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Gas up for a road trip to the West's eclectic automotive museums

Museums such as Washington's LeMay, Los Angeles' Petersen and Houston's Art Car showcase classic, glamorous and alternative-fuel vehicles and more.

June 17, 2012|By April Orcutt, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Themed exhibits and flashy autos are part of the show at the new LeMay — America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Wash.
Themed exhibits and flashy autos are part of the show at the new LeMay —… (Bill Groak )

Did somebody say "road trip"?

You'll find plenty of blasts from the past in a variety of automotive museums in the West, including celebrity vehicles, muscle cars and other classic autos. We've assembled an eclectic list of places whose varied collections might prompt a road trip, and they might entertain even those folks who are not car fanatics.

Note: Collectors' cars need maintenance too, so most museums rotate their vehicles on display. That means that on any given day you might not see everything listed on their websites.

Tacoma, Wash.

LeMay — America's Car Museum, at 165,000 square feet, is one of the largest car museums in the country and, with its June 2 opening, one of the newest. With about 350 autos on display from Harold and Nancy LeMay's huge collection, visitors can see flashy autos such as a 1916 Pierce-Arrow Brougham, a 1930 Duesenberg Model J, a 1963 Studebaker Avanti and a 1983 DeLorean DMC 12. Initial exhibits include "The British Invasion" (British cars from the '60s), Indianapolis 500 race cars and "Alternative Propulsion," an exhibition of electric-, solar-, hydrogen fuel cell-, natural gas- and bio fuel-powered vehicles. Check out the steam-powered 1919 Stanley Steamer. Perhaps the "oldest" alternative-fuel car is the electric Flintmobile driven by Fred Flintstone (John Goodman) in the 1994 film "The Flintstones."

2702 E. D St., Tacoma.; (253) 779-8490,

Los Angeles

The "Streetscape" walk-through dioramas on the first floor of the three-story Petersen Automotive Museum showcases cars in life-size scenes of 20th century Southern California: a blacksmith shop like the one in which 17-year-old Carl Breer created a steam-driven car in 1901; the first strip-mall in America; and a 1917 Detroit Electric parked beside the Pup Cafe, a kitschy dog-shaped ice cream parlor. As part of its tribute to SoCal, the Petersen also features Hollywood cars such as a 1963 Herbie "The Love Bug" VW and the oddball "rocket-propelled elevator car" that Jack Lemmon piloted in "The Great Race." The second floor features alternative-fuel cars such as a 1974 steam-powered Dutcher, a 1978 Hybricon electric-gasoline hybrid and an electric General Motors EV1.

6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 930-2277,


The Nethercutt Museum is among the more glamorous car museums: Its Grand Salon is adorned with crystal chandeliers and marble columns. It showcases 30 high-end automobiles of the early 20th century, including Cadillacs, Duesenbergs and an Isotta-Fraschini. Family members not so interested in the car part of the guided tour may prefer to look at the dolls, coins, hood ornaments, music boxes, nickelodeons and other items in the Nethercutt Collection.

15151 Bledsoe St., Sylmar; (818) 364-6464,

Danville, Calif.

The Blackhawk is another classy museum, with 90 automobiles displayed in a dramatic modern building. Many are one-of-a-kind "rolling sculptures" presented in an artfully lighted black-walled showroom. The wood-clad 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6C Tulipwood Torpedo was built for French flying ace and race-car driver André Dubonnet.

3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville; (925) 736-2277,


Taking a different approach, the California Automobile Museum is "Everyman's car museum," where parents and grandparents can cruise down Memory Lane, inspired by older Fords, Chevys and Volkswagens. Two of the most popular conversation-starters are a red-and-black '69 Ford Mustang Boss and a two-toned baby blue-and-white '55 Oldsmobile Holiday, a chunky, rounded coupe with just a hint of tail fin.

2200 Front St., Sacramento; (916) 442-6802,

San Diego

"Ninety-nine percent of our visitors don't know anything about cars," said Paula Brandes, executive director of the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, "so we don't focus on the heavily technical aspects." The museum aims for family-friendly fun with exhibits such as the current "Steampunk," which combines Victorian-style car design with science fiction and fantasy vehicles using 19th century steam power à la Jules Verne. It's not your father's Oldsmobile. "Steampunk" runs through Sept. 30.

2080 Pan American Plaza, San Diego; (619) 231-2886,

Reno, Nev.

The building that houses the National Automobile Museum (the Harrah Collection) building was designed to imitate automotive elements with rounded corners and chrome trim. Inside, galleries arranged by decade emphasize celebrity-driven cars such as James Dean's '49 Mercury Coupe, Frank Sinatra's '61 Ghia Hardtop and Elvis Presley's '73 Cadillac Eldorado Custom Coupe.

10 S. Lake St., Reno; (775) 333-9300,


Passion drives artists such as David Best, who's known for creating intricate wooden "temples" at the Burning Man festival in Nevada and for making art cars. His Milan Car, one of 15 in rotating displays at the Art Car Museum, was once a '72 Cadillac Eldorado, but now it's so covered in glass, ceramics, toys and chrome car parts that it's indistinguishable as a Caddy. Five to seven art cars are on display at one time.

140 Heights Blvd., Houston; (713) 861-5526,

Santa Rosa, N.M.

The Route 66 Auto Museum, halfway between Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, pays tribute to that highway with more than 30 vintage, classic and street-rod vehicles, as well as a gift shop full of Route 66 memorabilia.

2866 Historic Route 66, Santa Rosa, N.M.; (575) 472-1966,

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