9 must-see hot rods and customs from the Petersen Vault

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles recently teamed up with Hagerty to expand its popular vault tour. The vault, which houses rows of vehicles displayed previously, has more than doubled in size to include 250 vehicles from around the globe. It features everything from motorized carriages and brass-era land yachts to TV cars and record-setting race cars. While many of the cars in the collection are lauded for their perfect originality, a sizable section of the vault is populated with vehicles that are celebrated because they’re far from concours correct.

Not far from the vault’s entrance is a section devoted to hot rods and customs, cars that were chopped, channeled, shaved, lowered, and even built from scratch. As much as we love a rare Italian or Porsche race car, hot rods get us every time. Here are just some of the vault’s best hot rods and customs.

Hirohata Merc

Hirohata Merc Peterson Museum
Brandan Gillogly
Hirohata Merc

Close your eyes and picture a chopped custom car—the 1951 Mercury coupe of Bob Hirohata is likely the car that comes to mind. The bodywork by George and Sam Barris features a perfect chop with canted B-pillars and the two-tone green paint befits the long, low cruiser. The car was featured simultaneously in the March 1953 issues of Hot Rod and Motor Trend and continues to be an icon. It’s listed in the National Historic Vehicle Register and its significant contribution to custom car culture was celebrated when it was displayed on the third annual Cars at the Capital exhibition on the National Mall in 2017.

Doane Spencer and McGee 1932 Ford Roadsters

Doane Spencer and McGee 1932 Ford Roadsters
Brandan Gillogly
Doane Spencer and McGee 1932 Ford Roadsters

This one a twofer, as the cars were parked right next to each other. First, Doane Spencer’s roadster has a long history of customization, beginning at least as far back as 1941. Its most famous iteration came in 1947, when Spencer, at least the third owner at that point, swapped in a Ford flathead and removed the fenders. The car was featured in the February 1948 issue of Hot Rod magazine in that highboy configuration and after some dry lakes racing, several more owners, and another engine swap, collector Bruce Meyer purchased the car. He commissioned the late Pete Chapouris and the crew of So-Cal Speed Shop to restore the car to its 1947 version, complete with Mercury flathead V-8. It was shown at the 1997 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the first time hot rods were allowed to be shown, where it was placed first in the Historic Hot Rods class.

The McGee 1932 Ford roadster was photographed driving by the University of Southern California with owner/builder Bob McGee behind the wheel for the October 1948 cover of HOT ROD magazine. The car’s painted steel wheels, stance, and clean highboy look are often imitated and have proven timeless. It preceded the Hirohata Merc on display at the National Mall as a member of the National Historic Vehicle Register.

1954 Plymouth “Sniper”

1954 Plymouth “Sniper” Peterson
1954 Plymouth “Sniper” Grill peterson museum

One of many cars built by Rad Rides by Troy for collector George Poteet, Sniper started out as a staid 1954 Plymouth Savoy convertible and a sketch by Chip Foose. Not a bad looking car when stock, but not exactly the pinnacle of performance either, the Plymouth had a major makeover. The resulting custom landed on the cover of Hot Rod and there’s not enough room in this article to list all of the body mods, but as you can tell, they were extensive. The high points include W210 Mercedes-Benz E-Class headlights incorporated into the reshaped fenders, an all-new hardtop, and a V-10/six-speed powertrain from a Dodge Viper provided by Chrysler’s Tom Gale. As with all of Rad Rides builds, the build quality is phenomenal.

CadZZila

CadZZila Boyd Coddington ZZ Top
CadZZila license Plate

This may be the world’s most famous custom Cadillac. Designed by Larry Erickson, who was working for Cadillac at the time, and built by Boyd Coddington, CadZZilla was commissioned by ZZ Top singer and guitarist Billy Gibbons. The 1948 Series 62 two-door fastback was reborn with a new windshield, a chopped top, and a sectioned body with laid down taillights. It uses C4 Corvette suspension and a hot-rodded and fuel-injected 500-cubic-inch Cadillac V-8. The long, low, sculptured body was built in 1989 and still looks fantastic today. It’s not an understatement to say that CadZZila set the bar for custom cars for decades.

Alumacoupe

Alumacoupe Peterson Museum
Brandan Gillogly
Alumacoupe

Another Larry Erickson design, the Alumacoupe was also built by Boyd Coddington’s Hot Rods by Boyd. The car’s name came from its svelte body, shaped by Marcel DeLay, billet wheels, and engine, which are all made of aluminum. It was displayed at the 1992 New York International Auto Show in Mitsubishi’s booth because the rear-mounted, transverse turbocharged 2.0-liter engine came from a 1991 Eclipse. It makes more than 300 horsepower and uses a Mitsubishi four-speed automatic transaxle.

Tex Smith’s XR-6

Tex Smith's XR-6 Peterson
Brandan Gillogly
Tex Smith's XR-6

Here’s another Hot Rod cover car, this time from August 1963 where it was photographed alongside an Air Force F-104 Starfighter. The state-of-the-art fighter was an apt companion to the shockingly styled, one-off aluminum body of the XR-6. It’s powered by an aluminum-block Dodge Slant Six with the Hyper-Pak induction system. It’s not your typical hot rod, but the small engine punched out 148 horsepower. Smith built the chassis from 2x4 rectangular tubing in his garage and used VW front suspension while George Barris did much of the aluminum body, with Gene Winfield stepping in to finalize the shape after it won the title of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster on its debut in 1963.

Himsl Brothers’ Alien

Himsl Brothers’ Alien Peterson
Brandan Gillogly
Himsl Brothers’ Alien

This raked custom rod build by the Himsl brothers won the AMBR title for 1969 and was one of two cars featured on the August 1969 cover of Rod & Custom (The skyline blurb in that issue mentioned a Mopar Slant Six built by the aforementioned Tex Smith.) Its wide BFGoodrich Radial T/A tires and dual-quad Ford small-block with Shelby valve covers show a flair for the contemporary muscle car scene, but everything takes a back seat to the wild styling of the body. Note that its slanted roof with acrylic moonroof doubles as a windshield thanks to the extremely raked chop and laid-back seats.

1932 Ford “Orange Twist”

1932 Ford Roadster "Orange Twist"
Brandan Gillogly
1932 Ford Roadster "Orange Twist"

Yet another AMBR winner, Ermie Immerso won the title three out of four years from 1988-1991 using three different Fords. His first winner, Orange Crush, is powered by a Ford flathead V-8 with an Ardun overhead-valve conversion. The Petersen Museum acquired the car at Immerso’s estate sale 12 years ago for just over $500,000. If you visit the vault you can see another of Immerso’s winners parked right next to it, the Golden Star, powered by a Ford Indy V-8.

There are even more rods and customs in the vault, not to mention the Porsches, Ferraris, town cars, and limos, so visit for yourself if you ever find yourself near LA’s Miracle Mile. All vault tours require general admission tickets to the Petersen Museum, which is $16 for adults. An additional $20 gets you a 75-minute guided vault tour. If that’s not enough time to ogle the chrome, a two-hour tour is $30. Tickets can be purchased at the Petersen website.