Motor City Cars are Stars at Petersen Museum’s Vault and Other Permanent Auto Shows

See a simultaneous Tesla assembly and cars of the past, too.  Photo by Harrison Shiels

See a simultaneous Tesla assembly and cars of the past, too.
Photo by Harrison Shiels

The Motor City’s North American International Detroit Auto Show rolls up each September, and Claude Molinari, CEO of Visit Detroit, is ready for the ride.

 “Detroit’s auto show is the premier automobility event in the world right now. When you’re talking about electrification, and autonomous vehicles, there is no bigger showplace on the planet,” Molinari told me. “Like the industry itself, the show is transitioning, but it is still a spectacular event. There may be a half-dozen cars debuted.”

Jennifer Hudson is scheduled to perform at the black tie charity preview gala.

Growing up in the Motor City, automotive company executives, including those in Lansing, were more like Barons and Dukes than VP’s and CEO’s. Michigan’s car culture is akin to computers in Silicon Valley; winemaking in Sonoma; and show business in Hollywood. L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum is a big, bright crimson and chrome-striped building parked at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue like an idling hot rod.

Michigan’s car collections for tourists include Henry Ford Museum; Gilmore Car Museum; Lansing’s R.E. Olds Museum; and Stahl’s Automotive Collection. But I discovered, during a visit, the Petersen Museum has Michigan connections. The Petersen’s underground, 250-vehicle “Vault,” (extra admission price but worth every penny) is sponsored by Traverse City-based Hagerty, which insures collectable cars. One of the “collectibles” on display is one of the University of Michigan’s experimental, space age, solar-powered cars.

Michigan-based, award-winning automotive journalist Paul Eisenstein, publisher of, has driven every car ever manufactured on test tracks, and roads switch-backing though the mountains above Monaco and England’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. “Ooh…the Petersen Automotive Museum is amazing. They built a huge, dedicated facility I have been lucky enough to go to for events held there and it is astounding,” he told me. “They have a very large, permanent collection of cars owned by automotive publisher Bob Petersen, the late founder of Motor Trend, and they have constantly changing exhibitions.”

Californian car buff Paul Cavallero shows off his custom-purple-painted 1972 Detomaso Pantera at the annual Rodeo Drive Concours d’Elegance and sometimes outside Dan Tana’s Restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. Cavallero drove me, top down, to visit the Petersen Museum in his brand new 2023 Chevy Corvette convertible. We arrived in style as his jet-black beauty, top-dropped, dropped jaws in the museum’s parking garage as some snapped pictures of the ‘Vette.

“Paparazzi,” I joked, which was appropriate as we were about to see a display of vehicles filmed in movies. But it was Cavallero’s jaw that dropped when he saw a temporary exhibit of Italian cars saluting the legacy of Enzo Ferrari. “There is a lot of money in that room,” Cavallero said with awe.

In terms of showbiz, Cavallero immediately noticed a rare Pantera, like his, only yellow. “I’m pretty sure car that belonged to Elvis,” he said. A bullet hole in the car, pointed out by a museum guide, confirmed it was the King of Rock and Rolls’ ride. The Petersen Museum displays the “Scooby Doo Mystery Machine” van; the stainless-steel DeLorean driven in “Back to the Future;” more than one Bat Mobile; the VW Bus from “Little Miss Sunshine;” “Starsky and Hutch’s” red car with the white stripe; the 1959 Cadillac ambulance from “Ghostbusters,” and the 1966 Ford Thunderbird “Thelma and Louise” drove off a cliff at the film’s end (one of them, actually.)

The funniest showbiz vehicle is the wooden car created to look like a stage coach and sent as a gift by comedian Bob Hope to Western film star John Wayne in 1971…with its bed full of cow manure!

There is so much “eye candy” in this toy store of performance cars, including a copper-colored sports car designed by the King of Morocco – all a spoonful of sugar with the historic vehicles, too. The museum has procured cars ridden in by Saddam Hussein; U.S. Presidents; Soviet Premiers and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and a Pope Mobile created for the Holy Father’s visit to Mexico City. The sedan chauffeuring President Ferdinand Marcos around the Philippines featured the anti-attack measures of a military vehicle.

My star of the show was a beastly 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 Aerodynamic Coupe, which must be seen to be believed. And for some reason I took a shine to the 1931 Ford Model A station wagon. I wish modern cars, which now resemble jelly bean-shaped appliances, had the fin-tailed flair of cars of the past. The Petersen Museum’s toy store gift shop allows you to take some mini beauties with you.

Contact Michael Patrick Shiels at  His radio program may be found at or weekday mornings from 9-noon on WJIM AM 1240


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