Article by Wayne Beck and Photography by Henry Rowan
Treasure hunters often spend their lives searching for rare finds that may elude them forever. Yet sometimes treasures sit right in front of us and we remain completely unaware of their existence. A good example of this can be found in South Philadelphia. Normally, areas like Penns Landing, Fairmont Park, or Penn Square spring to mind when thinking about visiting the cultural or historic sights of Philadelphia. However, it’s when you look beyond the usual that interesting discoveries often reveal themselves. In this case, hidden in plain view, just north of the airport, there lies an unassuming, two story, brick building that houses one of Pennsylvania’s recently unearthed gems, The Simeone Foundation Museum; a unique and affordable destination for a day trip. There’s no need to make a huge investment in time, energy, or financial resources to uncover it. No archaeological digs or deep ocean dives are necessary. Just hop in the car and go.
Once inside the museum, you leave the present behind as you’re transported back in time to experience the great age of amateur sports car racing. You enter an era that began at the start of the twentieth century and spanned seven decades. It was an era where great engineering, design, bravery, and creativity yielded some of the most beautiful examples of thoroughbred sports cars ever fashioned in both Europe and the U.S. Their purpose, to test the mettle of both man and machine as they raced through an age that is now largely gone. That era began to vanish as the sport was slowly transformed, in part by corporate sponsorships with goals that had less to do with the original intent of these contests.
Through the vision of one man, Dr. Fred Simeone, there now exists a truly extraordinary assemblage of some of the world’s finest examples of rolling sculpture that can be gathered under one roof. A seventy-five thousand square foot factory that once housed an auto engine remanufacturing company has been transformed into a wonderful venue to display this gathering of fine sports cars and racers. Like most museums, there is a theme here and that theme becomes quite obvious as you enter the display area. The first thing you see is the written philosophy of what this museum is meant to convey. It states, “There are few illustrations of the effects of competition as dramatic and beautiful as the evolution of the racing sports car. This is the theme of the Simeone Foundation Automobile Museum, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation whose mission is to educate the public in the beneficial effects of the spirit of competition.” Well put. And in an even more succinct phrase, the museum notes “The first race was conceived when the second car was built.”
The cars here are not just simply scattered around the area, but are presented in dioramas that convey the environment in which they competed. To racing enthusiasts, there is an aura that surrounds places like Watkins Glen, Le Mans, The Nurburgring, Brooklands, Targa Florio, and the many other racing locals that are represented at the museum. Dr. Simeone has recreated the spirit of these locations in the dioramas. The cars appropriate to each venue are arrayed in these settings front and center. Coiled on the salt bed, poised to strike, is a 1964 Cobra Daytona Coupe, looking now, just the way it did in 1965 where it set 23 land speed records at Bonneville. Nine Le Mans racers sit side by side, angled in front of pit row, waiting for the drivers to sprint across the track and bring them to life. From exhibit to exhibit you enter into a world where these cars lived in their prime. Between the exhibits, scores of poster sized, black and white photos depicting racing scenes, hang at eye level. Peering into the faces of those who put their lives in peril countless times to improve the breed, one truly gets a sense of what this place is about, competing and winning!
The intent of Dr. Simeone is not just to recreate an era, not just to display these exhibits as art, but also to reveal how they looked in action. So on the last Saturday of each month, weather permitting, several of them are trotted out the back of the building to run free on the three acre back lot. Watching and listening to these machines as they are fired up, gives the museum goer a brief glimpse at what some of these vehicles were capable of doing when given free rein on a race track. Each month different marques are bought out. So if you go often enough, you will get to see many of the cars run.
These demonstration days reflect another aspect of the museum’s principles… education. Since the exhibits are not intended to be just static displays, the cars are also employed as “vehicles” to teach. The Simeone foundation works with schools, providing education programs for their students. To date, local high school physics classes working in conjunction with the U. of Penn have used the facilities, as have the Drexel University fashion design students.
The museum has been open to the public since June 2008. While still a fledgling institution, its vision is clearly defined and as the museum evolves and grows, additional programs will be developed. Dr. Simeone has numerous ideas for the museum, including opening a library to researchers, increasing the endowment, and adding driving simulators for students, so that they can learn traffic accident avoidance.
From time to time, the museum presents additional auto retrospectives. Recently, an exhibit called “The Best of Britain” was in progress. Thirty significant racing and sports cars were being featured from England. These additional displays rotate in and out; so going back more than once often yields new treasures. When there, you can either tour the museum on your own or call in advance to arrange for a guided tour.
Okay race fans, hop in and buckle up, because there’s more here. Do you want to host a large corporate or social event? Need a place for business or club meetings? Well, the museum is an exceptional location to hold affairs like these. There are facilities to seat more than five hundred people for catered affairs right in the center of the displays. Holding an event surrounded by this vast collection of automotive history provides a unique ambiance for almost any gathering. There are three acres of free parking and it is handicap accessible. In addition, the upstairs has meeting rooms with A / V facilities for smaller gatherings or meetings.
To inquire about the rental facilities, arrange tours, get directions, or just see more of the museum, visit their web site: www.simeonefoundation.org or call them at 215-365-7233. They are located at 6825-31 Norwitch Drive, Philadelphia, PA 19153 and the museum is easily accessible from either I95 or I76 as well as local streets from Center City Philadelphia.
Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!