The basement of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is the subterranean parking structure in the recurring dream of automotive enthusiasts young and old. You know—the one where you exit the department store head down, fumbling for car keys as the scenery shifts to a chiaroscuro of concrete and fluorescent lights, and out of thin air appears a collection of vehicles decadent enough to make a sheikh weep. This one, however, is quite real, and perhaps the best-kept secret known to gearheads worldwide, but experienced only by a select few. Until recently, that is.
After nearly two decades of operation, the Petersen museum—housed, ironically enough, in a former department store—has opened the doors to its basement vault to the public for a limited time. The vault comprises 80,000 square feet of automotive treasures ranging from ultrarare, one-off production models, to cars owned by local celebrities or used in film production. The automobiles and motorcycles in the basement share the local, California focus of the museum’s viewable upstairs collection.
The current vault denizens, too extensive to enumerate individually, include no fewer than nine Ferraris, a Jaguar XKSS owned and restored by Steve McQueen, and official transportation of heads of state. Its variety rivals that of the storehouses of megalomaniac dictocrat hoarders. Heck, there are three Muntz Jets down there. Never heard of a Muntz (the brainchild of Glendale, Calif.-based Earl “Madman” Muntz in the ‘40s and ‘50s) before, let alone seen one? Neither had we.
Executive director Terry Karges, who has led the museum since August 2012, wanted to activate the synapses of younger visitors perhaps unfamiliar with the museum’s current offerings. “I first visited the vault when I arrived,” Karges said. He saw the museum as a “total complex” for those with a yen for classic cars, but logistics prevented groups from touring the basement. “The obvious is always absurd,” he said. With the intention of accommodating 50 visitors per day, the Petersen staff designed a one-hour tour of the collection, trained its docents, and added guards specifically for the purpose.
By Karges’ reckoning, the work has paid off: during the holiday vacation season, as many as 100 visitors per day visited the vault, including young enthusiasts who were intrigued by the prospect of peeking into the hidden collection. According to former museum director Dick Messer, the museum is unique because “the entire collection is here,” and it has no need for satellite storage—or off-site sub-vaults. It’s currently unclear if the vault will reopen to visitors after its three-week trial run, but Karges is optimistic in the museum’s approach to exhibiting the automobile’s past, present, and future in light of the Chrysler Museum’s recent decision to temporarily close and retool. “We’re not trying to do only one brand,” he said. “The museum shows off the automobile’s influence in Los Angeles, and the history of the automobile.”