People don’t race automobiles like they used to.
Nowadays, they drive computer-designed, cookie cutter-styled flying billboards around sanitized, if not boringly circular courses. In the old days, they coaxed and caressed handcrafted works of art along winding open roads across the countryside.
Retired neurosurgeon and Kensington native Fred Simeone longs for the golden era of motor racing, but he needn’t want for many of the finest examples of automotive functionality and beauty ever envisioned by the human mind.
He already has dozens of them. And for the last three years, he’s offered them for public display by transforming an otherwise nondescript warehouse near the Philadelphia International Airport into the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.
In November, the largely undiscovered gem on Norwitch Drive near South 70th Street earned worldwide recognition as Museum of the Year at the inaugural International Historic Motoring Awards in London. The museum showcases more than 60 rare and significant racing sports cars all acquired by Simeone, 75, during his five decades as one of the nation’s foremost neurosurgeons and most visionary racecar collectors.
“The cars have everything,” Simeone said during a recent tour of his museum. “They look good; they feel good; and they sound good. They have aesthetic and technical innovation. And I think most people will agree that the most transforming invention of the industrial age was the automobile.”
THE STANDARD BEARER
That is not to say Henry Ford’s old Model A will be found at the Simeone Museum. On the contrary, the types of cars that piqued the founder’s interest as a teenager and that continue to do so today are those that set the standards of design, engineering and performance.
The vehicles, ranging in model years from 1909 to 1975, are all considered sports cars, meaning that they have fenders and lights and could’ve been driven on public roads in their day. But they’re also race cars, road-course racers in fact, best suited for elite international venues and events like France’s Le Mans, Italy’s Mille Miglia or America’s Sebring.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Simeone wanted only the best of the best for the collection.
“[The cars] had to be winners in their genres at major races,” he said.
As one might expect with those requirements, most of the legendary manufacturer names in road racing are represented in the museum’s individually stylized exhibits. Italy’s Ferrari and Alfa Romeo are showcased, as are Germany’s Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche; England’s Aston Martin, Austin-Healey and Jaguar; and France’s Bugatti and Peugeot.
Even America’s sporadic but influential contributions to this traditionally European activity have taken their place among the collection, including Carroll Shelby’s prototype 1964 Cobra Daytona Coupe — which Beatles producer Phil Spector once owned and famously drove on the streets of Los Angeles — as well as two variations of the Ford GT40s that dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the late 1960s.
There’s also a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, one of just five made, that its engineers secretly rescued from the scrap heap and sold to Roger Penske after executives at General Motors pulled the plug on the Corvette development department’s unapproved racing program.
In all, the collection is valued at more than $200 million, although Simeone prefers to consider the vehicles priceless within the context of motor racing history. His foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) charity, owns the titles.
The cars hold a deep personal significance for Simeone, too. Collecting is a passion he shared with his own father, Dr. Anthony Simeone, a longtime family practitioner at Frankford and Allegheny avenues.
“I inherited the interest and the passion and the understanding,” said Simeone, who now resides in Chestnut Hill.
When the younger Simeone was a teenager, his father gave him his first sports car, a 1949 Alfa Romeo, despite concerns for the son’s driving style and personal safety. Conveniently for the elder Simeone, the car spent more time in the shop than in service.
“He gave me a car that took me two years to get on the road,” Fred Simeone recalled.
For years, Anthony Simeone stored his own modest collection in a garage on Clearfield Street. Four of those vehicles are now in the museum.
Meanwhile, the museum also houses what is widely considered the world’s most complete collection of racing Alfa Romeos. Simeone’s personal favorite is the 1938 Alfa that claimed that year’s Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race from Brescia to Rome and back.
In developing the museum’s displays, Simeone took great pains in presenting the unique stories of each vehicle and framing them with intricate and colorful dioramas of the venues in which they competed, such as Utah’s Bonneville Salts Flats, New York’s Watkins Glen, Germany’s Nürburgring and Sicily’s Targa Florio.
“So [visitors] learn about the cars, learn about the tracks and by the end of it they learn about the winners,” Simeone said.
His conscious decision to conclude this historical narrative with the early 1970s was based on his perception of a monumental shift in the development, variety and, frankly, the aesthetic beauty of the vehicle. The latest car on display is a 1975 Alfa.
“They start to get uniform in this era,” Simeone said. “Once you start to have computers designing cars, they all come to the same conclusion.” ••
The Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays. Doors open at 10 a.m. For a full schedule, as well as information about hosting a private event at the museum, visit www.SimeoneMuseum.org or call 215-365-7233.