Eye Candy: Town Cars at the Petersen museum

Photos by Larry Edsall

Have you ever wondered how a place such as the Petersen Automotive Museum decides what exhibitions to undertake?

We recently enjoyed an early Saturday morning visit to the museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where marketing director — graduate of the Art Center and former automotive designer — Chris Brown gave up half of one of his days off to personally guide us through The Vault in the museum’s basement and then through the various exhibits upstairs.

“Every spring, the exhibits committee meets,” Brown said, explaining that all the various ideas are noted, without judgement, on a whiteboard.

A discussion ensues. Ideas and their execution are evaluated. Some are crossed out. Some are circled.

Ultimately, Brown teases, “Leslie (Kendall, the museum’s long-time curator) figures out what he wants to do next” and the meeting ends.

Actually, Brown adds, it’s not quite that simple.

Kendall leaves the meeting with what Brown calls a “shoot the moon” list that usually has at least twice as many exhibition ideas as the museum could possibly put together in the next year. Eventually, Kendall and his crew factor reality into their list and a tentative schedule emerges — and then the real work begins.

“Leslie starts finding the cars,” Brown said, adding that the “gestation period” for taking an exhibition from the whiteboard to one of the museum’s exhibition halls takes many months.

This, of course, is in addition to any work needed for maintaining the museum’s permanent displays.

When we visited, two special exhibitions were about to end — Pickups: The Art of Utility, to be replaced by Mustangs Forever: 50 Years of a Legend, and Mustang 50th Anniversary, and a display of sports cars about to replaced by The Worlds’ Greatest Sports Coupes, a display guest-curated by celebrity car collectors.

Only recently opened was Town Cars: Arriving in Style.

Town Cars was an idea that emerged from one of those annual exhibits committee meeting. And don’t think for a minute that this is a display that salutes the Lincoln Town Car, although there is a Lincoln among the 13 vehicles that comprise the display.

“Today the name Town Car is closely associated with Lincoln, but that was not always the case,” the field guide-style brochure to the display explains. “From the early 1900s to the mid-1960s, the term ‘town car’ referred to a body style distinguished by an open chauffeur’s compartment and an enclosed passenger area. Elegant and dignified, they were originally intended for city use on formal occasions and were almost always the most expensive body style offered by a manufacturer.”

Speaking of chauffeurs, the exhibition walls include several quotes from the Chauffeur’s Blue Book, 1906, and the brochure explains that the word chauffeur comes from the French term for “to stroke or heat” and dates to early steam-powered automobiles in which the boiler had to be stoked long before it could produce enough steam for a drive to take place.

Here are some notes on the 13 town cars in the display:

1897 Benz Mylord Coupe — built by Karl Benz shortly after obtaining the patent on his horizontally opposed two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. Top speed: 19 miles per hour.

1915 Pierce Arr0w — Built for the Vanderbilt family with one-off coachwork by Kimball of Chicago. Oval windows were unique design element. Silk blinds could be used to hide the occupants from view.

1916 Scripps-Booth Model D — Built for tennis star Eleonora Sears who wanted a vehicle with Rolls-Royce luxury, the beauty of a Mercedes but the size of a Ford Model T.

1931 Lincoln Model K Razor Edge Brough — The town car bodywork is by Willoughby. Original owner Edward Connelly bequeathed the car to his chauffeur.

1928 Mercedes-Benz Model 630K — This car, with coachwork by Walter P. Murphy Co. of Pasadena, was a wedding present from Anheuser Busch to his daughter.

1932 Plymouth — Plymouth? That’s right, Plymouth. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was leaving the White House, he wanted a car that would be somewhat modest so a Plymouth limousine was shipped to Brewster & Co. in New York and turned into a town car primarily used for his wife, Eleanor.

1932 Packard Model 12 All-Weather Cabriolet — One of seven such 12-cylinder cars with bodywork by Brunn of Buffalo, N.Y.

1949 Cadillac — A Mrs. Morgan Adams had a pair of 1949 Cadillacs specially built for her; this one by Maurice Schwartz of Pasadena and a formal two-seat coupe by Coachcraft of Hollywood. Both cars had shaved fins, blind rear quarters and blue cloth upholstery.

1962 Rolls Royce Phantom V Landau limousine — When the town car exhibition was proposed, Leslie Kendall knew he wanted Liberace’s car and was thrilled when Liberace Foundation agreed to loan the car to the Petersen. The cars bodywork was created to match Liberace’s mirrored piano. The interior is lied with ermine. Liberace used the car in his shows at Las Vegas and Radio City Music Hall in New York, and then for regular rides around Palm Springs.

1959 Scimitar Town Car Phaeton — Named for the scimitar-like shape of its pride, this is one of three Scimitar vehicles designed by Brooks Stevens for the 1959 Geneva auto show (the others were a station wagon and a two-door with a tractable hardtop). The aluminum bodywork (placed over a 1959 Chrysler New Yorker chassis by Reuter) was commissioned by Olin Aluminum Corp. to show the benefits of its metal. The roof over the passenger compartment could be lowered into the trunk to create a four-door convertible.

2009 Chrysler 300C Hollywood limousine — The wheelbase was stretched 18 inches. Rear doors are rear-hinged for easier egress. Inside are two flat-screen televisions and a center console designed to carry champagne bottles and glasses. How times have changed: Of all the town cars in the exhibition, this is the only one in which the occupants sit on leather. The others have leather seating only for the chauffeur (better durability than cloth to stand up to open weather conditions).

 

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