May 22nd, 2015 at 10:00 am

SoCal car museums

Photo courtesy of The Nethercutt Collection

“I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”– Woody Allen describing Los Angeles in “Annie Hall” (1977)

The first automobile in Southern California hit the streets of L.A. in 1897, and the region’s love-hate relationship with motor vehicles has yet to run out of gas. The home of freeways, winding canyon roads, racetracks, long stretches of coastal/desert/mountain/desert highways, and maddening commutes also houses some of the finest automotive museums and collections in the country.

While many of the region’s drivers are too busy cruisin’ around to notice, venues from San Diego County to Ventura County offer stunning examples of the motorcar’s past, present, and future. Here’s a slightly opinionated road trip to get you revved up.

“Life is too short for traffic.” – Marketing guru Dan Bellack

The Petersen

There’s no better place to learn the history of L.A. car culture than this four-story palace on Wilshire Boulevard, founded by automobile-magazine publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen. The first floor is dedicated to the Streetscape, a realistic walk-through diorama chronicling the evolution of Los Angeles and the automobile from the turn of the 20th century through the present. About 150 of the collection’s 300-plus vehicles are on display at any given time in the 300,000-square-foot shrine to motor mania. Currently closed for major renovations, The Petersen is scheduled to reopen at the end of 2015. Watch progress here.

“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”– Author E.B. White, “One Man’s Meat,” 1942

The Nethercutt Collection

More than 250 American and European automobiles that rolled between 1898 and 1997 grace this large museum in Sylmar. Newsweek has called it “one of America’s five greatest automobile museums.” The beautifully restored antique, classic vehicles come from a family dedicated to beauty. The collection was established in 1972 by J.B. Nethercutt, co-founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics. The four main areas to visit are the Lower Salon, Grand Salon, Automobile Collectibles and Antiques, and Mechanical Musical Instruments. Best of all, admission is free.

“Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf.” – Historian/writer Lewis Mumford

San Diego Automotive Museum

Woodies, muscle cars, lowriders, pickup trucks, and motorcycles have all had their day in the spotlight at this Art Deco-style venue in Balboa Park. Themed exhibitions are the norm here. Permanent collections include vehicles associated with actor Steve McQueen; classic and antique cars found in forgotten barns and warehouses; a 1947 Cadillac that set a cross-country endurance record by being driven from San Diego to New York and back without stopping; and a stable of rare Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. A permanent exhibit delves into “The Plank Road,” a series of movable wooden cross ties that helped motorists cross the shifting desert sand dunes between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, from 1915 to 1926.

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” – Comedian George Carlin

The Mullin Automotive Museum

Financier and auto enthusiast Peter Mullin established this Oxnard museum as a tribute to French automotive styling and the decorative arts that influenced the genre. The building formerly housed another extensive auto collection owned by Otis Chandler, the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Rare, sleek models including Bugatti, Talbot-Lago, Peugeot, and Voisin are on display not only in person, but also in a virtual tour. Explore each vehicle further through historical profiles, technical specs, studio photos, sketches, and more on the museums ultra-cool website.

“It finally happened. I got the GPS lady so confused, she said, ‘In one-quarter mile, make a legal stop and ask directions.’” – Blogger Robert Brault

Marconi Automotive Museum

Dick Marconi founded his museum in Tustin as a way to assist children’s charities ($5 minimum donation suggested, under age 12 free). The $30 million collection offers “style and class, with a touch of adrenaline!” Formula One racecars vie for attention alongside a sapphire-blue FX Ferrari, Top Fuel dragsters, Jaguars, muscle cars, and even a classic firetruck. Reservations required online or by phone.

Enjoy your museum journey. And remember, as someone once said:

“When everything’s coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.”

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