By on December 25, 2012

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.”


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15 Comments on “TTAC Christmas Special: A Visit To The Petersen Museum Vault...”

  • avatar

    First, God Bless the late Robert Petersen and his family for their overwhelming support of the museum. I remember seeing the miniscule collection first housed in the dusty basement of the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, and then having the chance to see the current museum in its present location a couple of times while working in L.A. Everyone will have their own favorite auto museum, but the Petersen to me is in the top five in the US. The basement tour photos are super. Again, everyone will have their favorite cars, but to me the high points are the Toyota 2000GT, the Jaguar XJ220 race car, the 1960-70’s Mercedes 600 sedan and the TWO 600 Grand Pullman’s.

    For anyone visiting L.A. this place is a must. Top a visit off with lunch at the nearby Farmers Market, and leave your significant other off at the nearby Grove shopping center next to the Market.

  • avatar

    Madman Muntz apparently also had a house in Winnetka, Illinois, which was identifiable by the presence of several of his sporty cars. In my youth I rode my bike past there frequently. I recall that the cars seemed to have sliding doors– can anyone corroborate that? The house was in a neighborhood that was also home to surrealist painter Ivan Albright.

  • avatar

    OK, Senior Moment. The sliding doors were on the Kaiser Darren of the same era. The Muntz house also had a plethora of TV antennae in that pre-cable era. Muntz was, of course, in the TV set manufacturing business as well.

  • avatar

    SWEET ! .

    Thanx for sharing this .


  • avatar

    When I was a kid, Muntz was better known as a source for after-market eight track players. For those of you newbies to the Valley, a Muntz installation center was stuffed between the main Galpin Ford/Shelby dealer and the 405, on Roscoe Blvd. I remember seeing the ocassional Muntz car parked out front.

  • avatar

    Thank you for sharing the photos. The XKSS and 2000GT alone could rekindle a faltering lust for automobilia… not that mine was faltering. And the Ferrari’s…

  • avatar

    There’s a photo in e gallery of a Toyota race car, an orange car that I think is a badge-shaved RX-7, and a silver car that looks like a heavily customized Mercedes SL. What’s the story with the RX and the silver car?

  • avatar

    I hustled over there first thing this morning to take this tour. I got there 20 minutes before opening time, and the first tour of the day was sold out ten minutes later. Yep, the word had gotten out.

    Our group was mostly old car dudes, and everyone was agog at the treasures in the “vault”. The tour lasted over an hour, and our very knowledgeable guide barely had time to rattle off a description and a few facts about each car before we had to move on — truly an embarrassment of riches.

    Thanks for alerting us to this unique experience!

  • avatar

    Thank you for sharing the story of this museum. It would be nice to have names to go with some of the vehicles, if I may say so.

  • avatar

    We drove in from one hour away and the Vault Tour was great. The only negative was that photos were not allowed and that was too bad as a picture of a famous car with a family member in the picture is wonderful to have.

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