PHILADELPHIA—Some cars will get your pulse pounding even when they’re at rest, and the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum (tucked away in an industrial section of South Philadelphia) owns at least 30 of them. The 65-car collection, built up by Dr. Fred Simeone (a retired neurosurgeon) over many years, celebrates sports racers from the era when competitive cars could be driven on the road, then—with minimal preparation—hit the track and win.
Among the highlights here a 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe (one of six), a winner at the Bonneville Salt Flats that was, oddly enough, later owned by Phil Spector; the very first 1933 Squire roadster, one of just three in this form; the one-of-two 1966 Ferrari 365 P “Tre Posti” by Pininfarina with seating for three abreast; an incredibly gorgeous Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM; and many more.
Dr. Simeone’s father was a general practitioner who passed his love of fast cars—and both buying and working on them—down to his son. After his dad’s rounds, the pair would visit junkyards together.
When Simeone’s father died in 1972, he inherited $8,000—and four cars, which he has since built into a world-class collection of 65, many acquired before old race cars had achieved the stratospheric value they have now. Could you buy a Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing” for a few thousand dollars? Simeone did. “I can’t really add to the collection anymore,” he told me, but why bother, because it’s breathtaking as it is.
The cars are arranged chronologically, not by make but by venue. When you walk into the large warehouse space you’re met by a huge American Underslung from 1909, with 60 horsepower—and a chassis that sat below the front axles (shades of the “stepdown” Hudsons from the 50s). The cars, made in Indianapolis until 1914, were certainly fast for their day—and participated in endurance trials that were popular in the days when roads were bad and cars generally unreliable.
Right after that, before World War I, dirt tracks started popping up all over (a point made clear by the first film I’ve ever seen of period cars sliding around on that surface) and events like the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island started getting attention. From that period, the Simeone shows a 1912 National Speed car, a 1915 Stutz Bearcat (the car for bright young things) and a race-prepared Mercer Raceabout from 1911-1913. The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) was an early attempt to organize the racing, and a glorious, pure racing Bentley Three-Liter Speed model from 1927 illustrates the growing tendency to bring fast cars over from Europe.
From the glory days of Watkins Glen comes a 1950 Cadillac-powered Allard J2—one of the hairiest sports cars available then; and a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport aimed at Ford’s Cobra—one of five, before GM pulled the plug on Zora Arkus-Duntov’s ambitious program.
One of the pleasures of the Simeone collection is that many of the cars—including the Corvette, the Daytona, and a BMW 328 that was stashed under a hay bale in Holland during World War II—are presented pretty much as they were when last raced, with dull paint, scrapes, exhaust stains and more. Simeone told me he replaces only what is absolutely necessary to get them running well, which is necessary because these aren’t garage queens—they’re taken out twice a month for demonstration runs that bring 400 to 500 people to the museum.
I’ve told the full story of that Cobra Daytona before, and also the Tre Posti, but it’s incredible to see them in the metal. The latter was bid up to $23 million at auction and failed to sell, and the Cobra is equally iconic.
The museum also celebrates road events like the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio in Italy, celebrated by a lot of red cars, such as 1933 and 1937 Alfa racers, and a Bugatti Type 3. I ogled the form-follows-function streamlined beauty of a Jaguar C-Type from 1952, and a more brutalist father-of-the-E 1956 D-Type (both Sebring winners).
Space is going to prevent me from talking about all the cars in the museum, but if you want to see a Ferrari 375MM once owned by actor William Holden, this is the place. There are three Auburn boat-tailed speedsters, two Ford GT40s from 1966 and 1967, a Cunningham (via wealthy sportsman Briggs) that won its class at Le Mans in 1954, and a perfectly proportioned Aston-Martin DBR-1 that won the 1958 Nurburgring race with Stirling Moss at the wheel.
My wife and I had decided to turn Philadelphia into a two-day getaway, and we managed to secure an Ultimate Driving Machine for the three-hour drive. In this case, it was a 2016 330E, a $60,245 plug-in hybrid car with 22 miles of electric-only travel. This really is a no-compromises green car, since it doesn’t stint on the performance (5.8 seconds to 60) but also delivers 72 MPGe (or 31 mpg if you just run the gas engine). The battery pack is 7.6 kilowatt-hours, and the electric motor adds 87 horsepower, for 249 total. It’s more than adequate.
You can get into a 330E for much less than $60k, since they start at $43,700. There’s a $4,001 federal tax credit, and whatever state incentives might apply. Cheaper choices are the Prius Prime and the Chevrolet Volt, but this is a lot of car.
For the trip back, we had a 2017 Chevy Cruze LT hatchback, at $25,135 less than half the BMW. If you accept a certain step down in image and performance (OK, maybe two steps down in performance) the Cruze has a lot to recommend it. For one, I love hatches, and rue that they became unfashionable. Second, the controls are more straightforward than the BMW’s. Third, it delivers an impressive 38 mpg on the highway in automatic form.
The 1.4-liter turbo four, with six-speed auto, is just the right kind of modern powertrain for this car. It’s not going to make the cover of Road & Track, but it’s a nicely built commuter car, with quality materials throughout. Ironically, while I was driving to the gym this morning, my iPod brought up "Chevrolet Six," a great traditional tune as done by the 60s icons The Holy Modal Rounders. Sample lyric: "She runs like a Buick and she hums like a Stutz/Watch that Chevy strut her stuff." Of course the Cruze is not a Six, but it's got the power of one. That's progress for you!
The Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays. Phone: (215)365-7233. Here's Dr. Fred Simeone on the glories of his long-sought Cobra Daytona: