Leno: Car collector Dr. Fred Simeone saw himself as history’s caretaker

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The collector world lost one of the greats this past June when Dr. Frederick Simeone passed away at age 86. Fred and I were friends, and if he was not the world’s greatest car collector, he certainly was an intellectual, a historian, an avid collector, and an actual brain surgeon. He was the guy the government sent in if some world leader needed a brain operation. He was modest and quiet about it; he would say that he was going off to the Middle East or somewhere for a few days for work, and then you would read in the paper that some prince or king was recovering from surgery, and it was probably Fred.

I met him back in the mid-1980s after I conned my wife into coming with me to Pennsylvania to tour Amish country and see all the old barns and houses when, actually, we were going there to visit a motorcycle guy who had parts for my MV Agusta 750 Sport America. OK, who hasn’t pulled that one at least once? Through that fellow, I met another guy selling a Duesenberg in Philadelphia, and that’s how I came to meet a bunch of car people there, including Dr. Simeone.

Immediately, we started talking cars. He would sort of quiz you, and he seemed impressed that I knew something about the history of these old cars. I happened to mention that one of my favorites is the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, and he said, “Oh, I got two of them. You want to go for a drive?”

dr fred simeone alfa romeo aboard ferry
Instagram/simeonemuseum

Yeah, I do! This was right in downtown Philadelphia where the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum is today, and the 8C was just a car that he drove. They were fairly inexpensive then as compared to now, but still pretty special. We went for burgers and drove in traffic and had a great time. And that’s how we got to be friends. He was this very unassuming fellow, not a fancy dresser although I’m sure he was quite wealthy. He reminded me of the actor Peter Falk, and when I saw him at ritzy parties at Pebble Beach, he looked like Columbo—just sort of a regular guy with a slightly rumpled jacket who looked like he didn’t belong among all the glittering socialites but was probably the smartest guy in the room.

His museum has astounding stuff: Prewar Le Mans winners, Mille Miglia contenders, Bonneville Salt Flats racers, early NASCAR runners, Ford GT40s, Jaguar C- and D-Types, Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas. It’s an unbelievable collection, and every car has a fascinating history. Some of the documents there are as rare as the cars. I remember he handed me a stack of newspapers from 1774. “Today, George Washington said …” I mean, to see George Washington written about as if he’s a current politician was incredible.

Fred Simeone as a young man Cord
Dr. Anthony Simeone and Fred Simeone with a 1937 Cord. Courtesy Simeone Foundation

Fred’s father was a collector, too, so their lineage goes way back to almost the beginning of car collecting. I loved talking to Fred about the time before these cars were seriously valuable. It reminded me of being a kid and seeing that movie Spinout in 1966 in which Elvis races a 427 Cobra and drives a Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton as his tow car, with three whitewall tires and a blackwall. It was just some old car back then.

I learned quite a bit from Dr. Simeone. Don’t forget, back in the 1980s, people were still sawing the roofs off Ferraris and buying prewar Bentleys to cut the bodies up and make Le Mans replicas. Fred and his dad were some of the first guys who saw value in those cars as they were and collected them to preserve them. And the older I get, the more I realize that we’re all just caretakers of these things, merely holding on to them for the next generation. Fred knew that.

So if you’re in the Philly area, or even if you aren’t but want a road trip, you really should stop at the Simeone Museum, which has regular hours. They also have days every month when they take the cars out back to an area where they can be driven, so everyone can see and hear them in motion. Sadly, Fred won’t be there, but his marvelous legacy remains for all to experience.

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This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

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