Hill physician prescribes speed for car buffs
by Lon Mancinelli
The spirit of competition is the theme of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, located along the industrial corridor behind the Phila. International Airport at 6825-31 Norwitch Drive in a former engine-remanufacturing plant. It was founded in 2008 by former chairman of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital and 75-year-old Chestnut Hill resident, Dr. Fred Simeone.
The museum was named the 2011 Museum of the Year by the International Historic Motoring Awards at a November black tie ceremony in London, competing against major racing car museums in Europe. The panel featured judges Jay Leno, a racing sports cars enthusiast, vintage car racer and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Pebble Beach chief judge Ed Gilbertson, five times Le Mans winner Derek Bell and Lady Susie Moss, wife of racing icon Sir Stirling Moss, among others.
A walk through the museum is like a walk through a narrative of the evolution of engineering in the 20th century. There is the 1909 American Underslung, originally raced from Philadelphia to Chicago. The chassis was slung under the front axles, unique for its time. But for ground clearance, the car rode on 40-inch wheels. Then there’s the 1966 Ford GT40 MKII that stands 40 inches tall from ground to roof, a car identical to the one that won Le Mans that year.
“If you think about our sensations,” said Simeone, “speed is the one of the few new sensations the common man can enjoy.”
The races provide opportunities for manufacturers to display their superiority over other car makers. Each year, builders vie to create the perfect machine. Handling and speed are important because cars make left- and right-hand turns during the races, as opposed to NASCAR’s circular tracks. After World War I, designers learned the importance of streamlining from fighter planes, and a sleeker more aerodynamic front of the car evolved. Wheels got smaller but fatter. In 1953, engineers changed from drum brakes to disc brakes, a method they learned from WWII planes, and new speeds and handling capabilities transformed the possibilities and look of the modern machine.
Dr. Simeone’s collection of more than 60 racing cars spans seven decades. They are the actual racing cars, not replicas. Aside from the cars in its “Tribute to NASCAR” room, the museum’s youngest car is the 1975 Alfa Romeo 33-TT-12. “It was around the late 1970s that companies started to build cars specifically for races that could not be bought (by the everyday consumer),” said Harry Hurst of the Foundation.
Simeone’s collection is a tribute to cars that could have been bought by consumers at the time, and it thus ends in the 1970s. The museum boasts the nation’s largest collection of Alfa Romeos, the premier racing sport car in the 1930s.
People come from all over the world to see the cars, Hurst said. They come because the races where these cars come from — Le Mans, Mille Miglia, Sebring, etc. — are more of a cultural phenomenon in Europe than in the U.S. Le Mans, held each year since 1923, is a 24-hour jaunt through the countryside of France, and is the world’s oldest sports car endurance race. It routinely draws up to 400,000 people.
Visitors come to the museum to see the first of the six 1964 Cobra Daytona Coupes ever built. The 1937 Supercharged Cord. The 1926 Bugatti Type 35. The 1953 Jaguar C-Type. Or, maybe it is to see the 1956 Maserati 300S or the 1958 Aston Martin DBR1.
Simeone likens himself to Albert Barnes, the legendary Philadelphian whose art collection includes works by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso. Like Barnes, Simeone was raised in Kensington, and he began collecting racing cars before they were cultural icons.
It’s something he started doing with his father, Dr. Anthony Simeone, whose first racing car purchase was a 1949 Alfa Romeo. Four of the cars at the museum were acquired by Fred’s father. And like his father, a physician, Simeone entered the medical field and became a neurosurgeon. He went to Thomas Edison High School, studied at Temple, went to its medical school and then to the Mayo Clinic for his residency, which he completed in 1963.
He worked at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine for two years before moving to Harvard as a faculty member from 1966 to 1969. In 1969, he came back to Pennsylvania Hospital to serve as chairman of neurosurgery of the hospital until he retired in 2008. He moved to Chestnut Hill in 1996.
In 2008, he founded the museum and moved his collection from a two-car garage off South Street to its current three-acre location. In addition to its gallery of cars, the museum can host conferences as large as 1,000 people and seat 500 and is open for field trips, parties and various other events.
Simeone donated all of his cars to the Simeone Foundation, a nonprofit he created with the hope of increasing awareness about the rich history of the cars and to provide a living example of how competition can lead to great advances.
But he worries about whether or not the museum will be able to support itself. “You learn by mistakes,” he said. “Steam racing cars didn’t survive … If you don’t have to win, you’re always going to be the old-fashioned car.” His vision comes from the idea that you can line up a historical progression of cars and see the changes that have developed over just 70 years.
Regarding his decision to become a medical doctor, the car collector explained, “I wanted to make a difference.” He insists that at one point during the 1980s, he was doing more operations than any neurosurgeon in the nation, almost 1,000 a year. Two of his most prominent patients were former mayor Richardson Dilworth and former Phillies centerfielder, Lenny Dykstra. He has penned more than 10 medical books. Last year, he also published a 384-page account of his vision for the museum, “The Spirit of Competition,” which includes plenty of information about sport racing.
All of the cars in the Simeone collection have competed in the world’s premier sport racing events. One of the cars, a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, was raced by Newtown Square’s Roger Penske, owner of one of the all-time wining car racing teams.
Dr. Simeone is no longer married, and his daughter, who earned her graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania in environmental science, now directs the energy center of a Pennsylvania-based environmental nonprofit. For more information about the museum, visit www.simeonemuseum.org or call 215-365-7233. “The Spirit of Competition.” is available online through Amazon.com