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Petersen Museum at Crossroads

Car culture * Facility may add a restaurant, beef up its Web site and expand exhibition space to broaden its appeal.

November 29, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His eyes light up and a smile teases his lips as Ken Gross fiddles with the locked door barring the way into the dim basement.

It is in these five chill concrete rooms underlying the former Orbach's department store on Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile that some of the Petersen Automotive Museum's best treasures--and best-kept secrets--are stored.

Walking among them, seeing what is usually kept hidden from the public, is one of the perquisites of the museum keeper.

There's a Tucker Torpedo--the same ebony coupe that automotive visionary Preston Tucker chose for his personal car from among the handful of pre-production models his skeleton crew cobbled together in 1948 in a doomed bid to stave off financial ruin and congressional censure. The Petersen basement, in fact, houses two of only 49 Tuckers left in the world.

The Pantera sports coupe that Elvis Presley shot in a rage when it failed to start one day sits near a 1948 Davis--one of just 14 of the big torpedo-nosed three-wheeled cars built in San Francisco by the short-lived Davis Automotive Co.

Actor Steve McQueen's 1956 Jaguar XKSS is parked in one of the cavernous rooms, alongside song stylist Mel Torme's 1937 Jaguar SS100. The unmistakable toilet-seat-shaped grille of a 1958 Edsel--the personal car of Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and countless other Looney Tunes characters--peeks around the corner as if ashamed to be seen in the same room with the sensuous Jags.

It is the delight--and dilemma--of the Petersen to have these vehicles and scores more of comparable caliber.

They help make the 7-year-old Petersen one of the largest and most respected automotive museums in the country. The displays on the three public floors include 125 to 150 vehicles, depending on the size of the rotating and visiting exhibitions.

But the lights down in the basement are rarely on, and there's no room upstairs for the 125 or so cars that sit in the vaults--or for the hundreds of other classic, collectible and historically significant vehicles and automotive artifacts that the Petersen's staff, led for the last four years by veteran automotive journalist Gross, has patiently tracked down.

Numerous car fanciers have been wined and dined and wooed with promises of immortality--and big tax breaks--if they donate their collections to the Petersen.

And now, as Gross prepares to leave the museum and return to the East Coast to devote time to family and his writing career, the Petersen has to come up with millions of dollars to fund an expansion that will make room for what must come if success is to be ensured.

Carrying on is the task of the museum's inaugural director, Dick Messer, who was called back this month to serve as interim chief but says he also is a candidate for the permanent job. (In fact, there is no search for a new director while Messer and members of the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation's board check one another out, said board Chairman Bruce Meyer.)

Messer--a hotel-industry veteran, avid vintage-auto racer and operator of an annual vintage-auto exposition, sale and swap meet in San Diego--says his principal role will be to provide continuity and to carry out existing plans and programs.

But Messer, who directed the Petersen from its opening in 1994 until 1997, also has his own ideas for fund-raising and expansion, including a "destination" restaurant in the Petersen building that would play on its dual location in the museum and on the once-fabled Miracle Mile. He wants to stage more exhibitions that use the Petersen's largely unseen collection of celebrity vehicles, lean on its connections to Hollywood and Southern California car culture and play off his own interests in motorcycles and auto racing.

He also hopes to develop an improved Web site that would promote the museum and allow subscribers around the world to view all of the Petersen's displays and vehicles and use its other resources, including an automotive-history library now in the planning stages.

"Ken took us through the difficult stages," Messer said of Gross' tenure--which included staving off the demise of the museum and shepherding it through its separation from the county when the Natural History Museum's directors decided early this year to stop subsiding the Petersen.

"Now it's my job to take us to the next level," he said.

*

Messer faces a considerable challenge. But the Petersen has a lot going for it right now, including the strong support of its multimillionaire benefactor--automotive-publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen--and a cadre of wealthy auto collectors who live in Southern California.

And then there is the region's almost fanatical exultation of the auto. Southern California is the heart of hot-rod and custom-car territory. Its millions of motorists spend billions of dollars a year to buy, beautify and beef up their cars and trucks.

Museums such as the Petersen can feed off that kind of enthusiasm.

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