As the Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Terry Karges has seen the recent evolution of the museum and now the shifting landscape of the automotive industry and the basics of mobility itself.

n this episode we cover where the museum is now, what it will look like in the near future and how technology might dramatically change things not too long from now.


Recording date – January 11, 2018

Terry Karges: It’s an automotive museum designed to allow us to showcase the history of the automobile, the industry itself, and the artistry of the automobile on many different levels and in a number of different galleries in rotating showcases. So from Hollywood film cars, to stars’ cars, to exotic Bentleys and Bugattis, Delahayes, back to 1912, Detroit Electric cars, something for everybody really. We were voted World’s Best Automotive Museum last year. We talk about the industry and the world. Nobody does what we do. There’s an automotive revolution going on right now that we need to be a part of. But I also believe that people will still want to drive cars.

Tom Smith: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States, Southern California. And today’s podcast is quite special because with Southern California being the capital of the automotive world, we’re in the capital building right now at Petersen Automotive Museum. And joining me is the Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Terry Karges. Terry, thank you so much for joining me.

Terry Karges: Afternoon. Glad to be here.

Tom Smith: First, can you please give me a highlight overview of the Petersen Automotive Museum, which I and so many other people absolutely love?

Terry Karges: Well it’s a automotive museum designed to allow us to showcase the history of the automobile, the industry itself, and the artistry of the automobile on many different levels and in a number of different galleries in rotating showcases. So from Hollywood film cars, to stars’ cars, to exotic Bentleys and Bugattis, Delahayes, back to 1912, Detroit Electric cars, something for everybody really. And then there’s the vault, which is downstairs here, which is one of the most famous parts of any Automotive Museum in the world where we take you on a 90-minute tour of things and give you a great story behind most of the cars.

Tom Smith: And I’m smiling right now because I’ve never been in the vault and when security first sent us down here for the interview, my colleague and I took a left when we were supposed to take a right.

Terry Karges: A detour.

Tom Smith: Yeah, because we saw the vault. Were like, “Oh.”

Terry Karges: Yeah, yeah. So cool. And it’s actually we’re about to completely overhaul the vault. We’re going to do a major renovation in there and add another 60,000 square feet to the vault with another 200 cars. So the tour will be, what I believe to be, the most important or best automotive tour, guided tour, anywhere in the world.

Tom Smith: So the museum itself is like any museum and in an art museum you’re going to have exhibits that come and go. You guys do that too, right?

Terry Karges: You bet. Every year…each of our galleries changes out every year, but they’re rotating in various times so nothing is… There’s always something new to see. You could come four or five times a year and see something new.

Tom Smith: And how do you expand the vault? Are you going down?

Terry Karges: There are 60,000 square feet of space that right now is storage space. We’re going to convert that into showcase space and bring in an additional say 200 cars, very special cars, but by country or origin of France, Germany, British, American, American muscle. I’ll have a motor sports section, Japanese cars, Italian cars kind of a world tour if you will.

Tom Smith: I want to get to you on a personal level in just a minute, find out how you got this awesome job. But before we do, a couple of trivia things, what is the single most expensive or highly valued vehicle that has been in here in the museum or currently is?

Terry Karges: Probably several crown jewels that we have in our collection, among them the Round Door Rolls. Henry Ford owned a Barchetta Ferrari that he got from Enzo in 1952 when they were still lovers. And there’s several others, the Rita Hayworth Ghia Cadillac that her boyfriend gave her. But the one that I’d say is the most expensive and probably considered the most valuable, certainly by the auction houses, is that Steve McQueen Jaguar XKSS.

Tom Smith: And what’s the price tag on that?

Terry Karges: That would depend on who’s in the room on the day, but it could be a $30 million, $40 million car.

Tom Smith: What’s the whole collection, and I’m sure not everything is yours. Some things are on consignment at various times, right?

Terry Karges: Again, depending on the day, it’s $150 million. If it were $175 million, I wouldn’t be surprised but that’s a lot of millions and a lot of cars. Not all of the cars are considered to be extraordinarily valuable, but even if they’re not say extraordinarily costly, they’re certainly beautiful and in so many different ways.

Tom Smith: Well there’s a cool factor and cars are different things to different people and bring different…like a song. Like a song brings you back to a certain time, you see a certain car that might not be extraordinarily high value by market standards, but you know, “Oh, that’s the car that reminds me of this and whatnot in my life.” How did you wind up as the executive director of this very, very cool institution?

Terry Karges: Would you start when I was a boy in Chicago with my dad going to the first car show or my granddad taking me to a midget race when I was maybe five in Joliet at the high school stadium, and they were on the dirt track?

Tom Smith: So racing got you?

Terry Karges: We went to the very first race at Riverside Raceway in 1957 and went to most all the road races out there. And I can remember being struck by the industry part of it. I thought, “I don’t know that I’m a driver, but I like the idea that all these corporations are here sponsoring this and that there might be a future for me in that.”

Tom Smith: And then what did that future look like going into your professional career?

Terry Karges: Well, I got married as a young man and had three children by the time I was 24 so working two three jobs to pay the bills. I ended up working at Disneyland. I was there for four years, and then I went to SeaWorld for four years. And I went to Marine World San Francisco for four years. So I had a good entertainment background about how to move bodies into and through a gate, sell tickets. But I was I was bored to tears. I decided right then that I needed to be involved with cars, but at what level and where and how? So I bought a racecar, wouldn’t it wouldn’t you think? I mean, wouldn’t that be the immediate…

Tom Smith: With a wife and kids and multiple jobs?

Terry Karges: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Tom Smith: Yeah, a racecar, that’s the logical next step I think.

Terry Karges: Good investment, good investment, logical…

Tom Smith: Still married, by the way?

Terry Karges: Oh, yeah. I found out almost immediately that I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t wealthy enough, and I didn’t want to race in amateur racing. So I wondered, okay, I don’t want to get out of this. I need to be involved. What can I do? And in the theme park business, I had learned how to sell sponsorships to shows and exhibits and things, so I went and introduced myself to teams. And the thing that I know that’s obvious in racing is that the common denominator is everyone needs money. They need sponsorships, and, in fact, there’s a funny story. I introduced myself to Roger Penske one day at the Long Beach Grand Prix, and I said, “Mr. Penske, I want to tell you how much I have admired the way have raced through the years. You’ve always done it right. You’ve always had the right amount of money to do it. He said, “That shows how little you know about racing, kid.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “There’s never been enough money to do it right.”

Tom Smith: So did you basically go in from a marketing perspective and create an opportunity for yourself in connecting race teams with money, sponsorship money?

Terry Karges: That was it. The common denominator is that everybody needs money. So I thought, “Okay, I know how to sell. I know how to sell sponsorships. I’m passionate about racing. I can do this.” So I started that.

Tom Smith: And then from there, here?

Terry Karges: I ended up doing some consulting work with some guys, but I got a call one day “Have you ever thought about coming over to the museum?” And I said, “No.” It had never crossed my mind, and I had only been to the museum a couple of times and really wasn’t knocked over.

Tom Smith: So the state of the museum is absolutely gorgeous on the outside and the inside. You guys really don’t have a competition per se in this space, and correct me if I’m wrong, but talk a little bit about your contemporaries. Who does the Petersen Automotive Museum look at and say, “Hey that’s a good idea. We can do it this way here.”?

Terry Karges: Well, the contemporaries. It’s interesting; we were voted World’s Best Automotive Museum last year and that’s in competition with Porsche, BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz. We were voted World’s Best, though, not because those aren’t brilliant museums, they’re spectacular by any imagination, but they’re a specific brand. You’re talking about one brand. We talk about the industry and the world. Nobody does what we do. No one does what we do in telling the story in so many different ways.

Tom Smith: So you guys don’t really have an equal. You are–pun intended– you are creating the wheel.

Terry Karges: Exactly. And that’s the opportunity, and the challenge, and the fun, and what keeps you up at night, you know? How do you show cars and tell stories? We’ve got panel discussions on valuing cars, on preserving your collection. We’re starting a new program called Drivers of Change which is all about the future of the automotive world. And will produce Pete Talks, which will be like TED Talks, about 15 minutes with experts in a field talking about what is the future of the automobile, what’s the future of mobility. And part of that is because we’re a history museum, but there’s an automotive revolution going on right now that we need to be a part of. So we’re not the voice of that; we’re the collector. But for that, we can be a forum for the topic, for what’s being talked about. We’re doing a teen mechanical institute teaching kids how to work on cars with the idea that–and I’m stealing this from a good friend of ours, Jonathan Ward at ICON came up with the phrase that he’s trying to “decriminalize blue collar work.” You know, we want to show kids that you can work on really cool cars, make a great living, and have fun doing it. You don’t have to go to college to do that but come on in here.

Tom Smith: You touched on mobility and the future. What does it look like? Is it going to be all electric cars in the museum? Is gas and diesel are those going to be like one floor, one area like, “Oh, back in the day, we actually used to put these fluids in the cars to make them go somewhere.”

Terry Karges: I think that part of that or part of all of what you just said is true, or is accurate, about what the future will be. And a lot of kids don’t even care about having a driver’s license today, but that’s not all of them. And there are oil companies who disagree that it’s going to be all electric quickly. You’re not going to have quick charge stations on every corner like you have gas stations. The most important thing about Americans is the ability to move themselves wherever they want to, whenever they want to, as quickly as they want to. And that is facilitated by an energy supply. And when you consider that we have a long way to go for infrastructure with electric cars, if a car can go 300 miles, that’s one thing. Today, but with technology moving so fast now, who knows? How much style and interest is a pod going to have that moves around electrically? I don’t know. I think that we’ll have those. Bob Lutz says that the car industry is done, finished. Everything has changed, and in 20 years, we’re not going to know… I think he’s right.

Tom Smith: Podcast listeners, Bob Lutz is a legendary car guy that’s responsible for…

Terry Karges: Oh God, Pontiac was his baby. He was a hot rodder and one of the real pioneer car guys in the Detroit Big Three, a fighter pilot, a real maverick, a man who’s always spoken his piece. And he made a speech a little bit ago that said the car industry is dead. But at the same time, Keith Crane at “Automotive News”, who arguably has the ear of or gets to listen to every major automotive manufacturer chieftain in the world, is also saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, everybody’s talking about electric and driverless cars, autonomous cars. Who says so? Who’s declared that? All these companies are betting everything are betting the barn on electric and autonomous. And the public has bought into it, too, so that might be not having a barrier to entry on that like so many other industries do when you start a new product or you’re changing into something as dramatic as this. That doesn’t seem to be the case. People are clamoring for electric cars, but, right now, they’re being subsidized. I don’t know that anybody really knows what things look like in 30 years. I do know that the cars that we have now are incredibly beautiful, at least, the historic cars. It’s not necessarily a museum position that museums take. Theirs is, you know, a Monet is beautiful. You don’t have to go to work on it. But we’re putting cars on podiums and presenting them as rolling sculpture. So how do we tell the story around that? Because technology itself right now is largely a singular user, and a museum experience isn’t a single person. You’re in groups when you come in. We learned that when we opened the new museum. We have a lot of tech, very, very techie stuff that doesn’t get used because it’s a singular experience and the visitors or in groups.

Tom Smith: You touched on the pods. Share some of the some of the realistic or wild eyed theories of what the future is going to look like, not necessarily in the museum but out on the roads.

Terry Karges: Well, you know, I think as technology continues to change things, it will continue to change things that much more quickly. There’s some property being developed in Palo Alto up in Silicon Valley right now in a shopping area that doesn’t have any parking, and I asked the developer why. He said, “Well because you’re not going to need it. You’re going to get dropped off.”

Tom Smith: Right. I did a podcast with a guy who is head of a nonprofit called New Cities, and they did a recent conference about the future of mobility here in the Arts District and John Rossant is his name…

Terry Karges: Oh, sure, LA CoMotion.

Tom Smith: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And he theorized that when the Olympics are here in 10 years that you’ll fly into LAX, you’ll be picked up by a driverless taxi will take you to your hotel. And say, for instance, you need to get you know downtown or to the Coliseum more quickly, you’ll take the flying driverless taxi that will be provided by the joint venture between Uber and NASA and take that to and from the Coliseum back to your hotel, and then the driverless taxi back to LAX and then LAX back out of town. What do you think about any of that?

Terry Karges: I was at Disneyland when Walt Disney was building Epcot, and I was fortunate enough to be…my father in law was one of Walt’s right hand guys. And so I got to see some things behind the scenes and the design that they had was Epcot was the experimental prototype City of Tomorrow, but they had all these flying things and aerial you know highways and underground passageways and still driving cars and trucks and delivering food 50 years later. The difference, John has a vision and John’s a very, very bright guy. Whether you can forecast… Let me put it this way. If I’m around for the Olympics, I’m going to drive my car down and find a parking spot. I’ll give it to a valet, so I don’t have to hunt for the space and be comfortable.

Tom Smith: It’s an exciting thing to think about, whatever direction we wind up going.

Terry Karges: Think of…I mean, the automotive industry is only about 145, 146 years old. Think of where we’ve come. I mean you look at Henry Ford’s first cars and the first race cars and the things that have evolved since then. I think it will evolve more quickly now into something new and different. But I also believe that people will still want to drive cars. It may become a luxury item that only the wealthy or people who are interested are pursuing, but there will be cars built by people for people who want to drive them.

Tom Smith: Drive them themselves.

Terry Karges: Oh yeah.

Tom Smith: Meaning I want my hands on some kind of thing that controls the direction it goes and probably my feet on mechanisms that make it go and stop.

Terry Karges: The joy of commanding a vehicle, whether at speed or just along the open highway, is a joy. A top down drive on PCH on a sunny day, it might be better if you were in a pod, but I personally enjoy driving around corners and maybe speeding a little bit where it’s safe, where it’s safe. But those are those are pleasures that may fade away, too, as the world and technology evolves.

Tom Smith: Well, I personally could not get my driver’s license fast enough, and I just had had a son, so 16 years from now, if we’re still getting our driver’s license when we’re 16, 16 years from now, I wonder is he… I’m going to impart my love for cars and driving with him, but, as you point out earlier, kids these days seem to have their sense of freedom in the mobile devices that they all carry around.

Terry Karges: My granddaughter, who is 22, she still doesn’t have a license. I said, “Okay, here’s the deal, you’re out of the family.” I have a 15 and a half year old grandson who’s about to get his learner’s permit, and he can’t get in a car fast enough. In fact, I’m looking at buying an old clunker four speed, so I can teach them all how to drive a stick shift.

Tom Smith: What’s a clutch?

Terry Karges: Yeah, right, why do you have to do this? Can’t you just go?

Tom Smith: Terry, I heard your alarm going off. I know I’ve taken more time than I was allotted.

Terry Karges: My pleasure.

Tom Smith: This is iDriveSoCal. That was the executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum here in Los Angeles, California, Terry Karges. Thanks everybody for listening, until next time.