Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Hot wheels

Discover an LA museum you can get all revved up about

Aficionados of the internal combustion engine will be in heaven the moment they walk through the doors of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Its collection encompasses one of the most significant groups of automobiles in the world, and the “wow” factor begins early. It doesn’t dissipate until you leave. Here’s a tip: expect the unexpected.

Indeed, the day we visited, the first exhibit to greet us wasn’t a legendary race car, a rarefied antique automobile or a piss-and-vinegar muscle car from the ’60s, although there are plenty of these vehicles occupying the museum’s expansive four floors. Rather, the first head-turning set of wheels was an ice cream truck — albeit an ice cream truck lovingly customized to such an extent no one would ever dream of sullying the thing by dishing up sundaes and cones.

The formerly abandoned, rusted-out wreck now exists as a crimson-hued gem, interwoven with intricately-detailed artwork, depicting LA streetscapes and cheeky cartoon characters. Gleaming mag wheels shine under the museum’s bright lights. The Good Humour Man never had it this good.

The reborn ice cream truck is merely a taste of things to come in terms of what lurks within. If anything, given there are more than 12 million cars in greater Los Angeles (it often seems, all on the road at precisely the same time), surely there’s no better setting for an automotive museum than the City of Angels.


Highway to Heaven

Named after the late Robert Petersen (the past-publisher of such magazines as Hot Rod and Motor Trend), the museum perhaps says more about Los Angeles than any other collection of memorabilia in California. More than 200 cars and motorcycles occupy the museum, from the historic to the futuristic to one-of-a-kind concepts. To lend a degree of added realism, many are exhibited in chronological period settings.

In fact, the Petersen Automotive Museum isn’t just a posh, super-sized garage that houses fine cars. Since 1994, the museum has focussed on the interpretive study of the automobile and its effect on the culture of California. And while the museum undeniably pays homage to the glory of car culture, it sometimes does so with a clinical rather than nostalgic eye.

Case in point: a display featuring a 1911 American Underslung Model 50 Traveler could easily have depicted the car winding down a country road, the occupants’ hair blowing care-free in the wind.

Instead, a more realistic tableau is presented: the car’s driver stands forlorn near the vehicle’s grille, resigned to the fact that his immense Model 50 Traveler is hopelessly stuck in mud (roads circa 1911 often resembled goat trails). Meanwhile, an immaculately dressed female passenger remains rooted in the back seat, silently fuming.

As the display copy notes: “Early motoring was an adventure. Not only did drivers risk getting stuck ‘in the adobe,’ but they had to contend with mechanical breakdowns, flat tires, running out of gas, or just getting lost. In emergencies, motorists relied on their own resources and the mercies of whomever they might find to help them.” So much for the good ol’ days.


Sedans on Celluloid

With Hollywood smack in Los Angeles, it wasn’t long before a convergence between Tinseltown and the automobile took place. The connection between cars and film is a natural. As the museum duly notes, both cars and movies combine art, technology, and image-making; both revolutionized how people spent their leisure time; both represented a mixture of glamour and mechanical convenience to the public.

Where else can you see a bumper-to-bumper display of the most iconic wheels in filmdom? Included in the collection is a 1989 Batmobile (one of three replicas made for publicity); Black Beauty from the Green Hornet (a modified 1966 Chrysler Imperial); a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle from the 2005 flick Herbie: Fully Loaded; a scale-size Mach 5 from the recent movie Speed Racer; and a replica of the Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt. Priceless.

Other interesting specimens include a 1969 Cadillac Eldorado Seville formerly owned by Elvis Presley and notable for its custom-made (albeit somewhat garish) over-sized glass ashtray. A 1908 Ford Model T retailed for $825, although take note: parts such as the horn, speedometer, bumpers and a windshield were deemed optional back when Sir Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister.


Nuclear Car, Anyone?

Touring the museum, you eventually get the sense that, in some aspects, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider the high stakes race today to develop alternative-powered vehicles, and juxtapose this reality with a fascinating exhibit found on the second floor: Alternative Power: Lessons from the Past, Inspiration for the Future.

This impressive display proves many automobile pioneers weren’t necessarily enamoured with the fossil fuel status quo. Indeed, it’s nothing short of stunning to come across automobiles — some from more than a century ago — that shunned gasoline.

Among the samples: an 1897 Anthony (powered by electric battery), a 1909 White Model O Touring (steam-powered), a 1917 Woods (a gas-electric hybrid) and a Citroen 11 (gas coal). But such alternative fuels were unable to gain traction with consumers.

“The reasons that gasoline-powered vehicles became so popular are easy to appreciate,” notes Petersen Museum curator Leslie Kendall. “Gasoline is energy dense, can be transferred quickly for refuelling and was readily available in America thanks in part to the discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901. In the opinions of many, these qualities outweighed drawbacks such as the excessive noise generated by internal combustion engines, and their difficult starting, unpleasant odours and dirty operation.”

Even so, the Alternative Power exhibit represents a lost opportunity for the auto industry: given that such power sources were being tinkered with more than a century ago, one can only lament that engineers didn’t continue to develop alternative options given this day and age of $1.40/litre gasoline.

Then again, it’s perhaps a good thing that some alternatives were never embraced. Case in point: the nuclear-powered car. The Petersen has a full-size mock-up of the 1957 Studebaker-Packard Astral, a vehicle that looks like a cross between a small speedboat and something George Jetson would use for commuting.

A gyroscopic balancing mechanism was to have enabled the Astral to rest on one centrally located wheel although it would also have been able to hover at low altitudes over land or water. A “protective curtain of energy” around the vehicle would have reportedly made collisions impossible.

But for Studebaker-Packard, reality eventually dictated that a flying, atomic-powered car would never get off the ground. Notes the display copy: “Since nuclear reactors were difficult to engineer, extremely expensive, and dangerous to handle, just two full-size atomic-powered vehicles were ever built, [the Astral] and the French Symmetric, but neither was actually fitted with an atomic power system.”


High life and Low Rides

In the museum, another joy for young and old is the comprehensive collection of Hot Wheels, which includes the pièce de resistance, the Twin Mill — the first life-sized car based on a Hot Wheels design. Naturally, everything about it is over the top, from the fiery red paint job to the enormous dual engine scoops and the improbable curves. The Twin Mill is exactly how one would envision a real-life Hot Wheel to look, although the cruel irony is that it doesn’t appear to be street legal.

Aside from the permanent collections, there are rotating exhibits, too. When we dropped by, the La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels exhibit paid homage to LA’s Chicano car enthusiasts and their penchant for creating lowriders — cars that are customized primarily to be low to the ground and usually contain hydraulic setups for adjusting ride height.

Other hallmarks of the lowrider include a fantastic candy-coloured paint job, chrome features and customized upholstery. Bottom line, these cars make for spectacular expressions of LA street culture, functioning more as mobile artwork than transportation.

It’s often said that we have a love affair with the automobile. However, love is the furthest thing from the minds of many commuters when stuck in ghastly gridlock and sitting in their nondescript sedan. Should you ever have the desire to rekindle that love affair with the car, surely there’s no better place to do so than the Petersen Automotive Museum.

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