Behind the Iron Curtain at the Petersen Automotive Museum

There are many excellent automotive museums nationwide – Ford people are probably familiar with perhaps the best, The Henry Ford in Dearborn – but on the West Coast the tip of the hat has to go to The Petersen Automotive Museum.

Founded by Hot Rod magazine publisher Robert E. Petersen and his wife Margie in the mid-’90s, the Petersen has a stellar collection of cars, motorcycles and all things related to the automobile and American car culture. On two levels of the 300,000-square-foot museum (which takes up an entire city block in the Los Angeles Miracle Mile area near Beverly Hills) you can see approximately 150 different vehicles on display, ranging from famous movie cars and classics to historic hot rods and significant designs from vehicle manufacturers around the world. But there are many more vehicles, around 400 total, in the museum’s collection. Where are the cars that are not on display? They’re kept in The Vault, which is a nice way to say they’re in the basement storage warehouse, underneath the museum’s main floor.

Housed here in a dimly lit storage area are all the vehicles that either were on display at one point or are set to go on display eventually, as well as others that have never been on display and may not be anytime soon. Examples of vehicles currently in the vault include the spectacular one-of-one 1925/34 “Round Door” Rolls-Royce Phantom I Aerodynamic Coupe, a Ferrari given to Henry Ford II by Enzo Ferrari, a rare Jaguar XKSS formerly owned by actor Steve McQueen and a 1939 Bugatti given to the Shah of Iran as a wedding present. A wide variety of hot rods, musclecars, Hollywood vehicles, exotics, vehicles used by heads of state, motorcycles and even a Popemobile are housed in the vault.

The bad news is that the public cannot get into The Vault. The good news is that Ford Social pulled some strings and got a private tour of the place so we could show you the treasures housed there. And when we say treasures, we mean it. Not just for what’s down there, as you read above, but also for the feeling you have when you’re there. Access to The Vault is through the elevator in the highly polished and beautiful main lobby, but you need a special key to make it go down into the bowels of the museum. When the elevator doors open, the sight is completely different from what it was upstairs. You step into a fairly cramped, dark area surrounded by even darker hallways and chain link-fenced storage enclosures, and you sense there are hundreds of spider webs just waiting for you to walk face-first into (there aren’t any).

The climate-controlled, guarded vault is housed behind a set of doors, which when opened made us feel like we were in the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with rows and rows of storage that seem to go on forever. The first car we saw was the incredible Round Door Rolls sitting next to Mr. Petersen’s personal Bentley Turbo R, while beyond them were Ferraris, French Delahayes and a bunch more, some of them unidentifiable, hidden beneath their plain car covers. Of special interest to Ford fans is a collection of historic Blue Ovals, including a one-of-four, left-hand-drive Ford GT40, classic Mustangs, T-birds, Model Ts and As and a large group of Ford hot rods that have won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster trophy, the most prestigious award in hot rodding. The other Ford divisions—Lincoln, Mercury and even Edsel—are represented as well.

Touring the vault is like walking through Heaven’s parking garage. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, another vehicle pokes its nose out of the darkness and surprises you yet again. There are no velvet ropes to keep you away from them; only the enthusiast’s respect for the history makes them untouchable (even though we did run a gentle hand over the roof of that lovely GT40—don’t tell anyone!).

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