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FROM THE FEATURE FILES - Items of interest from the BRG back catalogue of photographs and features.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is the legacy left to the world’s car enthusiasts by Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod Magazine. No surprise, therefore, that hot rods and custom cars always feature strongly amongst the vehicles on display in the several main exhibition galleries that cover three upper level floors. And we should add that there are many more rarities down in the underground Petersen ‘vault’ – either undergoing renovation or awaiting their turn to go on show upstairs!

The museum, which re-opened in December 2015 after a $90-million renovation, has a stunning exterior design, with a massive metal ribbon framework over the entire building, the lines of which were inspired by custom car styling. It has since become one of the architectural icons of the LA area.

Part of the Petersen’s original mission was to present Southern California car culture to the world, and the spirit of that mission was present in its Customs and Concepts galleries for the newly re-opened museum. They featured manufacturer concept cars and a high-quality selection of the best of the varying styles of vehicles that typified the custom car culture, ranging from classic roadsters to low-riders.


One of the most famous of these was the ‘32 Ford Roadster originally modified and ‘hot rodded’ in 1944 by Doane Spencer. Special features included the first split windshield ever fitted to a 1932 Ford and big Lincoln brakes modified to include cooling scoops.

That was because the car was built to be raced for 1000 miles on public roads across Mexico in the early 1950s Carrera Panamericana. With this race in mind, an extra cross-member was added to the chassis for rigidity and exhaust pipes were channeled through the side frame rails to improve ground clearance. The car has since been the subject of a superb restoration but the original entrant plaque from the ‘La Carrera’ race has been fitted to the car’s dashboard as a reminder of its racing heritage.


Also among the world’s most influential early customs was Bob Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury, which was restyled for him by George and Sam Barris in 1952.

Its chopped top, gently sloping “B” pillars and creative adaptation of trim parts from other makes of cars combined to give it a distinctive look that cemented the Barris brothers’ place in customizing history. Their skills were, of course, soon recognized by the Hollywood film industry and George will always be remembered as the creator of such legendary cars as those for the Batman, Pink Panther, Munsters and many more memorable movies and TV shows.


Based on a production 1948 Cadillac Sedanette fastback and inspired by Japanese movie monsters, ‘CadZZilla’ was one of many custom cars commissioned by Billy F Gibbons, guitarist for the rock band ZZ Top. Built by the late Boyd Coddington, the striking saloon is powered by a massive 500 cubic-inch V-8 Cadillac engine.


Built from the ground up over a two-year period, the 1933 Ford roadster ‘Possessed’ was built by Scott’s Hot Rods and won the prestigious America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the 2010 Grand National Roadster Show. In the Petersen gallery it sat raised on a lift so that visitors could get a close look at its superb construction.

Alongside it on another lift is the 1964 Chevrolet Impala ‘Sinful Sin’ created by Luis Lemus in the classic low-rider style. 1964 Impalas are considered ideal for lowering and customizing because of their already-low stance and iconic body shape.

This car features a stock 1987 Corvette engine largely plated in chrome. The multi-coloured, multi-layered paint job extends through the whole car including the chassis, wheel wells, and custom interior – all of which can be seen in detail thanks to the lift display. The dramatic look earned the low-rider an ‘Outstanding Use of Color and Design’ award at the 2011 Grand National Roadster Show.


Not to be in any way confused with the Carroll Shelby cars that came along a decade later, the Cobra on display was one of only two custom sports cars built by brothers Wally and Harry Hansen for the 1955 Petersen Motorama show.

It featured a hand-built fiberglass body mounted on a specially engineered chassis and an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine that enabled the car to accelerate from a standstill to approximately 90 miles per hour in the quarter mile.


Concept cars are the major manufacturer’s customs – and are obviously rare as they are almost always ‘one-offs’. There were three of these rarities in the Petersen’s opening ‘concept gallery’ – all from the ‘big is beautiful’ days of the 1950s.

The 1955 Biscayne X-37 was built by Chevrolet to showcase its new “Turbo-Fire” V-8 engine and innovative features such as a panoramic windshield, rear suicide doors and swiveling front seats. Its futuristic styling cues would influence subsequent General Motors vehicles, including the Corvette, Corvair and Riviera. After being rescued from a Michigan junkyard, this concept car underwent a 22-year ground-up restoration and was reintroduced to the public in 2010.

The Chevrolet Biscayne manufacturer concept car

While GM styling remained in house in the USA, many of the Chrysler Corporation “dream cars” of the period, like the sporty Plymouth Explorer from 1959 were bodied by Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin, Italy. Somewhat paradoxically, the Ghia styling house was acquired by Ford in later years.

Italian design influences can be seen in the Plymouth Explorer styled by Ghia

Meanwhile, back then in the mid-fifties, the Ford Motor Company was doing its own thing. The group’s 1955 Mercury ‘Beldone’ D-528 was designed and built back home in Detroit. It was constructed specifically to test advanced concepts in safety, lighting, air conditioning, and frame design. Its hinged rear fender bulges were functional, for example, concealing a spare tyre on one side and a petrol tank on the other.

The Mercury Beldone showcased some interesting items, like the functional rear wing bulges

Although the total number of cars in the three main Petersen galleries is always constrained by the space available it is always a genuinely representative selection and the cars are always famous within their sphere of interest. In fact, a visit to the museum is one for which you should allow several hours. Especially if you take one of the guided tours of ‘the vault’ that are available as an extra.

Even a car as famous as the Larry Erickson-designed and Boyd Coddington-built Aluma Coupe was down in the Petersen ‘overspill’ vault at the time of our visit for this feature!

And a tour of the vault is something you should definitely plan on doing, as you never know what surprises may be in store. Even the late Boyd Coddington’s famous Aluma Coupe was anonymously sitting down there when we visited! The ground-breaking aerodynamic coupe was built by Boyd from sketches by Larry Erickson, the former GM and Ford designer who also penned the CadZZilla concept for Boyd. On its first public showing, the Aluma Coupe wowed the fans at the New York Auto Show. When we made our tour of the Petersen Museum vault it sat patiently in the shadows awaiting its promotion to the main galleries upstairs. Not only that there were a half a dozen winners of the Grand National Roadster Show’s ‘America’s Most Beautiful Roadster’ award also down there ‘below stairs’ waiting for their turn on parade!

There are ever changing exhibitions at the Petersen Automotive Museum, so for more information, including the special guided tours of the vault (on which no cameras are allowed, by the way) visit the website a

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