Fred Simeone idolized his father. He was his best friend. A general practitioner who cared for patients in Port Richmond, Anthony Simeone inspired his son to become a physician as well.
"I wanted to be like him," says Fred Simeone, paying his father the ultimate compliment.
Anthony Simeone was also an early car collector. He would take Fred to junkyards where they would salvage wrecked classics and then resuscitate them together.
When his father died in 1972, he left Fred Simeone $8,000 and four cars. He also bequeathed an "intense passion" for vintage racing sports cars.
Over the years, Fred Simeone assembled one of the finest collections of rare and important racing sports cars in the world. And starting Tuesday, 60 of these automotive jewels will be out for the public to see and admire when the Simeone Foundation Museum opens near the auto mall and airport in Southwest Philadelphia.
To those who appreciate the art of the automobile, it's as though someone threw wide the doors to a gallery of masterpieces by the likes of da Vinci and Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso. The cars are that rare and spectacular.
"This is my gift to Philadelphia," says Simeone, 72, a nationally respected neurosurgeon who recently retired from Pennsylvania Hospital. "I'm hoping people will come here from all over the world just to see these cars."
You need not be a motorhead to realize that these cars are special. They range from a 1909 American Underslung (so called because the chassis was slung under the front axle) to a 1975 Alfa-Romeo 33-TT-12, a streamlined 500-horsepower thoroughbred capable of 230 miles per hour. In between are all manner of exotic and exquisite Alfas, Bentleys, BMWs, Bugattis, Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis, Mercedeses, and such American makes as Mercer, Stutz, Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg.
"I consider these the most exciting cars," Simeone says. "They were built to do more than transport people. They were also built for sport and speed."
Among the Mona Lisas: a 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe that set numerous records on the Bonneville Salt Flats; a 1937 BMW 328 with only 16,000 miles and its original paint; a 1958 Ferrari Testa Rossa with pontoon fenders; a 1954 Ferrari 375MM once owned by actor William Holden; a 1933 Squire Roadster, one of only seven made and considered one of the most gorgeous English sports cars ever crafted; a 1952 Cunningham C4R, one of only three built; and the 1958 Aston Martin DBR1 that Stirling Moss piloted to victory at Nurburgring.
"It's probably one of the most significant collections of vintage race cars in the world," says Mike Tillson, an Overbrook-based restorer of vintage cars and founder and chairman of the Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance. "He buys cars with great stories, driven by some of the most successful racing drivers through the ages."
The Simeone Foundation Museum is unique in Philadelphia and perhaps on the whole East Coast, not only in the quality of the automobiles but also in its focus, its organization, and the way the cars are displayed.
The focus is on racing sports cars - cars with headlights and fenders that seated a driver and passenger mostly in an open cockpit and could be driven on the street. Many of the cars look the way they did when they raced. They have not been restored to showroom prettiness. Simeone, an advocate of preservation, considers that desecration.
"I really like the patina of age and the original finish and trim," he says.
At the new museum, in a former engine remanufacturing plant, the cars are not lined up willy-nilly. Instead, they are grouped in dioramas that illustrate the evolution of auto racing, from endurance trials, to road racing in places like Fairmount Park and on country estates, to legendary contests at such fabled venues as Watkins Glen, Nurburgring, the Targo Florio, the Mille Miglia, Sebring and Le Mans.
The overarching theme of the collection is the spirit of competition, the Darwinian drive to beat the other guy, and the astonishing benefits, in style, engineering and safety that can often ensue.
"There are few illustrations of the effects of competition as dramatic and beautiful as the evolution of the racing sports car," Simeone declares. "Racing improves the breed."
Simeone created the foundation and museum to keep his themed collection intact and to avoid the tragedy of a life's work and legacy being scattered after he dies. He hopes that the museum, which will also feature rotating exhibits and special events, appeals to women and non-car guys as well. He compares the venture, an educational nonprofit eligible for charitable contributions, to the Barnes Foundation - a cultural and artistic treasure that has the potential to be an international attraction.
"Cars are really a form of art," Simeone says. "The museum's collection can teach valuable lessons about the minds of men and the survival of the fittest, about the expression of the aesthetic impulse and the achievement of artistic beauty and perfection through magnificent specimens of rolling sculpture."
Like the late Albert Barnes, he's an "eccentric physician," Simeone says (though decidedly more charming and personable), who "collected stuff before people realized it was important," driven by a singular vision and strong, particular notions about how the collection should be arranged and exhibited.
Surrounded by so much splendid art, could Simeone possibly choose a favorite, the one car he would rescue first if disaster threatened?
He can. And it's the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM, displayed on a pedestal in the museum's Winner's Circle. (It won the 1938 Mille Miglia.)
"It represents the high-water mark of automotive design," Simeone says, and epitomizes the Alfa Romeo credo: "The search for beauty in every part." At the same time, because of its advanced engineering, it drives like a modern car.
"I'm totally in love with that car," Simeone confesses.