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RSVP : Cruising Through L.A.'s Culture

June 19, 1995|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Traffic was heavy inside the Petersen Automotive Museum on Friday as hundreds of autophiles gathered to celebrate the museum's first birthday.

This latest addition to the L.A. County museum family, which took over the old Orbach's building in the Miracle Mile district, was dedicated "to preserve the culture and history of the automobile for not only Los Angeles but for the rest of the world," according to museum director Richard Messer.

To mix business with pleasure, the occasion served not only as a benefit party for the museum but also as a preview for a Sotheby's auction of the estate of the late Willet Brown, owner of Hillcrest Motors, which took place here Saturday.

The estate, billed as "the largest collection of low-mileage cars to be offered for sale," included 80 or so ogle-worthy four-wheeled wonders, plus antique popcorn carts, boats and other pieces of memorabilia.

"It is coincidental, but it makes a great occasion for inviting the friends of the museum to come down and preview the cars," Messer said. "It's a nice fit of everything. A lot of these people are friends who grew up in the L.A. area. A lot of us connected with this museum remember all these cars. The Willet Brown collection is a collection that had been accumulating for more than 50 years."

The few hundred guests who braved the last of the rain were able to cruise through the museum as well as size up the autos on the auction block that jammed the adjacent parking structure. They dined on a buffet of roast turkey, nachos, jalapen~os and vegetarian pizza, while the makeshift bars served up margaritas and other beverages.

With tickets going for $50 to $60, between $15,000 and $20,000 was collected for the museum. The money will go to creating an exhibit for children, among other things.

When the children's exhibit is completed, "They can see the automobile basics, learn how an engine works and feel a steering wheel and have a lot of fun," said publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen, the museum's primary benefactor.

While there were no movie stars on hand, there were plenty of star vehicles to soak up the spotlight, ranging from beauties such as the butterscotch-colored 1911 Regal to '30s Dusenberg sports cars to late model Ferraris and even Volkswagens. The star of the evening was a sleek black 1933 Cadillac V-16 Town Car that once belonged to Joan Crawford.

"I would like to own it because it's Joan Crawford's car, but I'm afraid it's going to go for more than I have," said Malcolm Willits, who owns a movie memorabilia business and recently paid more than $20,000 for some Crawford photographs at a New York auction.

Most people here, however, were content just to give their eyes a treat and not worry about adding anything to their garages.

"There are things that interest me, but I have too many projects going on right now," said Harry Arends, a television producer and car enthusiast, who confessed a partiality to the gray 1911 Mercer sports car.

"It's one of the best museums in the United States, certainly, and it's about time that Los Angeles had a museum of this caliber," he said. "Everyone in the city should be proud of it."

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