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Forget the vault! The Petersen Auto Museum's archive is an Ali Baba’s cave of gearhead lore

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

James Dean in a Porsche 356 Speedster at the 1955 Palm Springs Road Race. Petersen Auto Museum/TEN: The Enthusiast Network Archive/Bob D'Olivo

The coming of the car at the dawn of the last century made Los Angeles the world’s first city of automotion, of freeways, parking structures, unequaled liberty of movement, sprawl …and smog.  Supposing you wanted to probe the raw history of the Southland’s troubled romance with the automobile?

You’d go to the Petersen Auto Museum, whose archive comprises probably the largest single collection of automotive history. Thousands of automotive books, magazines (1,300 different publications), manuals, brochures, releases, advertisements, and more than 10-million photographs, most of them never published, plus blueprints of rare, classic cars, and arrays of tires and car parts.  Not to mention a full set of Hot Wheels toys, bundles of old street signs and even a pristine full-size billboard for the 1929 Cadillac.

This Ali Baba’s cave of gearhead lore sprawls in thousands of filing cabinets, scores of shipping pallets, and hundreds of yards of shelving in the basement of the swank museum building at Wilshire and Fairfax, closely adjoined by the elite prize vehicles of the Petersen’s Vault Collection—think lavender and fuchsia 1930 Ruxton convertible, a mirror-black 1930’s Talbot Lago coupe.  

The vault gets all the visitors, but the genuine knowledge of the entire automotive era resides in the archives, which is the charge of Carolina Luna, an historian with an MA from CalState LA, who began as an intern.

The Petersen Auto Museum's vault is definitely more attractive ... unless you're an historian who loves poring through the thousands of magazines, blueprints, ads, manuals, and other items in the Petersen's archive
The Petersen Auto Museum's vault is definitely more attractive ... unless you're an historian who loves poring through the thousands of magazines, blueprints, ads, manuals, and other items in the Petersen's archive Petersen Auto Museum

She watches as a half-dozen college age people in blue surgical gloves work at a table, handling rare old pictures and documents, some of which will soon be digitized. The archive workforce is nearly all interns like these and volunteers—retirees with vast professional car experience.  The elders are happy to pass their specialized knowledge along to the new generation. 

Joe Gattenio, for instance, works in the car parts archive where he mentors people too young to have ever seen a carburetor.  And Tom Voehringer, who runs the larger of two photo archives at the Petersen, showed us a photo he dug up in 2010: a set of pictures of 50s movie icon James Dean, when he was creating another, tragic career as a competitive sports car racer. Here there are actual photos of him in 1955—winning a big race at Palm Springs in his Porsche. He'd soon die in the crash of his Porsche 550.

Carolina Luna’s ultimate goal is to digitize the entire collection. Until then, access to the archives is on an individual basis. But if you want to consult the blueprints to build you own classic replica Tucker Torpedo sedan, or need a shop manual to do a brake job on your 1923 Nash, just ask Carolina.

Note: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Mr. Voehringer's name and several details regarding the James Dean photo.

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