CC Museum Visit: Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles – Detroit Dream Cars and Automotive Icons

If there’s a city meant to have a large temple devoted to automotive history, that is car-crazy Los Angeles. And that obligatory shrine is none other than the Petersen Automotive Museum. A large modern structure in the heart of LA, with much to see in its 25 galleries of automotive nostalgia.

So let’s take a tour around this auto temple, courtesy of shots from my 2016 visit. For today, we’ll concentrate on Detroit concept cars of the ’50s that were on exhibit, and I’ll add a few automotive icons for a bit of variety. And since we’re talking LA, let’s see if I can stay away from the obvious ‘Cars in Movies’ motif.

We’ll start with a bit of background. The museum was the initiative of Robert E. Petersen, the man behind publications such as Motor Trend and Hot Rod Magazine. As we know, he did rather well with those, thanks to a penny here and there from the likes of you and me. With enough cash in his pocket, he did what most of us would do in his place; get a nice car collection. An early version of the museum opened in 1962 and eventually moved to its current location in ’94.

After a major redesign by Kohn Pedersen Fox architects, the Petersen reopened in 2015. I visited the museum a few times during the ’90s but was unaware of its new appearance upon arrival. Honestly, I’m not awfully fond of the new melted-metal-ribbon facade, but modern architecture works better in interiors than exteriors. Which is where all the goodies I cared for were.

The Petersen’s collection is large enough that exhibits are often renewed. About 100 vehicles are usually on display, with a similar number stored away in the museum’s vault. Back in the ’90s, I had seen a neat Cord exhibit that was nowhere to be found during my 2016 visit. Pity, unless I get a personal pass to the vault, I’ve no idea if I’ll ever see those Cords again.

Oh, wait. I just saw online that one can pay for access to the vault collection. And now I find out?

But the point is, if you haven’t been to LA in a while, make sure to pay a visit. Chances are there’ll be something you haven’t seen before. Now that we’re up to speed, let’s go and take a look around.

This 1953 Cadillac Ghia Coupe was the first to greet me near the entrance; announcing the concept cars of the ’50s that I would soon see.

Ghia was already working with Chrysler by the time they put this Caddy Coupe together. One can assume the idea was to woo Cadillac for some commissions when they displayed it at the Paris Auto Show of 1953. That obviously didn’t happen; Earl and company had all the talent they needed and could do without outsiders. Also, as Chuck Jordan noted, GM’s stylists visited those shows often and at best, just ‘borrowed’ whatever ideas they found interesting.

Regrettably, the Cadillac Ghia Coupe was too close to the museum’s store, and there was just too much human traffic to get a clean shot. If you wish to see it in profile, it appears in a previous CC post.

Once inside the museum, there were three ’50s concept cars on display, one each from the Big Three. First of all, this 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne.

The whole Motorama fad seems funny and quaint from today’s perspective, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating period. After all, it was part of a larger narrative of the time; to dream of the future, and to put those dreams into material form. Life had changed so much in a few decades with the dawn of the industrial age, that daydreaming was fashionable; even encouraged.

The question is, what kind of dreams GM’s stylists had when thinking of this Chevy show car?

When it comes to show cars, Harley Earl got the ball rolling with the Y Job in 1938. After the limitations of WWII were over, GM got busy daydreaming about the future; in public. Thus the Motorama shows were born.

One has to go back to a ‘kid-like mentality’ to get the idea behind these. They’re, after all, a reflection of people unrestrained to try new ideas. GM’s show cars went from styling exercises to technological showcases; with some eye-grabbing and gimmicky qualities.

And while the sum of the parts may be questionable, the careful detailing of each piece is always nice to look at.

The Biscayne was mostly the work of a young Chuck Jordan. It has some curiously fuzzy detailing upfront, with overall nice sporty proportions and a clean rear view. If it all seems too much, in its defense, out-there ideas were being encouraged in Detroit’s studios during the mid-50s.

As told previously at CC, the Biscayne went through some gruesome times after its show run was over. It emerged as it is seen today after considerable ordeal.

The 1954 Plymouth Explorer served a very different function than GM’s show cars. It was part of a series of concepts meant to prove that Chrysler’s styling could shake off its stodgy image, which was costing the company dearly in the early 50s.

The concepts were also a trial of sorts for new company hire Virgil Exner, the stylist with the mission to add some pizzazz to Chrysler’s products. To assist Virgil in this task, Chrysler entered into a deal with Carrozzeria Ghia of Italy to build the concept cars.

A whole series of vehicles were built by the Turin-based firm, with the Plymouth Explorer considered a Ghia-designed car today. One could argue that there are some later-Exner tendencies in the vehicle; the central radiator shape predates the Valiant, and an ample use of surface detailing is prevalent. Cues that would appear in Exner’s future work.

Who created what on Chryler’s Ghia concepts has been a matter of endless debate, since ideas were habitually exchanged between Detroit and Turin. That said, the Explorer’s final shape and sense of style do say more Ghia than anything else.

If you wonder what exciting mechanicals are underneath the Explorer, wonder no more. Chassis and hardware are standard Plymouth fare of the period, down to its 230 in. 6 cyl. Unlike some of GM’s Motorama wonders, Chrysler’s dreams could run for real.

Let’s go now to a no-dream car. Unlike the others, this Mercury D-528 from 1955 was a styling exercise that never reached car shows.

The D-528 shows a curious amalgam of stylistic influences and was a testbed for production materials and technologies. Its body was made from fiberglass, and plexiglass was used for the windshield.

The odd round rear fenders have packaging reasons; the driver’s side carries the spare, and the passenger’s the gas tank. An air conditioning unit resides where the gas tank would normally sit.

Overall, the D-528 doesn’t have the Jetson-like qualities that Ford favored in their show cars from the period. I don’t dislike it, but I can see why this baby remained behind closed doors.

That’s for Detroit’s Dream Cars. Let’s move now to someone’s dreams, the 1947-48 Davis. Another pie-in-the-sky idea, the likes of which were rather common in the early postwar years.

The three-wheel wonder was the brainchild of Gordon ‘Gary’ Davis, one of many yahoos who had the talent to get investors behind some half-baked ‘revolutionary’ car proposal.

Getting investors was often the easy part. Delivering results was the problem. After a promotional blitz and much chest puffing, the Davis made a quick flash in the pan before fading into obscurity.

We finally reached my personal favorite of the visit, the Cisitalia 202. A car so taut and modern, it looks decades newer than its 1946 construction would suggest. A Pininfarina effort, very influential in post-WWII automotive styling.

It’s a car that’s best savored in person, where one can appreciate how the simplicity of its lines is perfectly accented by careful and subtle sculpting.

The 202 was one of eight vehicles chosen for the New York Museum Of Modern Art “Eight Cars” exhibit of 1951. CC already gave the Cisitalia its praises, so you might as well look into that post.

Let’s take a look at our next automotive icon, a Jaguar XKSS, the road version of the famous D-Type. Being LA, it’s only natural that this car once belonged to Steve McQueen. Uh, oh, I’m getting awfully close to movie territory here…

The XKSS comes from a time in Jaguar’s history when the company seemed to do no wrong. Besides its racing success, the carmaker was climbing steadily on its way to worldwide fame. Plus, not many companies were as adept at creating cars that mirrored the brand’s name. How could this feline shape be called anything but Jaguar?

I’ll leave you all with one last icon. Brass-era cars don’t appear often at CC (how many can you find by the curbside?), and there were a few more at the Petersen, but I think a Tin Lizzy is the appropriate icon to close this post with.


Note: There was a ‘Car in Movies’ vehicle in this post after all. The D-528 appeared in Jerry Lewis’ ‘The Patsy’ film and various TV shows.


Further reading:

Concept Classic: 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne (X-37) – Chuck Jordan’s Motorama-mobile Had A Better Rear End Than Front End

Concept Classic: 1953 Cadillac Ghia Coupe – The Rita Hayworth Of Cars

Museum Classic: 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT – The First Modern Fastback

Curbside Couch Potato: 1947 Davis Divan

Cohort Outtake: Jaguar D-Type – On The Go, But Not On The Mulsanne Straight