Let’s say you want to restore your 1973 AMC Gremlin to its original, um, glory, but you can’t find the right factory-installed Levi’s denim upholstery. Where do you go for reliable information on how to keep that car in mint condition?

Well, thanks to an extensive and valuable auto archive -- officially the Automobile Reference Collection -- about to be liberated from the Free Library of Philadelphia, enthusiasts will soon have easier access to important provenance-proving material. The library announced Monday that it is selling the collection to the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Southwest Philadelphia and the Antique Automobile Club of America Library in Hershey.

It will be known as the Thomas McKean Collection, named for the collector of auto manuals and ephemera who started what’s now a cache of more than 100,000 items, also including advertising literature, technical bulletins, photographs, books, journals, and historic license plates.

One of the Automobile Reference Collection's 100,000-plus holdings.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
One of the Automobile Reference Collection's 100,000-plus holdings.

That AMC Gremlin, by the way, really exists at Hershey’s AACA museum (a separate entity located about a mile from the AACA library, which is expanding to house the new collection), and it really does have factory-installed denim seats.

And the reason cars such as the fabled “Denim Gremlin” are valuable is that they retain original parts and equipment. Classic cars are like antique furniture. Fix them up in the right way, and they retain their value. Restore them in the wrong way, and they’re a ’73 Gremlin.

That’s why the Free Library collection is so important, said Steve Moskowitz of the AACA. The archive contains many thousands of original owners’ manuals and other related content — invaluable for auto restoration specialists who need accurate information about how to properly restore and maintain their cars.

Institutions such as the AACA and Simeone Foundation Museum are better equipped to make the material available to car nuts, who already count on those institutions for access to other archival material.

‘The single best collection in the world’

Derick Dreher, vice president of special collections for the Free Library of Philadelphia, browses part of the extensive McKean archive.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
Derick Dreher, vice president of special collections for the Free Library of Philadelphia, browses part of the extensive McKean archive.

"It’s the single best collection of owners’ manuals in the world. For people who own classic cars, that’s a great resource,” said Moskowitz, who noted that the AACA is building a new library facility to house its portion of the archive, where collectors and restorers can get hyper-accurate information on how to keep their cars in pristine shape.

“They need factory documentation. That’s the key. You’ve got to be very careful not to rely on Wikipedia, so to speak, because that could be a compilation [of potentially un-vetted information]. If you’ve got the factory brochures and the actual service manuals, you’ve got something that literally and definitively tells you what that car should look like and how it should be equipped,” he said. “If you get it right from the horse’s mouth, you can be sure you’re doing the right thing.”

The Automobile Reference Collection was bequeathed to the Free Library in 1949 by McKean, co-founder (in 1935) of the AACA. The collection contains automotive material contributed by many individuals, but much of it was obtained by McKean himself, who acquired manuals and brochures in the early 20th century by personally visiting showrooms and dealerships.

Thomas McKean acquired material for the Automobile Reference Collection early in the 20th century by personally visiting showrooms and dealerships. He bequeathed the cache to the Free Library in 1948.
Courtesy Free Library of Philadelphia Special Collections
Thomas McKean acquired material for the Automobile Reference Collection early in the 20th century by personally visiting showrooms and dealerships. He bequeathed the cache to the Free Library in 1948.

Moskowitz said McKean had an especially good instinct for documents related to cars that he knew would be rare and valuable down the road.

“He was a really early car fanatic and was able to gather some of the most important early literature that nobody else has. He had a great eye for what would be important in the future,” Moskowitz said.

An early license plate from the Automobile Reference Collection.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
An early license plate from the Automobile Reference Collection.

In the 1950s that cause was taken up by a young man named Fred Simeone, who had a passionate interest in cars, and volunteered to continue McKean’s mission of canvassing dealerships to acquire the manuals and brochures.

“They gave me a card with the word curator on it, Free Library of Philadelphia, and it said Freddie Simeone is our representative, please give us two copies of your current literature, and I went around for years collecting it," said Simeone, who became a collector and founded the Simeone museum, recently named the best auto museum in the world for its collection of racing vehicles. (Its fleet includes three of the vehicles featured in the movie Ford v Ferrari.)

Fred Simeone (center) at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum discussing the 1958 Ferrari Testarossa.
Courtesy Dave Mc / Courtesy Dave McDonald
Fred Simeone (center) at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum discussing the 1958 Ferrari Testarossa.

Simeone said the racing-focused nature of the Simeone Museum (many of its cars are European), and the AACA Library, mainly devoted to the mechanical repair of vintage U.S. vehicles, will make for an efficient division of the library material.

Derick Dreher, vice president of special collections for the Free Library, said the Automobile Reference Collection had been “hiding in plain sight for the last 60 years” and not finding the audience of collectors who could make best use of it. In addition, the $1 million in proceeds from the sale will go toward maintaining the library’s other valuable archives.

Transfer of the materials is scheduled to occur early next year, pending approval from Orphans’ Court regarding the bequest. The Simeone and AACA will effectively share custody of the material, which will be housed separately but can be transferred from one museum to the other. The two museums will catalog and digitize the holdings to improve public access.

Vintage material collected straight from the dealer showroom helps car nuts restore their rides.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
Vintage material collected straight from the dealer showroom helps car nuts restore their rides.

The library said in a statement that the sale and new homes for the collection are “part of widespread contemporary practice among collecting organizations to focus and optimize their efforts by deaccessioning holdings that depart from their core missions.” The library has received a letter of non-objection from the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General for the sale.

“As part of the Free Library’s ongoing strategic plan, we are concentrating our special collections efforts on areas of particular strength," said Free Library president and director Siobhan A. Reardon, naming the institution’s Dickens holdings and its archives of theater history and orchestral scores as examples.