Philly race car museum is pit stop for auto fans
For more than 20 years, Fred Simeone kept his priceless collection of vintage racing cars in a nondescript garage downtown. He'd give private tours to other car collectors and enthusiasts, but the automotive gems remained largely hidden from public view.
|Mario Andretti and Fred Simeone|
Not any more. Simeone now has a museum for his more than 60 rare racers, which span the 20th century and include models by Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Bugatti, Stutz and Hudson.
The cars run from big, boxy antiques to sexy, streamlined sportsters and include winners of prestigious races at Nurburgring, Le Mans and Sebring.
"We have a few real Mona Lisas in here," Simeone said.
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Tucked away in a former engine manufacturing plant in an industrial corner of Philadelphia, the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum opened in June and had its formal dedication in November.
The cavernous facility showcases cars in huge dioramas, from a three-dimensional Italian village to a tableau of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Within each setting, the cars are arranged in chronological order to convey what Simeone said is the message behind the metal: how vehicles are improved by the spirit of competition.
An exhibit on Le Mans, a 24-hour endurance race, starts with the 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Le Mans — a high-riding, rectangular vehicle that to the modern eye looks more lumbering than aerodynamic. It ends with the 1970 Porsche 917LH, a low-slung, sleek and curvy racer with a bubble-like cockpit.
"It's designed to show how we are all compelled to compete and, in the process of competing, we evolve," Simeone said.
Simeone, 72, got the car collecting bug from his dad. It has taken him to places like Argentina, where in the 1970s he tracked down a 1937 Alfa Romeo 2900A that had placed second in the 1937 Mille Miglia, an Italian road race. It was sitting in a shed owned by the son of a man who had raced it in the 1950s.
Simeone's collection had been garaged in the residential Washington Square West section of the city since 1982. It was publicized in car club journals, but Simeone had limited spare time to give private tours because of his job as chief of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital. He retired in April.
Simeone had always planned on a public display when he had the time and when he felt the collection was "complete." Now, he compares his museum with the nearby Barnes Foundation in that both represent the singular vision of a collector.
Albert Barnes was an eccentric pharmaceutical magnate who collected a trove of work by artists including Matisse, Renoir and Cezanne that is now worth billions. He hung the paintings in an unorthodox way — close together and grouped with objects like metal hinges and wrought ironwork to illustrate common aesthetic themes.
Similarly, Simeone tells the story of auto racing his way, from the 1909 American Underslung to the 2002 NASCAR Dyno Mule. He groups most cars by race course and year to show the evolution of the winning vehicle. He designed the dioramas himself.
And, like Barnes, who bought art when it was affordable, Simeone said his collection was only possible because he started early.
Buying these cars in today's market "would be totally out of my league," Simeone said. "But if you purchased them 30 years ago, it was doable."
Kirk F. White, a race car enthusiast and former dealer, said Simeone's collection is special because of its integrity.
"He has impeccable taste and he will only buy the very best cars with the purist pedigrees," said White, who has known Simeone for about 40 years. "He really, by and large, likes them to be original, just the way they ran in the day."
Buz McKim, the historian at the NASCAR Hall of Fame under construction in Charlotte, N.C., has not seen Simeone's cars in person but was impressed by what he saw on the museum's Web site. He said it's not hard to understand the attraction of such a collection.
"Everybody, way down deep inside — whether they want to admit it or not — thinks that they can drive race cars," McKim said.
At the museum's dedication a few weeks ago, Simeone gave retired auto racing champion Mario Andretti a guided tour before honoring him with the first "Spirit of Competition" award.
The tour included a sporty, bright red 1975 Alfa Romeo 33-TT-12 parked next to a black 1926 Bugatti Type 35, which comparatively looks like a glorified buggy. Both had raced in the Targa Florio, a course through the hills of Sicily.
When asked if he had any favorites, Andretti noted the Alfa Romeo, which he had once driven to victory in the Monza race. But then he reconsidered.
|The Alfa Romeo Mario Andretti once drove to victory at Monza|
"Any of the cars that I ever won with are my favorite," Andretti said.
If You Go ...
SIMEONE FOUNDATION AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM: 6825-31 Norwitch Drive, Philadelphia; http://www.simeonemuseum.org or 215-365-7233. Adults, $12; seniors, $10; students, $8; children 8 and under, free. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; weekends, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.