The Petersen Automotive Museum is a bucket list destination for car enthusiasts

There are car museums…and then there are CAR museums.

By Dan Heyman Wheels.ca

Feb 7, 2023 7 min. read

Article was updated 8 months ago

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The Blackhawk museum in Danville, CA; the LeMay in Tacoma, WA; the gallery at the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, KY; any number of museums along historic Route 66 – these are car museums, all great spots with some very cool exhibits. But they are very narrow in focus, not straying too far from the mean.

Then, however, there are the CAR museums. The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI; the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, Italy; the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany and the hallowed ground to not just car enthusiasts, but popular culture fanatics the world: the Petersen Automotive Museum located in the heart of Los Angeles, CA.

Museums like this transcend the car and look more deeply at their role in society, how they shaped economies, and how they were received by the public as more than just transportation. They look at how cars and trucks shaped our lives, often offering more than just cars as exhibits; in the Henry Ford, for example, you can find farm equipment, trains, and presidential limousines. At the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, the car exhibits are featured within a double-helix, with a timeline of the world taking the shape of a DNA strand.

So named for publisher-philanthropist Robert E Petersen, the Petersen Museum first opened in 1994 because in Petersen’s eyes, LA – one of the most car-hungry cities in one of the most car-hungry states in car-hungry US of A – didn’t have a proper car museum to call its own.

Over the years, the collection has seen the addition of cars owned by famous dignitaries (many owners will actually lend their cars to the museum), vehicles you may remember from famous movies and TV shows and, of course, race cars. The Petersen quickly became the place to go for a cross-section of cars, technological innovation and popular culture the likes of which is equalled by few others. Throw in a gaggle of one-offs built for princes and kings so rare that that they’re beyond priceless and you have an experience not to be missed.

The Petersen presents a cacophony of models, halls, and exhibits spread across three floors (if you include the basement “vault”) too numerous to fully list here – but there are highlights that we just couldn’t pass up, many of which appear in the basement archives that exist somewhat separately from the museum itself, though they are in the same building.

1900 Smith Runabout

Smith runabout Petersen Automotive Museum

Only one of these two cylinder-powered, five horsepower little cars were built and as is the way with the Petersen, this is where it rests. This particular car, however, is inextricably linked to the City of Angels; it was built there and remains the only gasoline-powered vehicle built in the Petersen’s hometown.

1967 Ford Mustang


Better known as “Eleanor”, this be-striped silver beauty was the hero car in 2000’s Gone in Sixty Seconds. This particular ‘Stang was designed by Chip Foose and featured niceties like a nitrous button under the shift knob and a wooden steering wheel. It was driven by actor Nicholas Cage, who did much of the film’s stunt driving himself.

1981 DeLorean DMC-12 Time Machine


While Eleanor starred in a movie made chiefly for car fanatics, everyone recognizes Doc Brown’s stainless-steel, turbine-wheeled sports coupe with all manner of time-travelling paraphernalia adorning its rear deck. The DeLorean was the perfect choice for the character car thanks to its spaceship-like gullwing doors and it was given a life of its own, changing its look depending on which era it was travelling through.

Skynet Moto-Terminator

Skynet moto

From a futuristic four-wheeler we turn to a futuristic two-wheeler: John Connor’s steed in 2018’s Terminator: Salvation. Built around the frame of a Ducati motorcycle and riding on original tires, the bike proved to be a handful for the film’s stunt drivers thanks to its weapon mounts and cut down handlebars. Looks cool though, doesn’t it?

1989 Batmobile

tim burton batmobile

It may be a Chevy underneath, but the Tim Burton era Batmobile is much more than that. Arguably the most distinctive Batmobile of all time, it gets jet fighter parts and (obviously) a lot of custom bodywork to achieve its distinctive shape. In practical terms, actor Michael Keaton’s batsuit had to be given shorter ears in order to fit inside the cockpit. Indeed, this is one car that has to be seen in the flesh. Pictures can’t do justice to how imposing it is.

1964 Batmobile Replica

barris batmobile

As distinctive as the ’89 car is, a trip to the basement reveals the Batmobile that really brought Batman to the mainstream: the Lincoln-based red-and-black targa model with its bubble windshield and rear glass, designed by famous hot rodder George Barris. While it doesn’t look anywhere near as mean as the other car, there’s something about a Batmobile that looks like it can almost be daily driven.

1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Aerodynamic Coupe

Rolls Royce Petersen Automotive Museum

Known as the “round door Rolls”, this custom Phantom I by coachbuilder Jonckheere may actually be more imposing in person than the Burton Batmobile. With its low-slung appearance, enclosed rear wheel (with a window displaying the classic “RR” logo), massive grille topped by the classic Spirit of Ecstasy mascot plus the headlights that look like they’re bulging out of the bodywork like a cartoon, this is one heavyset Roller. Indeed, with just 110 horsepower from its 7.6-litre inline-6 engine it was never going to be fast, but of course, that’s not the point.

Famous Vee-Dubs


Austin Powers fans will undoubtedly recognize the flower-power time-travelling Beetle cab from the second entry in the franchise – The Spy Who Shagged Me – but the yellow VW bus sat beside it may be a little tougher to place. Little Miss Sunshine may not be quite as recognizable as the Mike Myers trilogy, but it’s a darn good film that would never have been the same without the perky sun-coloured Type II van the Hoover family used to cross the US of A from Albuquerque to LA.

1972 Alpine A220 Rally Car

Alpine Petersen Automotive Museum

This rear engine, rear drive rally car driven throughout a successful 1973 rally racing campaign serves as a testament to just how varied the Petersen’s exhibits can be. You would never know that it was once caked in grime; every panel, sponsor decal and even its deep-dished wheels are polished to the max.

2005 Ford Mustang GT 2014 SEMA show car

Mustang Petersen Automotive Museum

Video game and Hot Wheels fans alike will recognize this particular version of the world-famous pony car. Its special wheels, carbon fibre panels, front splitter and headlight covers all serve to mimic the style of Japanese racers from the ’70s and ‘80s, providing a nice bridge between two giants of the car building industry, the USA and Japan.

1981 DeLorean DMC-12

gold delorean Petersen Automotive Museum

While the DeLorean is most easily remembered finished in unpainted stainless steel, the American Express credit card company decided to let it all hang out for its 1980 Christmas Catalogue by painting one in proper 24-karat gold and slapping it right on the cover.

1939 Bugatti Type 57 Atalante

Bugatti Atalante Petersen Automotive Museum

Already a near-priceless vehicle today, this particular 57C goes the extra mile by being one of just two supercharged models built by French coachbuilder Gangloff of Colmar. Its “long-tail” design provides even more oomph to its rakish shape and it also has the rare rollback roof.

1971 Porsche 911 T

Magnus Walker Porsche

Better known as “277”, this Porsche is recognizable to most any enthusiast as it is essentially what put famed Porsche builder, customizer and racer Magnus Walker’s Urban Outlaw brand on the map. The red, blue and white paintjob and decals make up what is probably the most recognized livery ever seen on a non race car and it looks even more spectacular in person. 277 is just the start of it; Walker currently has a whole stable of his cars (as well as custom Nike sneakers, Hot Wheels toys and a whole bunch of other memorabilia) on display in an adjunct to the basement vault.

Bond Baddie’s Jaguar XK

bond jaguar Petersen Automotive Museum

Anyone who’s seen the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies will undoubtedly recognize this Emerald beauty driven by Tan-Sun Moon/Gustav Graves’ right-hand man, Zao. If the green paint didn’t give it away, then the minigun mounted to the rear seat and rockets sprouting from the classic oval-shaped Jag grille surely will. The AWD system borrowed from an Ford Explorer, however, is not something you’ll see on a roadgoing XK.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10

Dodge Viper

Officially designated as a “pilot production model”, this Viper was part of the development of the original Viper. Most models like it were destroyed, but this particular one was donated by Dodge to the Petersen as a little window into their development process.




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