Enduring Vision: Simeone Foundation Museum
The Simeone Foundation Museum in Philadelphia is what happens when you mix one man’s knowledge with a passion for sports racers.
Dr. Frederick A. Simeone doesn’t just love sports cars. He venerates them. The Philadelphia neurosurgeon has not only assembled one of the finest collections of historically significant sports racing cars in the world, but he has recreated their victorious venues – with replications of the Le Mans pit row, the Mille Miglia course through Brescia, and parts of Nürburgring, Watkins Glen and Targa Florio, among others – within the confines of the Simeone Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.
Born, raised and educated in Philadelphia, Simeone has been a researcher, educator and leading neurosurgeon for more than 40 years. However, he’s collected automobiles and their ephemera even longer.
Simeone inherited his interest in both medicine and cars from his general practitioner father. “By the time I was 10, he and I were chasing cars together,” he recalls.
When he wasn’t looking in garages and barns with his father, Simeone was gathering every bit of auto literature he could find. Over the years, he’s amassed a huge library of sales literature, ads, photographs and books that ranks among the finest private collection – and is every bit equal to his automobile collection.
In the 1960s, when he was launching his career at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Simeone couldn’t devote as much time to his avocation as he would have liked. But he continuously worked on his library, made connections and learned about all kinds of wonderful cars. The collection truly gathered steam in 1969 after he returned to his native Philadelphia.
Being a single parent and the head of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital with a full surgical schedule kept Simeone busy, yet he gradually found time to build his nascent collection by learning everything he could about the cars he was pursuing and buying at the right time.
Many collections often appear random and haphazard. Not Simeone’s. Since the beginning, his primary theme has been racing sports cars from 1909 to the 1970s. Why “sports cars?” He believes that high-powered sports racing cars propelled the evolution of the automobile – sports racers had to be fast and strong enough to survive as much as 24 hours of abuse during a race. The most evolved of their era were the cars that won major events like Le Mans, Sebring and Spa. “My goal is to tell a story about how the automobile changed society,” he explains. “But to tell the whole story of the automobile is huge. I think you can only tell one story without overloading the average visitor. We are telling a very specific story, which is how competition leads to evolution. And that evolution – spurred by the need to win – resulted in the many truly fine examples of sports cars and sports racers.”
While endurance racing boasts many different classes, Simeone’s interest is in the cars that contested for the overall wins. “It’s why I’ve limited my collection to cars two liters or over,” he says. “If they are supercharged, they can be under two liters.” The result is a collection of “big” cars, including a who’s who of overall winners and cars – or similar examples – that finished near the top.
To tell the story of these legendary cars, Simeone wanted to put them in context. That’s why the majority of the cars on display are set in appropriate backdrops. The Shelby Daytona Cobra coupe is properly positioned on the Bonneville Salt Flats where it set 23 records, while the pair of BMW 328s is at home on the Nürburgring course in Germany. And there’s a period setting for the Alfa Romeo and Bugatti that ran in Sicily’s famed Targa Florio road race. Yet another scene depicts the pits at Le Mans, where so very many of Simeone’s cars raced with distinction.
The collection houses some of the most coveted of all European racing cars, with magical names such as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar and Maserati. Yet, Simeone holds a special place for the American cars that vied for the top spots in competition. As a result, Cunningham, du Pont, Ford GT40, Mercer and Stutz are represented as well. There’s even a diorama with the famed Dunlop Bridge that provides the context for the grouping of American cars that competed at Le Mans.
NOT JUST RACERS
At any given time, upwards of 60 to 70 cars fill the cavernous Simeone Museum building, housed in a former engine factory in metropolitan Philadelphia.
Not all the cars are dedicated racers, however. Many of them are production cars with sporting looks or performance. The American sports cars include early machines, such as an American Underslung, Stutz Bearcat and Mercer 35J Raceabout, as well as later vehicles, such as a trio of Auburn speedsters and a big block Corvette.
Many of these are located in the “Sporty Car Annex,” which also houses European road cars, including the very first of Adrian Squire’s magnificent supercharged sports cars, the 1949 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 that was Simeone’s first car and a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe once owned by Simeone’s father. There’s also a small chronological selection of NASCAR racers, including a famous Hudson Hornet and the ex-David Pearson 1986 Buick.
DIRECTIVES FROM THE DIRECTOR
Simeone knows he’s very fortunate to have the kind of collection that’s beyond the dreams of virtually all collectors. But it certainly didn’t come together quickly, easily or recently. It took years of research and networking to find out about the cars and to build relationships with owners, historians and other who could help him in his quest.
Most were acquired long before they had multimillion-dollar price tags. Others were available at reasonable prices because only Simeone truly understood their value. Although he admits to having a successful practice, there is no way he could have collected the racers on display had he not paid “used car” prices for some before their true worth was known. To Simeone, the story behind the car is just as important as the car itself. “Sometimes, the hunt for a given car is the best part,” he says. And often the search for a car involves his library.
After reading an article in a 1950 copy of Road & Track, Simeone was intrigued by the story of an ex-Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo that was raced at La Plata in Argentina. Continuing his research, he was able to track down the family of the owner of what he asserts is “the only 8C 2900A to retain its original engine and body.” In this case it was a factory rebody completed following its second-place finish in the 1937 Mille Miglia. “Because the car might be considered a national treasure, we had to take it apart to get it into America,” he says. “It was all very complicated, but it turned out OK. That was the great hunt.”
Sometimes it’s taken years to find a car on his list. Other times, he’ll have a car for years before its true history is revealed.
Until recently, the Duesenberg open-wheel race car (the only Grand Prix car in the collection) that Simeone’s father acquired in the 1950s was believed to be a “junk formula” Indy car. Only in the last decade – through consultations with Duesenberg historians Randy Ema, Joseph Freeman and Fred Roe – did he discover that the car was really one of the factory Duesenberg race cars that won the French Grand Prix in 1921.
Now reunited with a correct engine and tail, it sits at the end of the large diorama that recalls the row of pits at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Populated by a Delahaye 135 racer, a two-liter Aston Martin LM, an MG K3, several racing Ferraris, a Maserati 300S and a fearsome 917 Porsche, the lineup represents the fastest and most reliable machines of their period. It’s no wonder that Simeone’s Le Mans cars make up the largest single category of the museum, and his five eight-cylinder Alfas the largest single make.
THE CROWN JEWELS
The cars are magical and their histories storied, but still the museum saves its very best for last. Sitting in front of a checkered “Winner’s Circle” backdrop are the jewels of the collection, cars that won outright in the most important races anywhere.
The sleek, pale green Aston Martin DBR1 raced at Sebring, Le Mans and other major endurance races in 1958, but it won at Nürburgring driven by Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham. Next to it is the brutal-looking white and blue Cunningham C4R that raced at Le Mans and finished first at Sebring in 1953 driven by John Fitch and Phil Walters. At the far end is the factory Mercedes-Benz S-Type that won the first German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1927. Next to the big Mercedes is the only surviving Bugatti to ever finish first at Le Mans – the 1937 Bugatti Type 57G Tank that won every race it ever contested. However, the true prize of the collection sits higher on a turntable: the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B with which Clemente Biondetti won the 1938 Mille Miglia.
There are still a few cars that Simeone would like to add to the museum, including a Mercedes-Benz SSK with racing history, a racing Ferrari 166 or 212 Barchetta, and a Ferrari 250 LM. However, with a new museum to fund and the need to create a strong donor community, it looks like Dr. Simeone’s wish list will remain just that for now as he focuses on the museum’s future. Plans include increasing the endowment (it’s a fully approved charity), installing a library that’s accessible to researchers, increasing tours and hosting special events.
Before long, Simeone also hopes to add automobile simulators through which students can study traffic accident avoidance. He may eventually build a driving instruction course on three acres outside the museum where he currently exercises the cars in his collection. So if you visit the museum and hear the scream of a supercharged engine, there’s a chance that the good doctor or one of his guests is out back playing with an old Alfa or the Blower Bentley. Consider it an appropriate sound effect for one of the most amazing personal collections of race cars ever assembled.
For more information about visiting the Simeone Foundation Museum or making a donation, go to simeonemuseum.org.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.