Renowned car collector Peter Mullin passes at 82

by Eddy Eckart
26 September 2023 5 min read
Kahn Media

Peter Mullin, renowned collector of French automobiles, founder of the Mullin Automotive Museum, friend to many, and longtime visionary within the automotive hobby, passed away on September 18, 2023. He was 82.

“The car world lost a great man,” said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty. “I knew Peter Mullin by reputation long before I got to learn directly about the many layers of his generosity, sophistication, and connoisseurship. While building a wide-ranging business empire, he built one of the world’s greatest French car collections and an exquisite private car museum in Oxnard, California. He was widely known for his philanthropic work inside and outside of the U.S. As chairman of the board of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, he was the godfather of the design and renovations that launched the museum onto the world stage as one of the leading cultural celebrations of the automobile. And while we’ll miss him, his legacy will live on for a long, long time. Our condolences go out to his lovely wife Merle and their family.”

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Growing up in the hot rod haven of Los Angeles and cultivated by attending car shows with his father, Peter Mullin’s passion for cars didn’t take long to emerge. But his love of French cars in particular—something for which he’d become known the world over—famously started with a note from a neighbor.

“An architect who lived in a lovely craftsman house up the street left a note in our mailbox asking if he could use our Georgian colonial as the backdrop for a photoshoot of a car,” Peter’s wife Merle shared with me in an interview this past spring. “Peter said, ‘why not,’ and come Saturday morning, this beautiful green postwar Delahaye rolls up. It was love at first sight for Peter, and he got infected right then and there.”

Merle went on to describe her husband as a natural student with incredible curiosity, especially for industrial objects and automobiles of the art deco era. “He started delving into that period of time and became fascinated with the pre-World War II era, when cars were bespoke sculptural beauties.”

Soon he began accumulating notable French automobiles. “Peter wasn’t afraid to restore a car—to bring some of the finest French cars ever back to life and give them vitality,” said Richard Adatto, board member at the Mullin Automotive Museum, judge at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and an expert on French aerodynamic cars. “He wasn’t afraid to drive them fast, either, and he especially loved showing his cars so others could enjoy them.”

That desire to share these rolling works of art led Mullin to create the Mullin Automotive Museum. What had become one of the most stunning private collections of French cars, along with art deco furniture and art, opened to the public in Oxnard, California, in 2010. “So much of what Peter did was designed to share his curiosity, interests, and good fortune with others. Peter possessed an exceptional intellect, an infectious sense of humor, a passion for people, for innovation, for cars, and for beauty,” said Andrew Reilly, the former deputy director and chief curator of the Mullin Automotive Museum.

Kahn Media / Drew Phillips Photography

As a result, the Mullin Automotive Museum has become home to one-of-a-kind exhibits that tell a story. Like the “Lady of the Lake,” a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster rescued from the depths of Italy’s Lake Maggiore after being submerged for more than 70 years. Or a collection of artwork, furniture, musical instruments, and other items designed and created by Carlo Bugatti that accent the largest private collection of Ettore and Jean Bugatti automobiles in the world. The museum is anchored by the cars but serves as a thorough, engaging monument to the design period that Mullin held so dear.

“Peter’s great role was intellectual in the sense that he pulled together this collection of cars with French coach work that would be as close to definitive, I think, as could practicably be done in this world,” said Miles Collier, founder of Florida’s non-profit Revs Institute. “What Peter did is a significant intellectual accomplishment because when we look to have opinions about French coach builders, the ability to synoptically view them is most easily achieved within his collection.”

With the restoration of Delahayes, Bugattis, Voisins, and others, Mullin became deeply involved in the concours and collector community. “Peter began to collect and share cars at the Pebble Beach Concours in 1984, just a year prior to the time I began to play a role in organizing that event,” said Sandra Button, chairperson of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. “In many ways, we grew into the car world together. Our paths often crossed or ran parallel to each other, and we compared thoughts. Over time, Peter and Merle, Martin [Button, her husband] and I became great friends.

Peter was a visionary—with the imagination needed to foresee a great future, the wisdom to plan for it, the skills and resources to begin to build it, and the connections and leadership to draw others into his plans. He was a grand thinker. He also did all he could to bring great cars and car people together.”

Collier shared similar sentiment. “He represents the complete collector—when you think about it as somebody with broad knowledge, somebody with perfect taste, somebody with great depth of focus in a particular area. Someone who is deliberate in the way they collect, and somebody who is welcoming of colleagues. There you go. Peter was the complete collector. That’s not such a simple accomplishment, either. He did things with such grace that everybody thought it was easy.” 

Nic Waller, executive director of the Audrain Newport Concours, agreed, and added that Mullin approached everything from the heart: “I was new to the American collecting game in 2006, and Peter Mullin was the first collector I interviewed. He was just so helpful and easy to get along with, and we eventually became firm friends,” said Waller. “Everything he did was in an effort to share the love of cars.”

This extended beyond his museum and the concours lawn. During Mullin’s tenure as chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s board, he spearheaded the Petersen’s renovation effort, helping the museum though a challenging time and yielding a dramatic architectural centerpiece to the Los Angeles car hobby.

Peter’s myriad interests—education, music, viticulture, hydroponics, the list goes on—informed his philanthropy. He served on 22 boards and donated to numerous organizations, including to the ArtCenter College of Design, where the Mullin Transportation Design Center is expected to begin programming next spring.

Mullin’s legacy lives on through his philanthropy, his museum, and the cars that continue to be shown around the world. It also carries on with the Mullin Oxfordshire, a proposed facility in the United Kingdom designed to exhibit collector cars, as well as put them to use on an on-premise circuit.

Mullin Oxfordshire

“Peter was a lifelong learner, innovator, and an inspiration and a mentor to me, and I’ll miss him greatly,” said Reilly. “With Peter’s passing, the collector car world has lost one of its greatest champions.” 

Waller echoed that sentiment: “Though his impact will continue, his passing leaves a huge hole in our community. There will never be another one like him.”

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  • Dave Anderson says:

    The collector car hobby has lost a legend. Those who “raised” the hobby are now of the age that there time is short here with us. The sadness of a legends passing is who will pick up from where they left off…

  • studenorton says:

    Qui moritur maxime nugas vincit. Vale.

  • Lew says:

    Remember Peter Mullin from my visit 12 years ago to his personal Oxnard, California museum and his mostly French automobiles. RIP to a truly remarkable person

  • Michael l Nevius says:

    The Mullin Museum is my very favorite museum of any kind. after visiting it, i myself became infected with love of French cars.

  • Paul Ipolito says:

    My family visited the Mullin Museum many years ago. What a wonderful place.

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