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In photos: The multi-million dollar Bugattis and other famous cars at the Petersen Museum

The Petersen Automotive Museum sits on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and South Fairfax Avenue like a great, alien ark; its surface is liquid and irregular, like sunlight glinting on the deep metallic flake of some ruby-hued customized hot rod. Los Angeles is a city where the car is king, and this building houses the spirit of automotive enthusiasm in all its glittering facets. It is a museum of rolling artwork, a treasure trove of famous and infamous objects, a gathering place for all those who love the automobile.

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You know you're entering a pretty special museum when you're greeted by a $15 million Bugatti 57C. This particular car is a supercharged 160hp Atalante longtail, one of 17 such cars ever made.

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Under the skin artwork: bringing a classic and priceless machine like a Bugatti 57 requires not just a knowledge of lost craftsmanship, but research to get things right. Lifting the bare-metal body off this display model shows what it took to get things right from the ground up.

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Even a humble car can become artwork if it's touched by an artist. The Petersen features several art-cars, including many of the famous BMW art-car series. This long wheelbase 1971 Land Rover was painted by Keith Haring in 1983. Its flat sides made a perfect canvas for the New York based street artist.

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The Bugatti Type 41 is better known as the Royale, one of the largest and most expensive cars ever made. It was intended to sell to Europe's kings and queens, but sales failed due to depression-era economics. With a 12.7L straight-eight engine, 24-inch wheels, and a hilarious 6.4-metre overall length, no wonder the Royale bears an elephant on its radiator cap.

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Another Bugatti 57SC, this gorgeous sky-blue example shows the delicacy of Bugatti's coachwork. It's rarer even than the example in the lobby, the first of four such cars ever made. It changed hands in 2010 for a figure close to $40 million, making it the most valuable car in the world at the time.

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A closer shot of the Royale's prancing elephant. The ornament was sculpted by Ettore Bugatti's brother Rembrandt, an established artist and sculptor.

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The stunningly crafted bodywork of the 57SC was inspired by aircraft of the time, and indeed Bugatti actually styled a radical V-tailed prototype airplane. The 57SC's riveted spine and swooping curves represent thousands of hours of craftsmanship.

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Built as a wedding gift from the French government for the Shah of Iran's son, the art-deco coachwork of this 1939 57C represents the most flamboyant work of coachbuilder Carrosserie Vanvooren. It narrowly escaped destruction during the 1979 Iran Revolution, and has since been restored to its former glory.

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From rolling artwork to a life-sized cartoon. This full-scale version of Lightning McQueen, the hero of Pixar’s Cars, shows that the Petersen is about capturing the essence of automotive enthusiasm for all ages.

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The carbon-fibre body of a McLaren P1 shows off the engineering prowess at the forefront of automotive technology. Behind the car is a glass-fronted office, where young car designers demonstrate how they're coming up with the shape of the cars of the future.

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A Porsche 904GTS sits at the centre of a unique display of silver sports coupes. The Petersen's features several rotating displays, from celebrity-curated collections, to motorsport, to a simple appreciation of the car as art.

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California is the epicentre of hot rod culture, so it just makes sense that the Petersen has a few selected chopped-n'-channelled machines. These pair sit in front of a retrospective of Hot Rod magazine through the ages.

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Alternative fuels and forward-looking concepts are also part of the Petersen's collection. Here, an early Honda Fuel Cell prototype flanks a Fiat converted to run on compressed natural gas.

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Movie and TV cars of all stripes stand in a row upstairs. They are, from left to right, the Magnum P.I. Ferrari 308, the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, the Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise, a Pontiac Aztek like that in Breaking Bad, a Rolls-Royce from The Great Gatsby, and far in the back Tim Burton's Batmobile and a vintage Batcycle.

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Reportedly Steve McQueen's favourite car, this Jaguar XKSS was a road-legal version of the D-type racing car. Jaguar Land Rover Classic is continuing production of these rare machines, building ten more cars after the original run was stopped by a fire sixty years ago.

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Far beneath the Petersen's ordinary displays is The Vault, the storage area for most of their collection. The cars cycle through here depending what themes are in use upstairs. Somehow, it's even more impressive to see the variety of machines tucked away here in the basement.

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The Tucker 48 “Torpedo” is a rare and unique machine, powered by a flat-six engine. Just 50 were ever made, and each one is worth multiple millions.

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A Jaguar XJ220 sits flanked by a Ferrari 550 Barchetta and a Ford GT40.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous. The delicacy of a white Toyota 2000GT sits next to a gold-plated DeLorean DMC-12.

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A recent addition to the museum's collection, this crimson 1958 Plymouth Fury might look familiar. It's the villainous car from the film Christine, a menacing beast lurking here in the Petersen's vault.

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