Pixar's 'Cars' Installation to Open at Petersen Automotive Museum

Michael Walker
Lightning McQueen at Petersen Automotive Musesum

Pixar characters Lightning McQueen, Mater and Flo will guide visitors through interactive displays to build a personalized race car when the museum reopens Dec. 7 after a 14-month renovation.

Characters from Pixar's Cars franchise will guide visitors through the building of a virtual race car at the Petersen Automotive Museum's new Pixar Cars Mechanical Institute exhibit, part of the museum's bid to attract a broader demographic as part of a just-completed 14-month renovation.

The permanent exhibit, built in collaboration between the museum and Pixar, is meant to engage both children and adults in the underlying mechanics of automobiles, from spark plugs to the drive train, said Pixar's Jay Ward, an art supervisor who oversees the Cars franchise and whose official title at the studio is Cars Legacy Guardian.

Both Pixar, which will release the third installment in the Cars series in 2017, and the Petersen face the reality that Millennials, the future audience for car movies and museums, are increasingly indifferent about cars and particularly car ownership.

According to the American Automobile Association, the percentage of high school seniors possessing a driver's license dropped from 85 percent in 1996 to 73 percent in 2010, and more recent surveys place the figure closer to 50 percent.

"There's a generation coming up who don’t necessarily care about owning a car," Ward acknowledged. "When i was 16 I could not wait to drive away from my mom and keep going. You have generation now that sees the car as an inconvenience, an accessory, not part of their identity."

Cars and Cars 2 have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide, merchandise from the franchise has crossed $10 billion and the Cars Land attraction revived Disney's foundering California Adventure Park, but young fans may only be dimly aware they are actually watching cars.  

"If you hold up a model of Lightning McQueen, kids don't say, 'That's a red race car,' they say, 'Oh, that's Lightning McQueen,'" Ward told THR. "The fact that they are cars is secondary to them."  

The Pixar exhibit is meant to impart upon young fans that underlying Lightning McQueen and Mater the tow truck are engines, suspensions and fuel tanks.

"It's an interesting dichotomy that we have, of a car and a character in one," Ward said. The exhibit, he added, is a chance for young fans "to say, I know that character, but now I know how it actually ticks."

Like Disney chief creative officer and Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, whose father worked for a Chevrolet dealership in Whittier, Calif., Ward's father was an automobile wholesaler. Ward and Lasseter curate Pixar's annual Motorama show of rare cars, held for employees and their families at the studio's Emeryvillle headquarters.

Pixar's exhibit at the Petersen, Ward said, while furthering the studio's Cars franchise, is also intended to educate a generation for whom the smart phone has replaced driving as an expression of personal freedom and exploration.

"If I get one kid who’s three or four who comes away from here and says, 'I do want a car when I'm 16,' or 'I want to build a car,' that’s a win for me," Ward said.