Jewels In The Vault

Hidden Treasures of the Petersen Automotive Museum

Think of the Petersen Automotive Museum as a jewelry store and you’ll be on the right track. You can almost imagine the many displays as sparkling glass cases filled with all kinds of trinkets and gems. But there’s always more, far more, hidden in the vault away from prying eyes and sticky fingers. Often, the finest and most valuable of the gems are where the customers — visitors, in the case of the Petersen — may never see them.

On any given day, a visitor to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles will see approximately 150 cars, trucks and motorcycles on display. Although contexts and backdrops remain the same, with visits spaced far enough apart, the vast majority of the cars on exhibit will have changed. But the vehicles on display are pretty much the tip of the iceberg. According to curator Leslie Kendall, “Very few museums have 100 percent of their collection on display.” In order to properly display cars in the right context, sometimes they have to be stored until the appropriate time.

The Petersen is well and truly California’s car museum. It has a strong focus on the southern California car culture, replete with race cars, hot rods and plenty of customs and celebrity or movie vehicles. So while the hardcore car guy might not gravitate to the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty or Elvis’ “Mongrel T” from Easy Come, Easy Go, the public loves these cars. As a result, there’s a fairly large contingent of such vehicles both on display and in storage. Kendall admits, “There are more than twice as many cars in the vault as on display.”

The “Vault,” as it’s known, is tucked beneath the Petersen’s Wilshire Boulevard building and is usually packed to the gills with cars that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. Some of them, says Kendall, “aren’t on display because they need conservation or restoration. For some cars, it may be years before they are ready to be on display, but they are so important in some way that if they were passed along we’d never be able to replace them. Other cars are just waiting until it’s their turn to be on display.” Some of the cars patiently waiting their turns in the limelight include the Thelma and Louise T-Bird and Rita Hayworth’s Cadillac Ghia. Other denizens of the vault include everything from a 1903 Cadillac to one of the three-wheeled Dales that was part of Liz Carmichael’s ambitious automotive scam, President Roosevelt’s 1942 Lincoln, Henry Ford II’s Ferrari Barchetta and nine winners of the Grand National Roadster Show.

Until fairly recently — the 2012 holiday season — the Vault has been closed to the public. But due to tremendous public interest, tours are available on a limited basis by reservation. If you can’t get to L.A. to explore the Petersen’s hidden treasures, you’ll find a few of them in these pages. For more information, go to

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