UCSB grad and philanthropist helps in a major L.A. renovation

Peter Mullin of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard stands with a 1938 Bugatti Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza H6C "Xenia." Mr. Mullin is leading a renovation of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. HELENA DAY BREESE/NEWS-PRESS
Peter Mullin of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard stands with a 1938 Bugatti Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza H6C “Xenia.” Mr. Mullin is leading a renovation of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
HELENA DAY BREESE/NEWS-PRESS

Peter Mullin’s love of cars, especially French ones, has already resulted in one beautiful building, the Mullin Automotive Museum, tucked away in an industrial area of Oxnard.

Now the collector, philanthropist and UCSB graduate is about to help another similar space an hour south complete a successful and dazzling remodel.

Last October, the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard closed its doors temporarily, throwing a $750-a-plate party with the Beach Boys playing live to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and promised to open back up in one year.

Peter Mullin, who has been Petersen’s chairman since 2013, announced at the time that the museum had raised $80 million of a projected $125 million to complete the remodel.

That goal has since been reached and both the interior and exterior are undergoing major changes. The exterior features a metal “wrap” that mimics the curves and airstreams (and even some flaming art) of the hot rods and classic cars inside.

The 300,000-square-foot interior will feature a complete redesign of its three floors, and add lots of tech to create a more immersive, interactive museum. Twenty-two exhibit spaces will focus on history, technology and artistry.

“We want to lift the museum to a new level where it will be one of the top three or four automotive museums in the world,” Mr. Mullin said.

Bob Petersen’s original museum celebrated the car in Southern California culture, and has an impression collection of hot rods.

But Mr. Mullin, who loves European cars such as Bugattis, Volsins, and Delahayes, wants to expand the Petersen’s focus beyond the West Coast.

“We’re celebrating 20 years and looking forward to 20 more,” he said.

Mr. Mullins’ own collection started over 35 years ago with a Talbot-Lago from the ’30s. He had seen a Delahaye before that and thought “it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen,” and had become intrigued with French automobiles of the pre-war era.

“Do I think there are some beautiful cars made now? Sure,” Mr. Mullin said, mentioning recent Audis, Teslas and Bentleys. But for him its really about France.

“I think the French cars made before the war are the apex.”

Once of the reasons for the Petersen overhaul was a lack of repeat business. A Los Angeles Times article in 2013 quoted a 70 percent first-time visitor rate, which Mr. Mullin said would be a “death knell” for any museum.

Hence the investment in interactive displays, a design studio space where visitors can check out clay models and CAD renderings (from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design), augmented reality stations designed by Pixar, and Xbox Forza racing simulators.

“You’ll feel like you’re at Le Mans or the Indy 500 driving alongside other cars in a race,” Mr. Mullin said.

As with the Mullin Museum and its non-automotive galleries, the Petersen will include an art gallery sponsored by Peter Armand Hammer.

“There will also be chance to explore what will happen in the future with alternative fuels, and what will be the role of battery-operated electric cars, solar-operated cars, hydrogen-powered cars, just the whole gamut of where our transportation is going,” Mr. Mullin said.

Mr. Mullin graduated from UCSB in 1962 as an economics major with a minor in art. “This museum has kept me involved in art through these ‘rolling sculptures,'” he said, referring to his collection, which numbers over 100.

During the remodel of the Petersen, 30 to 40 cars in its collection were on display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

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