Detroit supplies custom cars for movie stars

LOS ANGELES — Southern California may be the hotbed of American car culture, but it needed Detroit to supply the raw materials — four-wheeled variety — that it turned into custom cars for movie stars and into hot rods for racing on dry lakes and drag strips.

Among those car crazy Southern Californians was Robert E. Petersen, who chronicled the local and later the American and even global car culture in magazines such as Hot Rod and Motor Trend. Petersen also collected cars and, in 1994, he and his wife, Marge, founded the Petersen Automotive Museum as part of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum that spreads down Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile.”

Now an independent non-profit organization funded in part by the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation, the four-story, 300,000-square-foot museum is “dedicated to the exploration and presentation of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture using Los Angeles as the prime example.”

And just like Southern California car culture itself, the Petersen has turned to Motown as a source for raw materials. In this case, it’s not the four-wheeled variety but the two-legged type in the person of the museum’s new executive director, Terry Karges.

Karges, who became the museum’s top manager in August, 2012, grew up in Southern California, where he was part of that car and racing culture while working in marketing management jobs at Disneyland, Sea World and Marine World amusement parks.

But the auto industry knows Karges from his years as vice president of sales and marketing at Roush Performance in Livonia and later at Venchurs, an auto industry supplier in Adrian.

Karges came back to California in part to help the Petersen with its educational mission. In addition to the permanent and special if temporary displays on the museum’s first and second floors, Karges wants to expand its outreach, and not only to LA area school children but by providing professional education for those working in the industry, whether it be with seminars on automotive photography, design, restoration or other events and exchanges covering various aspects of car culture and the car community.

One early change he’s making is the opening Dec. 15 of the museum’s basement, it’s so-called vault, the underground garage that houses hundreds of vehicles not previously on display, for 90-minute guided tours.

We recently got a sneak peak, with Chris Brown, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design and the the museum’s information and marketing manager, as our guide.

After emerging from the basement, we took time for lunch at the Johnny Rockets cafe that’s on the museum’s first floor, and then completed our tour of the first-floor Streetscape displays and of the various exhibits on the first and second floors. The museum’s third-floor houses administrative offices, classrooms, and the May Family Discovery Center, which offers hands-on automotive education for school-age children.

Among the special exhibitions we saw were Sculpture in Motion: Masterpieces of Italian Design;  Aerodynamics: From Art to Science; a tribute to auto racer George Follmer with  cars he’d raced, and Hollywood Star Cars.

Fins, an exhibition featuring cars with iconic tail fins, opens February 23, 2013. On March 1-2, the museum hosts a 60th anniversary celebration of the Chevrolet Corvette with seminars, a Corvette racing panel discussion and a car show featuring some 500 examples of America’s sports car.

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Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at