Dr. Fred Simeone, former Penn neurosurgeon, leaves legacy of fast cars and a world-class museum
His boyhood love all things automobile turned in a world-class racing car museum for his city.
Dr. Frederick Simeone, a former Penn neurosurgeon who gave Philadelphia one of the world’s finest collections of racing sports cars, died Saturday, June 11.
Dr. Simeone, 86, passed away at Pennsylvania Hospital, where he had served as head of neurosurgery until 2008.
However, his colleagues at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Southwest Philadelphia, which he founded in 2008, couldn’t help but note his passing was the same weekend of one of car racing’s most prestigious events.
“We do find comfort and meaning in the fact that our friend passed in the midst of his beloved Le Mans,” read a statement from the museum staff, “and we know his spirit is now eternally driving along with the legends he considered to be his heroes.”
For Dr. Simeone, his approximately 80 racing vehicles dating as far back as back 1907 were much more than mere speed machines.
“He had such a passion for everything he did in life, but particularly for these old racing cars,” said Art Carey, a former Inquirer columnist who interviewed the collector several times . “He liked them not only because they were marvels of engineering but because they were so evocative of American history. He viewed racing sports cars as symbols or metaphors for the human drive for excellence.”
And he viewed his museum as an ode to beauty and a place of education -- “my gift to Philadelphia,” as he once said himself.
“He really felt his automotive museum was equal in significance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in that it showed what human beings were capable of doing,” Carey said. “He had a very intellectual appreciation of cars.”
That appreciation was acquired from his father, also a physician and car enthusiast. Young Fred would accompany his father on house calls in Kensington to visit patients and later in scrap yards for their car hobby.
His automotive hunger led him to the Free Library of Philadelphia as an entry to collecting manuals and other materials from car manufacturers and dealers. That was back in the 1950s, when he was still a boy.
“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,” Dr. Simeone told the Inquirer in 2019.
In time, Dr. Simeone’s museum would go on to acquire the library’s permanent collection of car manuals and other documents and become its home, along with the Antique Automobile Club of America Library in Hershey.
When the doctor’s father died, he left Fred his small collection of cars. Then the son’s began to take off.
“After his father passed away, he got more of the collecting bug,” said William Murphy, the automotive museum spokesperson.
In his early collecting days, some of the vehicles could be bought for relatively little. Since there was no Internet, the doctor would need to research and network to find his gems. Murphy said Dr. Simeone would tell stories of being out on the road, picking up one of his racing sports car finds, only to get a call that he was needed at the hospital.
“He would close the deal, jump in the car, and speed off to save the day,” Murphy said.
Dr. Simeone loved the beauty of his cars. When he opened his museum back in 2008, he toldCarey his favorite of all the vehicles on display was a 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM that had won the 1938 Mille Miglia.
“It represents the high-water mark of automotive design,” Dr. Simeone said. “I’m totally in love with that car.”
And yet, the specific cars he would choose to buy were not necessarily the most pristine. He was more of a preservationist than a perfectionist.
“When he had the opportunity to buy a car, he would buy the car that had more of the racing heritage,” Murphy said. “He didn’t care if it had scrapes and scuffs because to him that was all part of the story.”
His collection was recognized as one of the best in the world, including winning a top ranking by the Classic Car Trust in 2019 and honors from others in the field.
“The way it’s laid out, it’s an education to walk through that museum,” said Scott Fenley of New Britain, secretary of the Vintage Sports Car Club of America.
Dr. Simeone had other accomplishments as well. In addition to his medical publications, he was also the author of an authoritative and gorgeous coffee table tome on sports racing cars called The Spirit of Competition. He also cared deeply about young driver safety and had partnered in an advisory role with the National Road Safety Foundation.
Yet for all his accomplishments, ultimately Dr. Simeone was an unassuming fellow, said people who knew him.
He had a daughter, Christina Simeone, and earlier in life had lived in Chestnut Hill, but more recently, his home was an apartment in Washington Square West, and his ride was a basic BMW, according to Murphy. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
He had once told an interviewer he wanted his museum to be a place that drew people from all over to his city. Murphy said his foundation will ensure it continues to be able to do what its creator intended.
“He really left an incredible gift,” he said. “He was a one-of-a-kind Philadelphian.”