California Dreamin’

The renovated Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has been turning heads and driving talk of a similar venue in downtown Detroit.


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TIMELESS CLASSIC: A 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, located on the museum’s history floor, was called the “Hot One” in General Motors advertising campaign. 

Billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert, who owns more than 80 downtown Detroit properties and has recruited more than 150 businesses to fill them, sees a gaping vacancy in the city that put America on wheels.

Gilbert has said on several occasions over the past few years that there should be an automotive museum downtown that would celebrate the industry and “leverage the sexiness of the car,” as he explained in a 2014 speech.

Terry Karges would like to help. Karges is executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which recently underwent a stunning, $90-million renovation that includes a spectacular red exterior trimmed in flowing, stainless-steel ribbons. It’s considered one of the finest auto museums in the country and could serve as a model for a similar endeavor in Detroit.

In addition to more than 300 cars, the three-story museum features a variety of interactive displays, including a video touch screen exhibit in which a Ford Motor Co. employee talks about the education and skills required for various jobs in the auto industry. 

“We’d love to help in any way we can to build a museum (in Detroit),” Karges says. “It would become an instant hit, and you’d have people who come to Detroit from all over the world stop by for a visit. I think there’s a really good opportunity and I would be happy to talk to people.”

SILVER STREAK: THE PRECIOUS METAL EXHIBIT INCLUDES THE USE OF SILVER BY AUTOMAKERS TO REPRESENT THE PINNACLE OF PERFORMANCE AND STYLE INCLUDING A 1954 FERRARI 375 MM SCAGLIETTI AND OTHER NOTABLE RACECARSBELOW: ZAHNER IN KANSAS CITY MANUFACTURED THE MUSEUM’S COMPLEX FACADE OF A STUNNING RED EXTERIOR TRIMMED IN FLOWING STAINLESS-STEEL RIBBONS.

That’s not just the musing of a Southern California native who has little knowledge of the Detroit landscape. Karges spent 22 years of his professional career here, 17 of them as senior vice president of sales and marketing at Livonia-based Roush Performance, which makes high-performance automotive components for street and racing applications. He also has held marketing and management positions at Disneyland and SeaWorld.

Talk of a Detroit automotive museum accelerated in late 2014, when Gilbert purchased the 114-year-old State Savings Bank building downtown. Since then, however, no final decision has been made on what to do with the building, according to Robin Schwartz, spokeswoman for Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services. She also declined comment on any potential plans by Gilbert to establish an auto museum in Detroit.

Should Gilbert ultimately decide to undertake such a project, the Petersen Automotive Museum’s sweeping makeover is evidence that building a first-class car museum is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor. After five years of planning, California financier and museum Chairman Peter Mullin led a $125-million capital campaign in 2013 to pay for the renovation and establish an operating endowment. Virtually all of the money came from wealthy individuals, auto manufacturers, suppliers, and aftermarket parts producers. No public funds were used in building the museum.

To prep for the renovation that sought to create a world-class attraction, museum officials toured 30 auto museums around the world, including those operated by Maserati, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes Benz. The facility was closed for a year for construction, and reopened late last year.

“In December, we had 37,000 people come through the doors,” Karges says. “That’s four times the number of the best month we had in the 20-year history of the museum.” Attendance this year is projected to reach 250,000, which he considers a conservative estimate.

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