Car Museums Worth the Drive

By Ron Epstein

Los Angeles Attractions

The Petersen’s exhibits range from the early to the recent, including The Smith, one of the earliest vehicles, to McQueen, the focal point of its Cars exhibit. Image Courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum

I guess it’s only appropriate that here in the traffic capital of the world we have two excellent museums dedicated to the evolution of the car.

The irony, of course, is that while the Petersen Automotive Museum is only about 11 miles from the Automobile Driving Museum, it could take you more than an hour to get from one to the other. On the bright side, you’ll have lots of nice cars to stare at as your inch your way from the mid-city area to El Segundo.

I visited both, not because I’m a car nut, but because both are unique and offer a fun and educational trip for a family.

Petersen Automotive Museum

Drive down Wilshire Boulevard in mid-city and it’s hard to miss the Petersen Automotive Museum. It takes up a city block at the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax and the outside is marked by huge stainless steel red ribbons that surround the building. It’s unique, to say the least.

It’s the inside of the building, though, that’s really cool with its impressive collection of 100 cars, 23 motorcycles, four scooters, one bobsled and one full-size Lightning McQueen model.

If your kids are too old or too young for you to be familiar with that last item, Lightning McQueen – typically referred to by his surname, McQueen – is an anthropomorphic racecar in the animated Pixar film “Cars,” its sequel “Cars 2,” and TV shorts known as “Cars Toons.”

It’s also the centerpiece of the Cars Mechanical Institute recently introduced as part of a 13-month renovation that lets families visiting the Peterson have as much fun at hands-on activities as they do admiring the showcase cars. It’s a gallery that immerses visitors in different interactive stations where they learn about the mechanical systems that make cars work. Here’s what you kids will find:

  • They can paint and personalize virtual cars, and trace and color their own Cars character to take home.
  • There’s a small racetrack where they can “test drive” cars.
  • They can participate in the CARSpad Experience, an iPad game where visitors design their own virtual racecar, with the help of the “Cars “characters, as they move through the galleries on the second floor. Once they are finished, visitors can race their car to try and best Lightning McQueen’s race time. This experience allows visitors to learn about the science and technology behind designing an aerodynamic racecar.

It’s a cool experience. If you do all the activities with your children, allow 20-40 minutes.

los angeles attractions

This Packard is one of many that are in excellent condition at the Automobile Driving Museum. Image Courtesy of Ron Epstein

Upstairs from the Cars Mechanical Institute are more cool cars – everywhere you look. You’ll find a vehicle called The Smith that looks like a buggy, dates back to 1900 and is the oldest surviving gas-powered vehicle built in Los Angeles. Not far away, there’s a beautiful Ford Model T. Beyond that is a glorious VW bus, and to the left are the movie cars in the Hollywood Gallery: the 1989 Batmobile from “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” the 1982 Ferrari 308GTSi from “Magnum, P.I.,” the 2004 Pontiac Aztek from “Breaking Bad” and the 1965 Lincoln Continental Convertible from “Entourage,” to name a few.

You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to admire what the Petersen has to offer. Its vehicles are in pristine condition and there’s friendly staff at every turn to answer questions.

The museum is at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students with ID, $7 for ages 3-12. Active military with ID, personal care attendants and children under age 3 get in free. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and you can see more at www.petersen.org.

Automobile Driving Museum

If you want another dose of cool cars, go west on La Cienega and, after a few turns, you’ll land at the Automobile Driving Museum at 610 Lairport Street in El Segundo. The building isn’t quite as impressive, but the car and memorabilia collection certainly is, and their programs for children make this a must-visit.

The Automobile Driving Museum started as a collection by Stanley Zimmerman, who loved Packards, which were produced in the early 1900s. Today, the building houses about 130 classic, antique and vintage vehicles, including a number of beautifully restored Packards and an impressive collection of muscle cars.

Each collection includes a sign noting the history of the vehicle, its value at the time and unique features that made it a special car when it was built. This helps the visitor appreciate the design and attention to detail, not to mention the mint condition to which many of the vehicles have been restored.

As you meander through the air-conditioned building, you’ll notice that each group is separated by double yellow lines on the floor – lane lines, if you will – with period memorabilia on the walls. It’s a wonderful for a mental trip back in time, all the way to the soda shop in back.

As for my favorites, it’s a tough call. I like the 1952 MG TD and the 1949 Buick Woody, but the Packards are such classics it’s not hard to imagine driving the 101 in one of them.

On that note, each Sunday the museum selects three cars from its collection and provides rides for visitors. It’s a great opportunity for any car buff, but a once-in-a-lifetime ride for most of us considering the scarcity of these vehicles. You can see which cars will be taking part week to week by clicking on the “This Week’s Rides” tab at www.automobiledrivingmuseum.org. Note that guests must be 11 or older to participate in the ride program.

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At the AltCar Expo, drivers of all ages can test drive vehicles that are eco-friendly. Image courtesy of AltCarExpo.

The Automobile Driving Museum is a unique place. It has events going on constantly, and its website connects you to car-related programs throughout L.A., including the El Segundo Car Show in August and the Hot Wheels Garage in September.

The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Admission, which includes access to the main building and the car ride program on Sundays, is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 10-17 and free for ages 9 and under. Families of four enjoy a special admission rate of $25.

Another (and Free) Alternative

Sept 16-17 is the 11th annual Alternative Energy and Transportation Expo, better known as AltCar, at the Santa Monica Civic parking lot and East Wing (1855 Main St., Santa Monica). The event is free and gives families a chance to check out the latest in cars that use alternative fuel. It features speakers, exhibits and more than 35 retailers showcasing alternative fuel vehicles that consumers will have the opportunity to test drive. The expo will include an extensive array of electric, hybrid electric, natural gas, propane and hydrogen vehicles for consumers from manufacturers, including Honda, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Smart, Toyota and Volkswagen. For more details, visit www.altcarexpo.com.

Ron Epstein is Publisher of L.A. Parent, and our occasional car guy.

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