Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about the Petersen Museum – both because of the new façade that completely obscures the Welton Becket-designed building underneath, and because of all the changes that will be coming to Museum Row and the LACMA complex across the street.
So, it’s easy to forget that when it comes to classic cars, the Petersen actually isn’t the only game in town. After all, Southern California has got car culture in its genes. What would we be without drive-ins and drive-thrus and freeway slowdowns?
The world passes us by, and we watch it all happen through a windshield, sitting in our bucket seats with one hand on the wheel and the other alternating between the radio controls and the phone. No matter how many walkers and bicyclists are emerging into the counterculture, at heart, we are drivers.
Especially in L.A., the question isn't so much "What kind of car do you have?", but "How many cars do you have?"
It almost doesn’t matter what kind of car you actually drive yourself. Everybody’s got their eye on some other car that they’re working their way up to. And there’s no better place to plan your next acquisition and be inspired by the best car designs of all time than at these five great private car collections.
1. Automobile Driving Museum, El Segundo
Generally I’m averse to ranking the places featured in my travel roundups – but in terms of SoCal car collections, the Automobile Driving Museum is by far my number one. It’s not that their collection itself is all that extensive, especially since they recently scaled back the number of vehicles that are on display in their main showroom. But what’s really exciting is that on their “Ridealong Sunday,” they take you out for a cruise around the neighborhood in any of three cars they’ve selected from their fleet – and those selections change every week (weather permitting). This isn’t just unique to California. In fact, they’re the only car museum in the world to do so! Upcoming scheduled rides include a ’41 Cadillac convertible, a ’65 Ford Mustang, and a variety of classic red cars just for the Christmas season. But whichever ones they choose to take out on the road – from a Ford Model T to a DeLorean – you won’t get a ride like that anywhere else. And while you might get to see their ’36 Packard Phaeton or ’40 Packard Darrin at a local car show or even the Rose Parade, there’s only one place you can ride shotgun in them – while a docent shows you the nuances of the ignition, gear shift, pedals, and dashboard.
2. The Nethercutt Museum & Collection, Sylmar
Named after J.B. Nethercutt, whose wealth as co-founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics allowed him to collect exotic antique cars, this collection is actually spread across two different buildings – and you can visit both of them for free. From Bugattis to Talbot-Lagos, Mustangs, and Thunderbirds, the Nethercutt Museum’s collection runs the gamut from the antique era (1890s to 1915), through the vintage and classic eras and into the post-war era (1945-1970s). A 1956 Packard convertible intermingles with a 1980 Cadillac limo and other restored coupes, turbos, and roadsters. Across the street is the Nethercutt Collection, available for viewing by appointment only – and there, you can find anything from a bright orange Lowrider (with hydraulics!) to an early-generation electric car model by Saturn. They showcase the really good stuff upstairs in the Grand Salon, a ballroom of marble columns and crystal chandeliers where you’ll find 30 of the finest domestics and imports of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s. Nethercutt's cosmetics fortune and car collecting converge with the 1934 Packard, whose post-restoration paint color was developed by cosmetic chemists at Merle Norman as the color "Hussy.” Whether you’re partial to a classic Benz or a Sport Cabriolet, Cabriolet de Ville, Zeppelin, or Buick, these beauties will unabashedly try to seduce you with their Deco hood ornaments and other chrome accents. These are celebrity cars, special occasion cars, and formal towncars worthy of chauffeurs – in a top-of-the-line collection that also serves as a history lesson for the evolution of the automobile and a case study in restoration. Not many of us could ever afford to drive – much less actually own – any cars of this caliber, but at least we get to see them up close.
3. Mullin Automotive Museum, Oxnard
It’s a funny thing, because the chairman of the Petersen – financier Peter Mullin – has got his own eponymous museum of cars, 60 miles north of L.A. in Ventura County. And you can thank him for the Bugatti exhibit that’s currently on display at the Petersen (with a similar experience having debuted at the Mullin a couple of years ago) – because he’s also the President of the American Bugatti Club and a member of the Bugatti Trust. A visit to the Mullin Automotive Museum is a much more specific experience of car collecting than some other collections, the focus here being more on French industrial design (marques and carrossiers like Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Voisin, etc.) and automobiles as objects of art (or sculptures, as it were). Most of the specimens inside date back to the years between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, with a focus on Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Mullin was also able to acquire 17 cars from the frozen-in-time collection of the Schlumpf Reserve, which had been exposed to the elements in a barn for over 20 years, having been seized by the French government when the Schlumpf brothers fled Switzerland in 1977. They are deliberately unrestored: Rather, they’ve been merely stabilized and preserved in the condition they were found and acquired. Prior to opening as the Mullin in 2010, the building that houses the collection was known as the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife, owned by former L.A. Times publisher Otis Chandler, also a car collector.
4. Vic’s Garage, Torrance
The “Vic” we're talking about here is Vic Edelbrock, Sr. – and Vic's Garage functions as both storage of the family vehicles and a tribute to Vic's early career working on cars before launching his performance parts empire. The more or less permanent collection (many of which are red) includes such gems as a ’40 Ford Sedan Delivery truck (outfitted with Edelbrock shocks), a ’69 Boss Mustang, a ’69 (and ½) Dodge Super Bee, and a ’32 Ford "Rides" Roadster – with its Edelbrock induction, carburetor, cam, rocker arms, and cylinder heads. Some of them are racing roadsters that were used, at least in part, to promote Edelbrock, while others were personally owned and driven by members of the Edelbrock family. Hot rods come in all shapes and sizes, which is clear when you see a car like the "Bolero" red 1967 Chevy Camaro SS 350 (a test car for Hot Rod Magazine that Vic bought in 1997 and placed an Edelbrock crate engine into) in the same room as a 1932 Ford 5-Window Coupe and a 1946 Ford Woody Wagon Maze. The real pride and joy of the collection may be the 1946 #27 Ford V8-60 Kurtis Kraft midget racer, which won the Gilmore track championship. But the real pièce de résistance of Vic's Garage is the car that began the collection: the 1932 Ford black roadster #3. This is the car that got Vic to tinkering around under the hood in 1938. This is also the Flathead-powered car that took Vic to the dry lake races and inspired the development of his now-infamous "Slingshot" intake manifold. And it's probably one of the most iconic hot rods out there... ever.
5. Marconi Automotive Museum, Tustin
In true only-in-California style, Dick Marconi made his fortune off a vitamin empire and weight-loss products – and it was enough of a fortune to mean he could afford to start collecting cars. Subsequently, he had an open-wheel race team – and he needed somewhere to house both of them. Enter the Marconi Automotive Museum, housed in a former salad oil manufacturing facility in Orange County. Marconi himself has raced many of the cars there, but racing fans can also find a good selection of other high performance driving machines, including some one-of-a-kinds. The museum isn’t open for self-guided tours on the weekends, which means you’re limited to weekdays to peruse their $30 million collection of high-octane road warriors – save for their annual “Meet the Founder” open house. The museum charges a suggested $5 donation, but it donates proceeds to local children’s charities.