LA's Petersen Automotive Museum reopens after $125M rebuild

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Petersen Automotive Museum.
Photo: David Zaitz Photography

Great news for fans of valuable vehicles, historic roadsters, celebrity cars and exquisitely designed automotive machinery: After a year-long shutdown and a $125 million overhaul, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles reopened Dec. 6.

Hot Rod red with an overlay of 308 steel ribbon sections, the remodeled museum building was designed by architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, and is intended to convey speed and motion.

"I see the ribbons as aerodynamic slipstreams going around cars, and a signal that the museum is all about things that move." Petersen chief curator Leslie Kendall told CNBC.

Inside the building, three floors of themed galleries display automotive art and artifacts, as well as more than 100 vehicles, 23 motorcycles, a few scooters and a bobsled.

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There's also a driving gallery with 10 sit-down Microsoft Xbox Forza racing simulators, an interactive Pixar Car Mechanical Institute and (opening for tours in a few weeks) a storage vault with more than 125 vehicles.

The new and improved Petersen Automotive Museum is "among the most important auto museums in the country," said David Madeira, CEO of LeMay — America's Car Museum, in Tacoma, Washington.

"It complements other car museums in the world and doesn't compete or repeat," said Christian Overland, executive vice president for The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. "When it first opened in 1994, the Petersen looked at how you use cars and car culture, but now it also explores automobiles in term of artistic design and style."

— By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC. Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.
Posted 13 Dec. 2015

1915 Model T Ford Runabout

1915 Model T Ford Runabout.
Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

The museum's first two gallery spaces explore automotive history and car culture with more than 200 artifacts and 18 gems from the Petersen's collection, including this 1919 Ford Model T Runabout. Also in the mix are a 1927 Indian Chief motorcycle and a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible.

There are more than 25 galleries, but "seeing all these amazing vehicles within minutes of entering the museum is going to really bowl people over," said Petersen chief curator Leslie Kendall.

1966 Yamaha Batcycle

1966 Yamaha Batcycle
Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

Notable cars from film and television, including the 1982 Ferrari 308 GTSi driven by Tom Selleck during his run as "Magnum, P.I," and the 2004 Pontiac Aztek used during all five seasons of "Breaking Bad," are in the Hollywood Gallery. You can also see the 1971 De Tomaso Pantera given by Elvis Presley to his then-girlfriend, and a 1965 Lincoln Continental Convertible used in the HBO show "Entourage."

An almost 20-foot-long 1989 Batmobile (from Michael Keaton's run as the Dark Knight) is on display, as is a 1966 Yamaha Batcycle from the TV series that the dynamic duo evidently used "for those smaller crime-fighting jobs," Kendall said.

Alexander Calder car

Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

BMW's Art Car program, now 40 years old, began when Alexander Calder was invited to create the livery for a 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL. Since then, other well-known artists have been invited to use the company's cars as canvases. They include Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons and others. Several cars from the series are on display in this gallery.

Lightnting McQueen

Cars Mechanical Institute, Lightning McQueen.
Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

In the "Cars" Mechanical Institute, there's a life-size version of Lightning McQueen. There are also multiple stations where other characters from the Disney/Pixar movie appear on mobile device screens to explain the principles behind automotive design and engineering.

"It's not just for kids," said Petersen curator Leslie Kendall, "A lot of adults will emerge from that exhibition saying, 'I get it now' too."

Hot Rod Magazine 50th Anniversary Car

1927 Ford
Source: Hot Rod Magazine

Southern California car culture, hot-rodding and the legacy of museum founder Robert E. Petersen are celebrated in the museum's Customization Gallery.

Showcases are filled with Petersen's hot rodding memorabilia, and among the cars on display are CadZZilla, a Japanese movie-monster-inspired custom car commissioned by ZZ Top guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, and this roadster built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1948 debut of Petersen's "Hot Rod" magazine.

Precious Metal

1954 Ferrari 375 MM
Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

Ten of the world's most valuable and desirable silver cars (average value: $10 million), including this 1954 Ferrari 375 MM by Scaglietti first owned by film director Roberto Rossellini and his wife, Ingrid Bergman, are in the museum's Precious Metal exhibition.

"There was a time when a lot of manufacturers painted their really important cars silver," said Petersen chief curator, Leslie Randall. "It spoke to elegance, beauty and great taste."

1953 Hansen Cobra

1953 Hansen Cobra.
Source: Petersen Automotive Museum

In New York, or so the saying goes, people look at how you're dressed. In Los Angeles, however, people express themselves through — and are judged by — their cars, Randall said.

"He's right on the money," said Christian Overland, executive vice president for The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. "You can't wear your 401(k), but you can certainly drive your vehicle. And some of the vehicles in the Petersen's collection are stunning examples of luxury, design and style."

Correction: An earlier version misspelled the name of the Disney/Pixar vehicle, the Lightning McQueen. This version corrects that mistake.