The Motorcycles of the Petersen Automotive Museum

In Blog by Abhi4 Comments

10-23 Update: I wrote this post almost exactly a year ago, but I think it’s time for a flashback because the Petersen is almost back – complete with a logo that feels like it was created by Porsche Design:


This is also my chance to get you to block out your calendar: the Petersen is hosting a Reopening Celebration on December 5th and a Preview Day on December 6th – I’m hoping to be there for the latter so I can show you what’s changed with the motorcycles!

The Petersen Automotive Museum is one of the world’s largest automotive museums. It’s also the host of fantastic events for enthusiasts, like their monthly Breakfast Club Cruise-In. Now while the Petersen is deservedly famous, I’ve noticed in previous visits that the motorcycles play second fiddle to cars, so I thought you’d appreciate a little show-and-tell that focused solely on the motorcycles.

The Petersen is about to enter a good news/bad news situation: the good news is they’re about to undergo a radical redesign that will increase space for exhibits, and result in a crazy looking exterior:



The bad news is that on October 19th, they’ll be closing for about a year to enable the redesign. So if you like what you’re about to see, you better get over there quickly!

I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Brown, the Curator of Special Collections, who was kind enough to show me the motorcycles that the Petersen is currently featuring. He also shared with me that there are plans to greatly expand the size of the motorcycle exhibit during the redesign, allowing visitors to get better viewing angles compared to the current, slightly cramped quarters. So while I’ll be showing you the current state of things, just remember that the next time the Petersen is open, the motorcycles will have much more glory. I guess I’ll just have to go back and show you the updates. And with that, let’s check out some bikes!

Currently, there are three ‘areas’ where motorcycles are featured – (1) right next to the front desk:

(2) inside the Otis Chandler Gallery:

(3) and in The Vault, a limited access, extra cost tour.

Greeting you at the front desk are three motorcycles, including a couple of customs and a 1904/05 FN, the world’s first mass produced four cylinder bike.

You got shaft drive, Bosch magneto ignition, and a stand that doubled as a rear rack once you flipped it over the wheel.

Only problem is, if you actually have luggage on the back and are in the middle of your journey…you can’t use the stand any more. Call of Duty nerds may recognize FN as Fabrique Nationale, maker of the FN F2000 bullpup rifle.

Heading up to the second floor yields a small bonus – two Indians previously owned by Steve McQueen.

I was a particular fan of the tire tread on this older Indian. A 1912 model, it featured a single-cylinder engine and chain drive:

There’s also a Hudson Wasp owned by McQueen…but we’re here for the bikes today. (10-23-15 Update: Coincidentally, the Petersen is hosting a rally through Mulholland on November 25th to celebrate the Wasp (made famous because McQueen often took his family out in it) and you can follow along in your presumably-not-as-cool ride…

With that said, car fans will be glad to know that the Petersen currently also has a legendary Jaguar XKSS that used to be in McQueen’s collection as well.

The second floor contains the museum’s bulk of motorcycles as part of the Otis Chandler Gallery.

Right off the bat, you’ve got a couple of beautiful Yamaha YZR500s, the #1 and #2 former GP bikes in lovely Marlboro livery. The #2 was from 1990, the #1 from 1991.

Past Rainey’s racebikes is a collection with quite a bit of variety:

Here’s a little bit of detail on my favorites.

1982 Jawa Speedway – 500cc single-cylinder built for dirt-track racing:

2002 Dan Gurney Alligator – one of the 36.

1974 Laverda 750 SFC – one of 548 built.

1948 Vincent Black Shadow

Last but not least, my two favorite bikes from the entire collection – a Jordan Twin Crank Four and a Moto Guzzi V8 racer:

First, the Jordan.

This bike was named after its creator: LeGrand Jordan, one of CHP’s first motorcycle cops. This was his idea for the ultimate police motorcycle, which used twin crankshafts and a pressed-steel body that was part of the frame. This is the only example ever built – Jordan made it as a demo unit to try and get manufacturers interested. Seeing as you’ve probably never heard of this before, you can guess how successful Jordan was.

And then the Moto Guzzi V8, otherwise known as the Otto. Thanks to the 8 cylinders and the dustbin fairing, this was capable of 172 miles per hour in the mid 50s – a speed that wouldn’t be seen in GP racing for another 20 years.

It had a 499cc water-cooled four-stroke engine that put out 78 horsepower.

Discovery Channel called this one of the top 10 motorcycles in history. Being able to get right next to it did make me wonder why we don’t see more dustbin fairings, even just for aesthetic purposes on the street.

Other components of the bike, like the brakes, suspension, and tires, weren’t really ready to handle the output from the monster engine. By 1957, Guzzi had two bikes ready for racing/further development, but no one was willing to get on them.

Fore more on this incredible bike, check out this write-up from Cycle World. [11-10-2017 Update: In 2001, 7 replicas were made as a “continuation” of the line utilizing original drawings from Guzzi. The last one came up for sale and bidding hit $100,000 but it did not meet reserve.]

You’ll have to allow me to include one car, seeing as it’s an Automotive Museum. There’s an exhibit that focuses on cars in films – Eleanor from the original Gone in 60 Seconds caught my eye. Despite the damage from filming (after some of the body panels were “straightened” out a little bit) this car drives just fine:

Another highlight of the ‘vehicles in films’ exhibit was this Yamaha V-Max camera rig:

There’s all kinds of mounting points and seating options, as well as a Steadicam monitor in the cockpit:

Because you have cameras at the rear of the bike, this V-Max has a custom exhaust that reroutes the heat and noise up to the front wheel:

An example of the bike in use. It was also used in the Terminator 2 chase scene in the LA River, though I don’t remember what the pictured set is here. Original photo by Cotton Mather.

Lastly, we were taken downstairs to see the bikes that were part of the Vault Tour. Another way of looking at this was that these are bikes that weren’t necessarily ready for prime time.

Norton with Sidecar. Chris Brown explained that this would have been a family vehicle. At the time, England taxed vehicles by the number of wheels, and 3-wheelers were considered motorcycles. (This rule is almost entirely why the Reliant Robin exists). So with this Norton, Dad would be riding the motorcycle while Mom and the kids would be in the sidecar – all for generous tax savings!

Older Harley with acetylene lightning:

Indian Dispatch – like the Harley Servi-Car, this had many uses, but the most interesting one was the ability to be towed behind a car. This was crucial for automobile service shops – once you had fixed a customer’s car, the mechanic could drive it to the client’s residence with this trike in tow, then ride the Dispatch back to work. For more on the Dispatch, check out this write-up from Motorcycle Classics.

Hard to see, but this is the clamp that would latch on to the giant chrome bumpers of the day:

Salsbury Imperial

The Ner-A-Car, a two-wheeler that was designed to be more like a car. It had a very low CoG, but what really makes this bike standout is the hub center steering – take a look at how the steering works:

Chip Yates’ record setting electric motorcycle. The bike produces 241 horsepower and hit 190 miles per hour from a standing start at the Mojave Mile.

Special thanks to the Petersen for putting up with my antics, and Chris Brown for his time and knowledge with these interesting motorcycles. Put it in your calendar – the Petersen is coming back stronger than ever, and they’ll be giving motorcycles a much larger role in the new museum. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

Special thanks to Gary Ng for the photography.