I'd been in the Petersen Automotive Museum's basement once before, many years ago, illegally, and thanks to an old Volvo P1800 key that magically fit in an elevator. But that was in the dark, and avoiding the gaze of a security guard. So when I got the chance to get a real tour of the vault, I was pretty excited, especially after they confirmed it would be with the lights on, and the security guard would leave me alone, as long as I, you know, kept my pants on and didn't act like too much of a loon.

It was incredible. This museum is a real car-lover's treasure, and, happily, tours of the vault are now available indefinitely to the public, so I absolutely suggest anyone around LA take the time to check it out. In the meantime, I'd be delighted to give you a taste of the tour I got. I took a calibrated crapload of photos, so I'l break this up into a few parts.


I was guided by the Peteresen's excellent and incredibly knowledgeable curator, Leslie Kendall (I guess I should mention Leslie is a guy, to cut down on creepy emailed propositions) who gave me all kinds of great information on the cars down there. It's a fascinating, diverse collection, so let's see what we've got:

Even the side areas not really part of the tour are fascinating. Like this scene, which is notable because of all the midget-related cars in one place: a King Midget, and two Kurtis Kraft midget racers. For a chance grouping, that's a lot of midget-named cars.

How do they know how to maintain all the cars in the collection? Just like you or I. With stacks and stacks of dog-eared, grease-stained shop manuals and repair guides.

This is a 1913 Mercer Type 35-J, likely the most original in existence. Leslie told me this 60 HP, 5 L yellow monster was the "Lambo of its day." Incredibly, it's unrestored, just lovingly maintained, and back in the '50s this was one of the most valuable cars in the world.

I love the Mercer's dash, mostly because the accelerator and shifter are outside the cabin itself.

Also interesting to consider: back in the days of acetylene headlights, you actually had to stop, get out of the car, open the headlight, and ignite the light by hand. I feel pretty spoiled pulling out that little knob.

Another 1913 car — I wanted a couple of good centenarians in this first batch— is this fine De Dion. I love those clumsy rear-view mirrors. They look like someone's stolen shaving mirrors.

Plus, look how colorful this engine is.

This 1914 Chevy is interesting because it's likely the oldest car in the Petersen's collection that could be easily driven by a modern driver. It's got a pedal/gearshift layout that's understandable to anyone who can drive stick.

You can see the familiar H-pattern on that gated shifter there. The manual spark advance in the center of the steering wheel would be tricky, but probably manageable.

This is a particularly fascinating car. It's a 1927 Ped Roso. I never heard of it, either. A Portuguese make, I think, and has a massive supercharged straight-8 under that long red hood.

Look at that thing. It's so clean and orderly and beautiful. And get this — like many modern engines, it has variable valve timing...

... but the valve timing is controlled by levers on the dash. How the hell you could manage to adjust valve timing while driving this beast is beyond me. Maybe you can get your passenger to adjust the valves.

I'm fond of air-cooled cars, and this Franklin was one of the relatively few American air-cooled offerings. But I took this picture for that incredible lion hood ornament.

Let's stay on this detail kick; look at the etched glasswork on this Pierce-Arrow. What an elegant, charming detail. What's keeping car companies from reviving details like these on certain specialty models?

There's so much good stuff going on on this 1929 DuPont Speedster. The company was formed by the son of the DuPont chemical company, and only three of this particular boat-tail body style of car are known to have been built. It was powered by a 125 HP straight-8, and the crystal hood ornament, red-and-black paintjob, and menacing Woodlite headlights make a remarkable overall package, a hot rod years ahead of its time.

These? Oh these are just Jack Nicholson's and Saddam Hussein's Mercedes-Benz limos parked next to each other. You know how it goes in LA.

Just a lovely example of a Toyota 2000 GT. Just look at it. Matt really wanted to see this one specifically, so this one's for you, Hardigree.

Looks like just a nice trio of old 911s and 356s, right? Almost. Details are key here. That 911 is actually badged as a 901, one of the few made before Peugeot made Porsche change the name to 911. And that grey one that looks like a 356 convertible? It's actually a Continental.

See, Porsche importer Max Hoffmann thought Americans would be more likely to buy a car named after something evocative class and refinement than after some filthy number, so he suggested Porsche sell their 356 convertible in the US as the Continental. Ford, of course, had dibs on the name, so that didn't last. It's amazing to see this badge on a 356.

Because I'm a weirdo, this 1970 Fiat Shellette was one of my favorites. It's sort of a successor to the open Fiat Jolly. This one is based on a Fiat 850, and was styled by Michelotti. This one was used as an everyday driver by a Beverly Hills woman who donated it to the museum when, I'm guessing, she got tired of wicker marks on her thighs?

Marked thighs or not, that all-wicker dashboard is incredible. This really should be amphibious.

I haven't covered many of the custom cars yet, but I'll include this one, the famous Speed Racer Mach 5. This is a great-looking realization of the cartoon car, and was built in 2000 incredibly quickly. As in weeks. As a result, I was told this mid-engine car is absolutely terrifying to drive. And not just from a handling/driving standpoint...

... but also from the standpoint of having a rapidly spinning engine pulley about 1" from your spine, separated only by a chunk of foam and some pleather. Look at that— that's the seatback, and yes, that's a hole cut in the protective firewall to clear the engine's pulley. Yikes.


There's lots more to come, so stay tuned, and if you can get to LA, this is a tour absolutely worth taking. Enjoy!