Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest attractions. Located right next to downtown San Diego and the airport, Balboa Park is best known for the San Diego Zoo. However, it is also home to many great museums. If you are into cars or motorcycles one place you definitely want to visit is the San Diego Automotive Museum.
The San Diego Automotive Museum is located in a corner of Balboa Park next to the San Diego Air and Space Museum. The building was built for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. The current museum opened in 1988.
The San Diego Automotive Museum is fairly small and can be seen in about an hour. However, if you are into cars and motorcycles you will want to come back on a regular basis. The vehicles in the museum rotate on a frequent basis so you always are guaranteed to something new.
This guide was originally done after several visits, the latest in April 2019. We will try and go back and update this article as new exhibits rotate in and out.
Entry to the San Diego Automotive Museum is $12 for adults 16 and over. Youth 6 to 15 are $6. Seniors and students are $8 On the 4th Tuesday of every month (except December), San Diego County residents get in free to both the San Diego Automotive Museum and the next door Air and Space Museum.
There are, of course, many discount offers. You can often find coupons to the museum via sites like the San Diegan or on Groupon.
If you are in San Diego for 3 or more days you may want to consider a Go San Diego Card which includes both the San Diego Automotive Museum and the San Diego Air and Space Musuem (as well as the other Balboa Park museums). The Go San Diego Card allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. This is not a cheap option and we generally recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12.
A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes include admission to the very big attractions like SeaWorld and Legoland. If you do get a Go San Diego Card it is very possible to do the San Diego Zoo and several Balboa Park museums in a single day.
The Go San Diego Card option we recommend to visitors just in town for a day or two is the build your own pass. With the build your own pass you add 2 or more attractions to the pass and save 20% off the gate price for each attraction.
If you are a resident or frequent visitor to San Diego, you might consider a membership option. Annual membership to the San Diego Automotive Museum is $40 for an individual (including one guest pass), $60 for a family of 2 adults and children under 18. This gets you free admission into member only events, use of the museum library, and a subscription to Auto Week magazine. There is also a 10% discount gift shop.
As our children have started to enter their tween and teenage years we have upgraded to the Balboa Explorer Park Pass. At $229 a year for 2 adults and 4 children this is much more expensive than an annual pass to a single museum. However, it gets you into 16 Balboa Park museums. You should note the Balboa Park Explorer Pass does not include the special exhibits or discounts of membership just to the San Diego Automotive Museum.
Visitors to San Diego can look into getting a 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums
The exhibits at San Diego Automotive Museum are constantly changing. We will try and update this guide to reflect that reality.
San Diego Automotive Museum also has a large permanent collection of motorcycles from all over the world. This collection is located along the back wall of the museum. A big focus is on how motorcycles have evolved over the years. There are also regular rotating exhibits of special motorcycles.
Harley Davidson Collection
In the motorcycle collection, there is a special section that shows the history of Harley Davidson. This exhibit traces the history of Harley Davidson back to its origins in 1903.
Indian Motorcycles is even older than Harley Davidson, going back to 1901. In the first half of the 20th century, the two companies were major competitors. The original company went bankrupt in the 1950s, but the brand still exists. In recent years, Indian Motorcycles has been making a comeback. See this Popular Mechanics article.
Louie Mattar’s Fabulous Car
Louie Mattar’s 1947 car is right in the center of the San Diego Automotive Museum and is one of the highlights. Mattar was a San Diego mechanic who built a very unique vehicle.
The car featured a shower, washing machine, kitchen sink, and toilet. In 1952, Mattar took the car from San Diego to New York and back in a non-stop trip. They refueled on the go. Later he took the car on a trip from Mexico City to Alaska. Check out this article in Time magazine.
The Plank Road was built in the California desert in 1915. As the name implies, it was a road made of wooden planks. It was located in the sand dunes of Imperial County, east of San Diego. The goal was to connect San Diego to Arizona. The Plank Road was a method used to cross 8-miles of shifting sand.
The exhibit at the San Diego Automotive Museum tells the history of the Plank Road and includes portions of the original. You can check out this article at the Dangerous Roads website to see why this road only lasted 12-years. However, there are some remnants in the desert.
Icons: Cars That Drove Our Imagination
This exhibit features cars that hold a special place in the public’s heart. This includes Fiat 500, Volkswagon, Corvette, Mustang, GTO and others.
There are also vehicles that were pop culture icons. This includes the Harley Davidson motorcycle from Easy Rider, Steve McQueen’s 1968 Mustang from Bullitt and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.
Officially this exhibit ends June 2, 2019, but it is likely many of the vehicles will remain on display at the San Diego Automotive Museum.
Other Exhibits and Activites
The corner of the San Diego Automotive Museum has a kids play area. This includes a race care kids can climb in. Right next to the play area is the motorcycle used by Fonzie in the 1970s show Happy Days.
The DeLorean from Back to the Future and Evil Knevil’s motorcycle is usually on display, but the location may rotate depending on special exhibits.
Like many of the museums in Balboa Park there is a research library at the San Diego Automotive Museum. The library can be a big help for car enthusiasts. They will have many old manuals to help repair vintage vehicles. Their collection of auto magazines goes back to 1901.
The museum has a storage facility in National City. On occasion, they will host garage sales where you can find vintage parts and tools.
For kids that are into cars, the San Diego Automotive Museum has summer camps. Of course, there are also educational programs for school field trips.