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Vaulting into car history at the Petersen museum

To boost attendance, the Petersen Automotive Museum opens a special collection of 150 historic vehicles, stored in a 'vault' below its galleries, to the public.

December 25, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • This 1942 Lincoln on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum's "vault" was ordered the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor for President Franklin Roosevelt. It built with steel plating nearly a quarter of an inch thick and has windows made up of nine panes of laminated glass.
This 1942 Lincoln on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum's… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Chris Brown's voice is giddy as the elevator in the Petersen Automotive Museum begins its descent to the basement. He is as excited as his visitors, but before the doors open he strikes a tone of caution.

"No touching, no photos and watch your step," he says. "Old cars are like little dogs: They tend to leave puddles."

The group chuckles nervously and follows him down a corridor lit by dim fluorescent lights into an enormous cavern filled with hundreds of neatly parked cars.

PHOTOS: Stepping down in time | The Petersen Automotive Museum vault

Brown, 38, is the museum's marketing director, but today he's exchanged suit and tie for a black racing jacket with "Petersen Museum" emblazoned in red letters on the back. Like an impresario, he faces his visitors and gestures out over the showroom, a place that has a nearly legendary status among automotive insiders around the world, a place known as the vault.

Taking up a city block on Wilshire Boulevard's Museum Row, the Petersen has drawn visitors since 1994. Its collection is considered one of the finest in the country, with detailed dioramas and presentations that provide historic and cultural context.

The vault — once restricted to high-ranking museum personnel and visiting VIPs, but now open to the public through Jan. 6 — is far different than the galleries upstairs. Inside, in a space the size of a football field, are 150 cars parked as if in a city lot. There are no special displays with manikins, velvet ropes and faux boulevards.

Many of the cars have been displayed at other times in the museum, but to see them in such simple circumstance is a chance to appreciate the swoop of a fender, the rake of a radiator grille or the grain of a leather interior.

"When you see a car upstairs," said Jay Leno, who visited the vault before its opening, "it's all polished up and roped off and everything. For a car guy like me, I prefer to walk up to a car and see it without all the pomp and circumstance."

Brown begins the hourlong tour following a clockwise pattern. To his right is a black 1952 Ferrari Barchetta once owned by Henry Ford II. Behind him is the burgundy 1953 Cadillac coupe that Prince Aly Khan gave to Rita Hayworth. Herbie the Love Bug is against a far wall.

The tour group huddles in close so as not to miss a word. Stopping before a black Lincoln with undulating front fenders that hang over brilliant whitewalled tires, Brown raises a hand for dramatic effect.

"It was the first armored car ever commissioned for White House service," Brown says, his voice bouncing off the concrete walls.

Ordered the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 1942 Lincoln was built with steel plating nearly a quarter-inch thick and has windows made up of nine panes of laminated glass.

Craig Parry, visiting from Morganville, Kan., is impressed. He is with his wife, Terri, and their son David. They hadn't intended to visit the vault but thought it would be an opportunity to see history. Crossing his arms, he looks out over the collection.

"I've never seen or heard of many of the cars they have here," Parry said. "We got lucky."

At a time when museums across the country are struggling to boost attendance, Petersen officials know the value of their collection and are eager to capitalize on any aspect of it that might increase the visitor count.

Terry Karges came up with the idea of marketing the vault (tours cost $25 on top of the museum's $12 admission fee). He is the executive director of the Petersen, and when he was hired in August he realized that he had a challenge. There was a time when Petersen officials hoped to draw 400,000 visitors a year. At best, the museum has succeeded in drawing half that number. Karges believes the problem has been underexposure.

"The Petersen is largely considered to be the crown jewel of automotive museums," he said. "You just stand back and say, 'There's so much more we can do to attract people.'"

Automobile museums are a hard sell.

"All museums have to get creative to bring in those crowds — whether that's a new exhibit, or opening the vault, whatever," said Jackie L. Frady, executive director of the National Automobile Museum in Reno and president of the National Assn. of Automobile Museums.

In Reno, Frady oversaw an exhibit that featured a group of wild cars from the Burning Man festival, including one automobile that resembled a plump baked potato and another that looked like two matching pink bunny slippers.

Karges, 67, previously worked at Disneyland and SeaWorld and believes attendance at the Petersen can be improved.

"All I have to do is glance across the street at a place like LACMA, which brings in something like 1.2 million people a year, and it motivates me to do better," he said. "I'd like to beat them."

It was once easy for the Petersen to dream big.

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