Cities often tour their world-class amenities, and Philadelphia certainly has its share. But beyond important cultural treasures, such as Independence Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, another world-caliber attraction is hiding in plain sight near the Philadelphia International Airport: the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.
The Simeone, as it’s known, is a unique collection of more than 75 race cars of historical significance that has earned accolades from around the globe. Founded in 2008 by Fred Simeone, a retired Philadelphia neurosurgeon, the museum has twice been honored (in 2011 and 2017) as Museum of the Year by Octane magazine, the renowned British automotive journal.
“This isn’t just a collection of cars, but a collection of stories,” says Simeone, who has spent more than a half-century collecting cars. In 2019, Simeone was ranked the number-one classic car collector in the world in The Key, an annual list compiled by the prestigious Classic Car Trust, based on the quality of his car collection, the exposure of the cars to the public and the museum’s educational mission.
Simeone 1909 American Underslung Traveler Low center of gravity and 60 hp made it a real racer - Photo by Michael Milne
Winning Cars, Welcoming Atmosphere
The collection is housed in a former engine remanufacturing facility in southwest Philadelphia, tucked behind car dealerships and auto-body shops. The nondescript location belies the interior, where cars are set out in realistic dioramic tableaux representing the iconic circuits they raced, including Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, Watkins Glen International in upstate New York and Sicily’s now-closed Targa Florio. Museum visitors can practically smell the exhaust and hear the rumble of the revving engines as they are transported back to a time when drivers raced in open cockpit cars wearing goggles and leather helmets to protect them from muddy tracks.
The quality of racing sports cars at the Simeone is unmatched. The most prominent in the collection, the 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe CSX 2287, the prototype racing coupe, is among the most important cars ever created by automotive legend Carroll Shelby. It achieved 23 land speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, and it was the first car named to the National Historic Vehicle Register by the U.S.-based Historic Vehicle Association.
Simeone’s favorite is the flame-red 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM Spyder. It occupies a place of honor on a spinning turntable: its sinewy curves are pure rolling sculpture, encasing a powerplant that won the prestigious 1938 Mille Miglia (1,000 miles) open-road endurance race in northern Italy. A close second in Simeone’s heart is the 1952 Cunningham C-4R Roadster that won its class at Le Mans in 1954, the first American-manufactured car to do so.
The 1907 Renault Racing Roadster is one that automotive pioneer William K. Vanderbilt II used in races on public roads on New York’s Long Island. Other owners of this model included New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, evidence of the prestige of this early French car.
Simeone Dr. Fred Simeone with one of his favorite cars, a 1952 Cunningham C-4R Roadster - Photo by Michael Milne
Exclusive Cars, Accessible to All
Unlike at many museums where the collections are lined up behind velvet ropes, the classic cars at The Simeone are run regularly for the public to see. During twice-a-month themed Demo Days held throughout most of the year, cars are culled from the collection and raced around the back lot of the museum before hundreds of car buffs.
“It’s important for people to see, hear and even smell these remarkable machines,” says Simeone.
On a recent Demo Day titled Ciao Philadelphia: Maserati vs. Ferrari, visitors witnessed a 1954 Ferrari 375MM Pinin Farina Spider, a 1956 Maserati 300S and a 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa facing off against each other.
Simeone A row of European racers is led by a 1963 Ferrari 250P that won the 1963 Le Mans - Photo by Michael Milne
Driving Interest, Promoting Education
The museum’s research library is among the world’s largest automotive-themed libraries. It includes more than a century’s worth of periodicals, photographs and sales literature for perusal (by prior request) by historians and car restorers.
In an era of Uber and self-driving cars, Simeone also wants to generate interest among the next generation of potential car fans. “Our long-term plan is to keep developing the museum’s theme of ‘The Spirit of Competition’ and continue our new programs that are geared toward the education of youngsters,” he says.
In 2018, the museum ran its first STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) summer camps for children ages 6 to 15. One activity had campers designing and building cars out of wooden blocks and then testing their aerodynamics in a smoke chamber wind tunnel.
Simeone has created a museum in Philadelphia that will continue to inspire and benefit the next generation of automotive enthusiasts. That’s quite a world-class legacy.