loved something more than cars. Specifically, how I loved the woman who would end up with the questionable honor of being my wife.

Yes, since it's Valentine's Day, you're going to have to endure yet another post about love. But don't worry — I've thrown in lots of cars — so it should be bearable.

The first car is a yellow 1967 Volvo P1800S. That P1800 was my car (I later traded it for my Scimitar), and I really loved that car. At the same time I was using that Volvo as my daily driver, around 2001, I was also realizing that I loved something else, specifically the woman who would end up with the very dubious honor of being my wife.

The key to this story is, predictably, a key. See, ‘60s-era Volvo P1800s had separate keys for the ignition and doors/trunk. The ignition key was a fairly normal auto-type key, but the one for the doors and trunk was an absurdly small key — it looked more like the key to an office drawer or some luggage than a car key. This key was with me when I was on an early date with my future wife. I don't think either of us really knew where the relationship was going at that early stage, but we knew that we both liked cars, so this early date was spent at the Petersen Automotive Museum. I don't recall exactly what was on display; I was still to distracted and giddy that this girl was out with me at all, but we had a pretty good time. Too soon, a loudspeaker told us the museum was closing, implying that while we didn't have to go home, we couldn't stay there, so we, good museum patrons, made for the elevator.

In the elevator, in the enclosed space with the girl I was so intensely interested in, there must have been some odd confluence of pheromones and electronics and mechanical linkages to explain what happened next. Neither of us wanted to take actions that would suggest the date was going to end, so just leaving the museum didn't seem so appealing. Looking at the panel of buttons on the elevator, I noticed that there was one floor that had a little lock instead of a button. The floor was labeled "B", for, as my college degree allowed me to deduce, "basement."

I don't really know why I even did what I did next. There's absolutely no reasonable reason why a tiny trunk and door key made in Göteborg, Sweden, should fit into a keyhole on an Otis-brand elevator in the Western United States, and there's really no reason why it should turn with such a satisfying click, and especially no reason why that turn of a Volvo key in an elevator's locked floor should take two people falling in love down into the secret storage basement of the Petersen Automotive Museum, but that's exactly what happened. I put the Volvo key in the lock, it turned, and we went down into the basement.

The doors opened to a dimly lit, but clearly vast, underground parking lot. Instinctively holding hands, we emerged into a car-lover's equivalent of what that British guy felt when he dug his way into the pyramids and punched out that first mummy. We could hear the footsteps of a guard, and barely see the glow of his flashlight at the other end of the basement, which easily covered the entire footprint of the museum. By being quiet, and always staying on the opposite end of the basement as the guard, we were able to wander through the cars at will.

It was incredible. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light, the real scale of what we were surrounded by hit us. Hundreds of cars, packed together in rows and rows. If you wanted one from the middle somewhere, it probably would have taken a solid day or more just to get the others out of the way and back. And almost every car was interesting in some way– this wasn't a Wal-Mart parking lot, after all. I recall seeing around a dozen George Barris-type hot rods, a replica of Speed Racer's Mach 5, a Stout Scarab, what I think was the original, red Meyers Manx, a bunch of unrestored, brass-era cars, including several rusty Franklins, their peculiar pegged air-cooled cylinders sitting inside open hoods like funny little cacti.

Car-wise, though, what struck me most of all were two Raymond Lowey-designed specials I had only seen in pictures up to that point, one based on a BMW 507 and one based on a Lancia. These were cars I had long admired (partially just because of the wild hubris of a man who felt he could design a better body for a BMW 507) and had no idea were even in the Petersen's collection at all. It was incredible, to see those cars, in that dim light, in that basement, at that moment.

Not-car-wise, what struck me most was that the woman I was with was having as much fun as I was, excited by all the amazing cars, keeping an eye out for the guard, running and hiding behind cars as the guard passed, crouched close by me, smelling amazing, making me feel wonderful. It was down there, in the basement of the Petersen, hiding behind a vintage Delahaye or something, that it hit me that I always wanted to be with this person.

Amazingly, that's what happened. So there's your sappy Valentine's Day story, packed with a crapload of cars. Happy Valentine's Day.