Petersen Automotive Museum's fire sale could torch the place

Cars and Southern California go together like, well, the Beach Boys and surfing, or Hollywood and movies, or Hef and the Playboy Mansion. You really can’t have one without the other.

Which is why the fact that the Petersen Automotive Museum is selling off a big chunk of its collection is shocking news here, even if it doesn’t shake up folks in, say, Peoria or Omaha or even New York.

My colleague Jerry Hirsch reported Tuesday that the museum has already unloaded some prime vehicles: a Ferrari F40 and a Ferrari F50, plus the first Bugatti Veyron that was sold in the U.S. Even Herbie the Love Bug has been let go! And Hirsch says that more than one-third of its 400 or vehicles will go on the block.


The sales — conducted under the radar until the museum confirmed them to The Times on Monday — will raise money to finance a major face-lift and reconfiguration of the institution, which occupies a former Ohrbach's department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

The new plans include a greater emphasis on motorcycles and French art deco vehicles, passions that match the tastes of the museum's new leadership. The strategy was launched this year by Executive Director Terry Karges — who owns a motorcycle company, Champions Moto — and new board Chairman Peter Mullin, who also heads an auto museum in Oxnard that boasts one of the world's foremost private collections of French cars.

Aha! So, goodbye Herbie the Love Bug, hello Talbot Lago and Delahaye. Plus motorcycles.

It’s a long way from the vision of Robert E. Petersen — he headed a publishing empire that included Motor Trend magazine — and, I fear, a long way from what the motoring public of Southern California wants.

Now, there’s no denying the visual beauty of prewar French motor cars. But to many SoCal car buffs, a Voisin might as well be a violin. When a dad takes his son to the car museum, he wants to see cool stuff, sure. He wants to see Ferraris and Lambos and all the other cars he can't buy. But he also wants to be able to say, “See that Buick, laddie? Me and your mom spent a lot of time in one of those,” and then get that faraway look in his eyes.

But unless Dad’s name is Mitterrand, or Rockefeller, he just can’t say that about a Bugatti.

Plus, Los Angeles especially is movie car country. My own sons’ favorite part of the museum? The movie cars, like the otherwise rather plain Mercedes featured in “The Hangover” or one of the cars from a “Bond” flick.

The Petersen has faced many challenges, from leadership to attendance. It was a rich man’s dream, and it’s now in the hands of other rich men with their own dreams. It’s a place I’ve enjoyed visiting (full disclosure: I’m a member).

But I fear the new guys are about to run it into a ditch. It's not that there isn't a place at the Petersen for French “art” cars, or great motorcycles. But first and foremost, it should be a place that celebrates great cars, from all countries and all income levels. I mean, face it, when you say “French” to most SoCal folks, they think fries, not cars.

Still, I'm willing to give the new guys the benefit of the doubt. Go ahead and cull the herd, fellas -- just don't butcher them all.

And be warned: Don't sell the “Hangover” car.


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