Daniel Rubin: Philadelphia race car museum up for international award

1933 Alfa Romero Monza (Left) and 1937 Alfa Romero SC 2900A are displayed at the Simeone Foundation Museum. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )
1933 Alfa Romero Monza (Left) and 1937 Alfa Romero SC 2900A are displayed at the Simeone Foundation Museum. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer ) (INQ SUWA)
Posted: November 14, 2011

A doctor who grew up in Kensington collects what others overlook, displaying his finds in a quirky manner and gaining more notice abroad than at home.

Think of Fred Simeone as the Albert Barnes of classic racing cars.

On Wednesday, Simeone, 75, of Chestnut Hill, a retired Philadelphia neurosurgeon, will don black tie in London, where his Simeone Foundation Museum is short-listed for an International Historic Motoring Award. A big deal.

But there's a good chance you've not visited the Simeone museum, unless you happened to be driving among the gentleman's clubs and rental-car lots in the wastelands off Essington Avenue and followed the placards pointing to the "race car museum."

Comedian Jay Leno has found his way there. So has world champion driver Mario Andretti.

"We're really David among the Goliaths," says Simeone, who is competing against England's Jaguar Heritage Collection and National Motor Museum, Germany's Automuseum Prototyp, and the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Compared with the others, Simeone's museum is an upstart, open only since 2008, in a no-frills former engine-remanufacturing plant on Norwitch Drive.

"We'd like to be on the Parkway," says museum spokesman Harry Hurst, a former racing photographer. "But they might object to the noise."

The fourth Saturday of each month, Simeone takes some of his 66 cars out for a run on the foundation's three acres of blacktop. Despite spanning nearly a century of racing history, these are working cars, not replicas. They're loud. They smell. They're gorgeous.

Just one family was touring the museum when I dropped by one afternoon last week to check out the collection. One way to appreciate its message is to stand along a wall of 10 cars that raced at LeMans, starting with the Howe blue 1933 Alfa Romeo and ending with the violet and green 1970 Porsche nicknamed "The Hippie."

To Simeone, the line of racers speaks to the evolutionary force of competition. "Wheels got smaller, but tires got fatter, the engine got smaller, but horsepower got greater," Simeone says. "The cars became streamlined while becoming much safer - all because they had to win, finish the race, do it better than they did it last year."

What drove Simeone was the desire to make his father proud. As a teen in the early 1950s, he'd go on house calls with his dad, a family doctor from Frankford and Allegheny. Then they'd root through junkyards looking for discarded automobiles.

"We'd talk about what was good, what was bad," Simeone says. The first sports car Anthony Simeone bought was a derelict 1949 Alfa Romeo. His hope was that it would take Fred so long to get it up to speed that the boy would get through his teens unscathed.

"He was worried I'd kill myself," Simeone says. "I was his only son. We were very close. He couldn't conceive of anything happening to me."

The son idolized the father. Fred followed in Anthony's footsteps, attending Temple on an academic scholarship and then its med school. He kept going - the Mayo Clinic, then Harvard. When he returned to Philadelphia, it was as chief of neurosurgery at Pennsylvania Hospital, where he spent most of his career, performing nearly 1,000 operations a year, and working on such patients as former Phillie Lenny Dykstra, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, and jazz guitarist Pat Martino.

In his free time, Simeone chased his passion. His father left him four cars, including a 1937 Cord convertible coupe so babied that Fred had to admire it from a distance.

The supercharged convertible now sits on display with the others, staged not with plush carpet, spotlights, and plants, but with hay bales, burlap bags, and old tires.

"That," says Simeone, "is where they lived."

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq

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