Dr. Frederick Simeone would never place himself on a par with Dr. Albert C. Barnes, but he does feel that his collection of 65 vintage racecars embodies the same spirit as Barnes’s art museum. “My collection may be worth millions, but his was worth billions, so there is really not that kind of comparison,” Simeone says. “But my point, as his was, is that cars are not always just hobby things. They are representative of certain times and places in history.”
From automobiles that took part in some of the first international road races in the early 20th century to competitors from the 1970s, the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum boasts a well thought out and historically significant array of sports cars. Now in its 17th year and housed in a 100,000-square-foot former engine remanufacturing plant not far from Philadelphia International Airport, this hidden gem was named museum of the year in 2011 by the prestigious International Historic Motoring Awards.
Simeone, a retired neurosurgeon, started thinking about cars as historical artifacts after making house calls around Kensington with his father, a general practitioner. “He was a $3-a-visit guy in a bad part of town, which Kensington was then,” Simeone says. “We would go to junkyards together and then read about what made each car we saw important. The car, we felt, was the most transforming invention of the industrial age.”
He is passionate about the idea that industrial and craft items should be viewed in their historical contexts, and he has assembled his collection with that in mind. The vehicles are displayed in dioramas, like those at a natural history museum, and on Demonstration Days, Simeone and his curators drive the cars on a three-acre lot behind the most popular Demo Day, on November 30, is People’s Choice Day, when the public gets to choose which will be driven. “That is part of the point of the museum,” he says, “to be interactive, to have visitors learn more about the cars they like.”
The event caps off an already busy fall for Simeone. On October 7 the British auction house Bonhams will conduct a car auction at the museum, and on October 26 he will show off four stock vehicles dating back to the 1930s that set land speed records or are identical to those that did. And in November, the museum will present its fifth annual Spirit of Competition Award. “I wanted this award to go to someone who embodies the competitive spirit that makes auto racing what it is,” Simeone says. “Not just pretty cars going around a track.” The first winner was Mario Andretti, certainly the epitome of that spirit in the latter half of the 20th century and a former resident of Nazareth, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia.
What’s important to Simeone is that people come to the museum to understand the historical meaning of each auto—its “material truth” or “luminosity.” He hesitates to define what he means by those terms but offers an analogy: “Say I find the gun John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln, and I make an exact copy of it, down to every detail. I put that in your left hand. Then I get the gun that Booth actually used and put it in your right hand. What is the difference? How do you feel about each?” That psychological difference is what makes an original important—whether a gun, a piece of furniture, or a racecar. Further, he says, none of the vehicles in his collection have had parts replaced. The point is that these works of art, as he deems them, are both originals and emblematic of their time periods.
The museum also has a library of advertisements for special cars, brochures that Simeone began collecting when he was 14 and that date back to 1892. “Cars have been luxury items, and some of these are really special,” he says, noting that several brochures have covers embossed with gold and illustrations by prominent lithographers. “Cars are emotional items and, I feel, really worth studying as history.” 6825 Norwitch Drive, 215-365-7233