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Unearthing Hidden Gems in the Petersen Automotive Museum

The Asphalt Jungle

Rounding a corner in the drab cinder-block basement, then sidestepping a bundle of dirty shop rags and an empty bucket, suddenly I see it: 30 million dollars. No armed guards, no pulsating laser-beam motion sensors, not even so much as an orange cone to signal, "Hey, Bub, step back!" Not that I can start stuffing my pockets with cash anyway, because in front of me stands not endless mounds of bills or even a pyramid of gold bars but one of the most beautiful, desirable, and valuable automobiles in all the world. This is Steve McQueen's personal 1956 Jaguar XKSS, one of only 16 ever made and a roadster the movie icon loved so much, after selling it in 1969, he bought it back eight years later. Collectors around the world would kick, scratch, and—yes—hurl K2-sized mountains of cash at an auctioneer for a chance to own this sculptural green paragon of speed and style. Right now I'm all alone with it, just me and the prized possession of a Hollywood Olympian in the sort of setting where you'd normally expect to find boxes of yellowing tax returns.

Yet, incredibly, the XKSS is but one of dozens of vehicular jewels shining under the basement's fluorescent glare. Over here is the famous red Ferrari 308 GTSi driven by Tom Selleck on TV's "Magnum, P.I. "—including a driver's seat specially lowered to accommodate the actor's 6-foot-4-inch frame. (It didn't work: Selleck still had to drive with the roof panel removed.) Nearby is Black Beauty, one of two menacing Chrysler Imperial-based sedans created by customizing legend Dean Jeffries for the 1966 TV series "The Green Hornet." Down a ways sits the 1966 T-Bird from "Thelma & Louise" (though, obviously, not the car that made the climactic leap). Other gems stretch as far as the eye can see, about 150 in all, row after tightly packed row.

You've deduced correctly that this is no ordinary cellar. It's the Vault, the subterranean storehouse of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. I slipped in for a look days before the museum closed in October for a yearlong, $120 million renovation. "Among many other upgrades, we're going to add about 25,000 square feet of permanent display space," Petersen content producer A.J. Gordon says as he leads me downstairs. "More of the cars currently stored in the Vault will be able to be exhibited in the museum itself, though we'll continue to offer limited Vault tours."

Ah, therein lies the oft-overlooked (but mouthwatering) side dish of a Petersen Automotive Museum visit. Once the museum reopens, you too can step down into the Vault for one of the very special guided tours given a few times each day. No, there aren't any displays to rival what's upstairs in the museum itself—the cars are simply parked shoulder to shoulder—but the quality of the collection won't disappoint. "This Mercedes 600 Landaulet," Gordon says as he points to a well-worn black limo, "used to be owned by Saddam Hussein. Still has sand in it and a few soggy bottles of Iraqi water." Gordon motions me closer, points out some scratches on the fenders. "From the rifle butts of his guards riding shotgun."

More cool stuff comes fast and furious. Here's the VW Love Bug from 2005's "Herbie Fully Loaded," which, Gordon says, "they modified so it'll do 125 mph." There's "Grand Prix" director John Frankenheimer's personal Mercedes 560 SEC. "The guy was a total car freak," Gordon says. "He had the Merc supercharged and added a nitrous bottle!" In another row sits a bizarre, motorized Conestoga wagon that Bob Hope had Kustom King George Barris build as a gag birthday gift for John Wayne. Here's Gloria Swanson's Rolls-Royce, followed closely by Jayne Mansfield's pink '57 Lincoln. And then a real showpiece: a 1952 Ferrari 212/225 Barchetta given as a gift from Enzo Ferrari to Henry Ford II. "It's completely original," Gordon says. "And incredibly significant. The Barchetta's dramatic lines inspired the original 1955 Thunderbird." When I ask what it's worth, Gordon just smiles. "Millions. Many millions. Trouble is, right now we have no place to put it."

That will likely change once the museum's face-lift is complete late next fall. But the Vault will remain, a basement without bargains where window-shopping is a must.