Exhaust Pipe Dreams: A Visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum’s Hidden Collection

Museums that celebrate car culture and the colorful history of the automobile rank high on enthusiasts’ minds when planning a vacation.  What could be better than stepping into a time capsule of hobby?

What’s that, you say?  There’s a hidden collection?  Follow the jump for the explanation.

Automotive enthusiasts’ pipe dreams are made of the vehicles that comprise the basement collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum, but few have seen and experienced it first-hand.  The museum that most visitors know is a sprawling, three-story building with rotating exhibits of classic cars, movie production cars and historically significant automobiles and motorcycles.

But what do you do when you simply have too many vehicles to display at once?  Enter The Basement Vault — an underground parking lot that rivals the size and variety of the Sultan of Brunei’s private stash.

For the first time in the two-decade history of the museum, the museum has decided to open the Vault for intimate, public tours from December 15 to January 6.  Executive director Terry Karges explained that, while it seemed the obvious choice to open the Vault to the public, coordinating extra guides and security personnel was prohibitive on a regular basis.  With the holiday season in full swing, Karges expected the open Vault to attract approximately five groups of ten people per day.

I snuck in (okay—as media) on a tour last Saturday, when there were already 100 people booked for the tour.  What follow are some of the highlights from my tour, my commentary based on my docent’s explanations.

If you have even an ounce of motor oil coursing through your veins, and you’re in the Los Angeles area, you’d be foolish to miss this.  Like the rarely opened cave that held Ali Baba’s treasure, it remains unclear when the next time it will be open.

Most stunning

That honor goes, undoubtedly, to the ’57 Jaguar XKSS owned and restored by Steve McQueen. Although it stuns in British racing green, it was originally a white-on-red example. It’s rare, it’s gorgeous, and I bet it makes a great sound.

Most desirable

I yearn to someday own a ’67 Toyota 2000GT. I wouldn’t be disappointed if this one showed up in my garage.

Most undiscovered

That would be the Muntz Jet — the creation of Earl “Madman” Muntz, a Los Angeles-area salesman with a penchant for innovation. The Vault houses three Muntz Jets, two of which are unrestored.  Less exclusive than the XKSS, but arguably unique in a very different way.

Director’s choice

Karges said it was no question which automobile was his favorite in the Vault: the Bugatti given to the Shah of Iran that has seen several owners, and various stages of disrepair, over the last half-century.

I visited the Petersen Automotive Museum as media, and, as such, was allowed to take pictures. General admission tickets are $25, in addition to the cost of admission.  Trust me: it’s worth the price.

Author: Jeff Jablansky

Jeff Jablansky was born with his hands planted firmly at 10 and 2. He has written for automotive enthusiast publications in the United States and abroad. His favorite road trip memory involves a Hyundai, a winding desert road and a herd of sheep. He is convinced that there is a car culture that goes beyond taxis in his current city of New York.

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