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Where the Past Is a Gas : The history and effect of the motorcar--and our love-hate relationship with it--are on full display at the new Petersen Automotive Museum. Here, no detail is too small or too trivial.

July 26, 1994|Paul Dean | Times Staff Writer

A cluster of dead, dried flies at the Petersen Automotive Museum will be allowed to rest in peace. They were brought in a box from Beverly Hills by a museum sponsor who insisted that no replica of Culver City's old Dog Cafe diner would be complete without bugs belly-up on the window sill.

That galvanized steel bucket at the antique Richfield gas station? It wasn't for washing windshields.

They typically belonged to teen-age pump jockeys who slyly drained dregs from hoses and nozzles and salvaged enough gas for a night's cruising in their '32 Ford Highboys.

And what about Jamm's, the museum's neon and neo-deco rebirth of a drive-in coffee shop?

The name is a play on Pann's , which has been serving Joe and cholesterol at La Cienega and La Tijera since the '50s. But Jamm's is built from the first-name initials of four museum planners: Jim Olson, Alan Hess, Matt Roth and Marc Whipple.

And the real, drivable, ketchup-red '59 Cadillac convertible parked outside the faux and false-fronted restaurant belongs to one planner, acting director Olson.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 29, 1994 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 4 Column 6 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Car Museum--A story in Tuesday's Life & Style incorrectly stated the source of a $1-million grant to the Petersen Automotive Museum. The May Family Foundation is the donor.

If it seems that Olson, exhibit consultant Hess, curator Roth and architect Whipple just had too much fun assembling the Petersen Automotive Museum--well, who said reproducing local history and recovering its relics had to be dull?

If it appears they left no minutiae unturned--bet your new Saturn they did.

Because the quiet purpose behind last month's opening of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum's fifth and newest member was not just to touch the 82-year-old museum's bases of history, science and art--but to be livelier, more sweeping, easier on the brain and much hipper than a dozen auto palaces from Detroit to San Diego.

"It began as a negatively stated concept: 'We are not going to be an indoor parking lot. . . . We are not going to be a grille show,' " Roth recalls. "Having stated that, what were we going to be?

"We were going to be dedicated to explaining and presenting the history of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture--using Los Angeles as a prime example."

Prime, indeed. From steam cars hammered together in 1901 by Louis Breer in a blacksmith's shop at 215 San Pedro St. to vehicles for 2001 being sketched in secret at local design studios, the automobile has been both deity and antichrist to Angelenos.

It has provided transportation, freedom, recreation, status, investment and made Southern California the world's largest, richest car market. It also has produced smog, gridlocks, SigAlerts, carjackings, drive-by shootings, and fatal accidents while making Los Angeles the car-theft capital of the world.

"Around a mission statement in the abstract, we had to create reality," Roth continues. "So, through dioramas and galleries we are telling how people of Los Angeles travel . . . the role of the car in domestic life . . . how did people buy things by car . . . gas stations and billboards . . . strip malls that began here in 1925 and the Dog Cafe diner . . . the California Highway Patrol, racing on board tracks and the car as family recreation.

"Our biggest challenge was to slice up the history of 20th-Century Los Angeles and its love-hate relationship with the automobile and find a reasonable place to start."

But looking around, seeing exhibits of a red Toyota wadded by a freeway accident in contrast to the suburban peace of a two-car garage containing an Edsel and a 1948 MG-TCB, Roth believes "we bite a pretty good chunk out of how the car changed the shape and appearance of this city."

The breadth of the museum, he says, is far from incidental. It reaches beyond a relatively few car enthusiasts and touches millions who simply invest in daily transportation.

"We knew that if we built it, the car people would come," Olson says. "Then it became abundantly clear, before we brought the cars in, that most of the exhibits on the first floor, the service station, the homes, worked fine without the cars."

Because . . . those sets stir memories, present domestic tableaux and are part of a Los Angeles tale every resident shares. The Dog Cafe, for example, exhibits more architectural form--it's a pipe-smoking bulldog--than automotive style and was designed to attract motorists speeding down Washington Boulevard.

Because . . . a 1934 Los Angeles Times billboard ("Mister, Here's a Real Paper!") with a motorcycle cop lurking to ambush speeders, and a California bungalow proud of its chimney of river-washed rocks, are not things that happened a century ago in some foreign land.

The $40-million museum--on Miracle Mile and housed in the old, now unrecognizable Ohrbach's department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue--is four floors and 300,000 square feet of display space.

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