Located in the heart of Los Angeles, arguably the car capital of the world (sorry Detroit), the iconic Petersen Automotive Museum has undergone a massive and comprehensive renovation. First opened on June 9, 1994, the museum’s mission, as set by founders Margie and Robert E. Petersen, was to showcase automotive culture from around the world while celebrating Southern California’s rich history within it. The museum has done a respectable job of accomplishing this mission, but as the automotive landscaped changed over the last 20 years, the museum has stayed largely the same. Obviously that had to change.
Drawing inspiration from, and benchmarking numerous museums from around the world, the new Petersen Museum is distinctive on the outside by its unmistakable stainless steel ribbons that “float” over the red building.
The completely overhauled Petersen now features three display floors which, granted, are predominantly dedicated to our four-wheeled friends, but if you’re anything like us MOrons, you can appreciate a classic car just as much as a classic motorcycle. That thinking works in reverse, too, as the Petersen administration, made up of Terry Karges, Peter Mullin, Bruce Meyer, David Sydorick, Richard Varner, William Ahmanson, Charles Nearburg, Lawrence Piro, Richard Roeder, Greg Penske, and Michael Armand Hammer – the gearheads that they are – recognized that motorcycles are an important part of the transportation landscape as well.
With that, here are some highlights of the motorcycles on display at the Petersen, which is set to open to the public on Monday, December 7. To keep the galleries fresh, expect these vehicles to be rotated out periodically.
One of the first motorcycles to incorporate its engine as a stressed member, the 1903 Thor Camelback is essentially a re-badged Indian. In roughly 1902, Indian Motorcycles had some of its components manufactured by Aurora Automatic Machinery Co, including the engine. Aurora signed a non-compete clause with Indian, promising not to build motorcycles of their own. However, the relationship turned rocky and in 1903 Aurora formed the Thor Moto Cycle and Bicycle Co., selling motorcycles as kits, and not assembled bikes, as a way to skirt around a lawsuit. By 1920, with the first world war under way, Thor stopped motorcycle production.
If you ever want to impress your friends at moto trivia night, tell them about the Harley-Davidson (yes, Harley-Davidson) Topper. While H-D is best known for its V-Twin cruisers, from 1960-1965 The Motor Company made a scooter. Power was sourced from an air-cooled, 165cc two-stroke Single, mounted horizontally under the bulge in the floorboard. A continuously variable transmission, which H-D’s marketing department called “Scootaway Drive” enabled twist-and-go operation. The Topper’s claims to fame? It successfully completed a 600-mile trek from Bakersfield, California to Death Valley and back, all without repairs or adjustments. It was also on the television show 77 Sunset Strip, being ridden by Ed “Kookie” Byrnes. John Burns denies remembering it…
In keeping with the scooter theme, there’s this: The Fuji Rabbit. This particular example is from 1962, but in 1946 Fuji was one of the many Japanese companies after WWII barred from producing products that could be used as weapons. So it turned to the transportation industry with the Rabbit, beating Vespa to the punch by six months. It became a massive hit and is still sought after by Japanese collectors today. Higher-end models featured electric start, automatic transmissions and pneumatic suspension. Fuji later became Fuji Heavy Industries, which produces Subaru cars.
Jumping from single-cylinder scooters to roaring V-8s, there’s this, the Morbidelli V8. Stuffed with an 847cc V-8 and caressed in bodywork by Pininfarina, the same folks who’ve designed some of the most sought after Ferraris, Fiats, and Alfa Romeos (just to name a few) the Morbidelli was supposed to be the ultimate in luxury motorcycling. Unfortunately, the original Pininfarina bodywork was… there’s no way to put this nicely… hideous, and was ill-received. This 1994 example features the company’s revised, and more elegant, bodywork, but by then it was too late. Add to that the astronomical $60,000 price tag, and the Morbidelli V8 – one of only four prototypes produced – is another item for the moto trivia bin.
Of course, there have been many different engine configurations used to power a motorcycle, including the Morbidelli V8 above, and the Petersen has a small taste of two-, four- and six-cylinder machines to provide as examples. It would have been relatively easy to fill the display with Japanese motorcycles of various cylinder counts, but instead the exhibit features a 1975 BMW R90S (Twin), a 1968 Münch Mammut (Four), and 1972 Benelli 750 Sei (Six) to accompany the Morbidelli V8.
If you ask me, the coolest Batman was Adam West from the original Batman series. And by far West had the coolest vehicles, including this awesome Batcycle. Based on a Yamaha YDS3 and its 246cc two-stroke Twin, Korky’s Kustom Studios created the bike for the 1966 Batman film. Just check out the groovy bodywork! And the best part? Burt Ward (aka Robin) has his own detachable sidecar rig!
While mostly occupied with classic motorcycles, the Petersen collection does have a few modern classics, including the Ducati 916. One of the most beautiful motorcycles ever created, it also did fairly well for itself on the racetrack too, winning four World Superbike championships. But really, it’s included here because even 20-plus years on, she’s still as gorgeous to look at as when she was first introduced at the 1993 Milan show.
We can debate until the cows come home about whether the Dodge Tomahawk is a motorcycle or not, but instead, let’s focus on the absurdity of the thing. A concept vehicle first introduced at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Tomahawk had an 8.3-liter V10 from the Dodge Viper under the rider’s chest. Adding to the awe factor are the four wheels placed side-by-side. They move independently, meaning a rider could steer like a traditional motorcycle – that is, after they wrap their heads around the 500 hp they’re trying to control. The Tomahawk never made it into production, but bless the folks who even green-lighted this project for giving us something wild to talk about.
As far as I’m concerned, if there’s a list of motorcycles that includes a Britten, it will always be on top. The story of John Britten, how he built a superbike in his shed to compete with – and beat – the established factories, only to culminate in his untimely passing, all make for a story of legend. Place that Britten in a museum collection amongst classic racing Porsches, like the (from left to right) 1980 935 K3, 1969 917K, 1980 936/80, and 1986 962 – all of which I used to have as toy models as a kid – and there’s no question as to what my favorite display at the Petersen museum is.
For more information, visit the Petersen Automotive Museum website to get the latest on new exhibits and upcoming events.