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Bond, Bentleys and beyond: Take a tour of the new Petersen Automotive Museum

From Bond cars to race cars, motorcycles to hot rods, the newly redone Petersen Automotive Museum holds hundreds of incredible machines from throughout automobile history. Here's a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
3 min read
Geoffrey Morrison

It's perhaps not surprising that one of the world's great car museums is in Los Angeles, a city legendary for its traffic, freeways and outright obsession with all things automobile.

After being closed for more than a year and going through a massive transformation, the Petersen Automotive Museum is open once more -- and radically different from its former self.

The cars are still the show, of course, but now the building itself is worthy of the magnificent machines it holds within.


The Petersen's dramatic new facade is the work of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The magnificent wheeled machines of the Petersen Automotive Museum (pictures)

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The end of the Mile

The Petersen is on the "Miracle Mile" in Los Angeles, on Museum Row across from the LA County Museum of Art, or LACMA (an actual acronym pronounced "Lack-mah"). Yeah, Angelinos love naming things.

For most of its life, the building that would eventually house the Petersen was a department store designed by Welton Becket, a name you might not know, but his other buildings you probably do: the Capitol Records building and the Beverly Hilton, to name two.

Founded in 1994, the Petersen had a lot of space devoted to dioramas forcing a large part of its collection down into The Vault. In addition to a lack of space, its layout and design was starting to look a little stale.

Starting in early 2015, the Petersen closed for a top-to-bottom, inside-and-out overhaul. Though personally I adore the midcentury modern architecture style in general and Becket in particular, this specific design was not the best example of type, and it had started to look a little dreary. By contrast, the new facade is stunning, fluid and futuristic. It finally looks worthy of the beautiful steel inside.

Cars are the show

The new interior is even more of an improvement than the exterior. Gone are the old-fashioned dioramas and installations. Instead, it's a more minimalist look that manages to combine a tighter focus on the cars themselves with more information. Every vehicle has a placard with car-nerd info such as horsepower, top speed, number built, price, back story and more. I read every one.

With more space to display cars, some that I saw on my tour of The Vault a few years ago are now on display in the main museum. They include Steve McQueen's Jag XKSS, the Round Door Rolls and more.

The third floor has a mix of movie cars and '50s classics. The second floor has many race cars, including some Le Mans-winning Porsches, hot rods and several design studio mock-ups for adults and kids. There's also a clever motorcycle display and a room for cars with a silver theme.

The ground floor, with its sweeping projection screen, focuses mostly on the design language of the '20s and '30s.

The Vault

Despite over 100,000 square feet of display space, there still isn't enough to show every car in the collection. I wasn't able to check out The Vault again on this tour, but it's also now reopened, and you can.

If you want a bit of a preview, here's a tour I did down there a few years ago. You'll see a few duplicates, since as I mentioned, several of the cars are now on display upstairs. Some fascinating cars are still down below, however, as the collection rotates.

A tour of the Vault at the Petersen Automotive Museum (pictures)

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As a lifelong lover of cars, I adore any and all car museums. LA has two fantastic examples (the other being the incredible Nethercutt). If you take your time, you can do the main museum in an afternoon, but if you can, you'll want to add a bit more time to tour the Vault.

A must-visit for any car fan.

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET