“Competition is indispensable to progress.” The quote by John Stuart Mill dominates the foyer of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, preparing visitors for their journey through street racing history.
Located approximately two miles from the Philadelphia International Airport, The Simeone Museum is a one-of-a-kind collection of retired racecars and antique sports cars, acquired and maintained by retired neurosurgeon Fred Simeone. The cars themselves are well worth the trip–some in the collection are the only model in the world–but it is Simeone’s unique philosophy, and the experience he aims to create, that make the museum truly special.
“A museum is a success if someone comes out with more than they came in with,” Simeone remarked. “It could be an experience, but it should be a story.” This ideal explains the unique way the cars are displayed. As visitors walk through the warehouse, either on a guided tour or a personal audio tour, they are transported to racing’s past.
Each car is displayed in a diorama that represents the race it participated in, from the famous Mille Miglia in Italy to the Le Mans in France, a 24-hour endurance race which Simeone calls “the Olympics of street racing.” Harry Hurst, director of communications for the museum, shares Simeone’s vision. “The cars are grouped to tell a story, that competition improves the breed. As you go through, you see what racing has achieved,” he said. The museum hosts “Demonstration Days” once a month, when the cars are taken out to a closed track and driven. “No other museum in the world has a regular schedule where they take the cars out and drive them,” Hurst said. The schedule for the Demonstration Days can be found on the museum’s website.
Perhaps it is this spirit of competition that gives the Simeone Museum its success, and the respect of the automotive community.
In November of 2011, the museum was awarded Museum of the Year by the International Historic Motoring Foundation, only three years after its opening in 2008. Simeone was both humbled and honored by the recognition. “It takes a long time for people to recognize you,” he said. “For a new museum to be recognized by the judges, in view of the competition, was very significant. It made it the real thing.”
Also unique to the Simeone is its philosophy on restoration and preservation. As someone who believes that cars should be smelled and heard, and not just seen, Simeone also believes that the cars hold too much historical significance to allow restoration. “If we have a good original, we clean it up and make it safe to drive, but we don’t make it perfect,” Simeone said.
Simeone adopted his philosophy on antique cars from his father, who was also a collector. He bought Simeone his first car, a 1949 Alfa Romeo, in 1952. “He made the information accessible and made me realize what was good and attractive in automobiles,” Simeone said.
Before collecting cars, Simeone collected automotive literature. He worked as an agent for the Free Library of Philadelphia and gathered two copies of each automotive brochure, one for the library and one for himself. The fragile collection, which has been in boxes in a building in Center City, soon will be preserved in the new library being built at the Simeone. The collection is not open to the public, though, because the materials are so delicate, but anyone desiring information may contact the museum for scanned copies and prints.
Simeone hopes that the addition of the library will make the museum a reference point for automotive enthusiasts. However, the museum, which is run by volunteers and donations, currently lacks support. The Simeone Foundation, a charitable foundation started by Dr. Simeone, keeps the museum alive. Information about how to donate can be found on the website.
Walking through the Simeone Museum is like walking through a small slice of history, and the effect is similar to that of an art museum. Hurst believes the museum is a Philadelphia must-see for car experts and non-enthusiasts alike: “These are the Mona Lisa of cars. They are incredibly rare, and their form is so beautiful that you don’t have to be a car enthusiast to appreciate what Dr. Simeone has done.”