Originally published June 2018; updated July 2019
Over the past decade, the unassuming display of classic cars tucked into an industrial section of Southwest Philly has received plenty of accolades.
Established in 2008, the Simeone Foundation has won dozens of awards for its historic vehicles, and it has twice been called “International Automotive Museum of the Year.”
But the latest nods have surprised even the museum’s founder, Philadelphia neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Simeone. The board of the prestigious, Liechtenstein-based Classic Car Trust in 2018 ranked Simeone No. 2 on the list of the world’s 100 most significant collectors. This year, he’s all alone at the top — No. 1 in the world.
“That really was a big deal,” said Simeone. He considered the various names over whom he’s ranked, and chuckled.
“You have Ralph Lauren, Sam Walton from Walmart, Peter Sachs from Goldman Sachs, Tony Wang from Computer Associates — and me, from Kensington.”
While the other collectors on the list are billionaires who own their car collections outright, Simeone, who got his medical degree at Temple and worked at CHOP until his retirement, is different.
Each of his 70 historically notable racing sports cars weren’t necessarily worth much when he acquired them — especially since he purposely seeks out original vehicles that need a lot of work — but the collection he began amassing as a young man is now worth a tidy sum. However, it has been fully donated to the foundation.
“I have a funny attitude of transferring wealth to family,” Simeone explained. “I think there’s a point where it’s just too much — it has gone beyond what any one person should own.” His adult daughter agrees with him, he noted.
What Simeone really craves, as a collector, is other people appreciating and learning about his collection.
Despite concerted outreach efforts, museum attendance has never been optimal. There were a few big splashes at the start, thanks to articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, but nowadays not many people come through the doors.
“The number of visitors has not grown over the years,” Simeone said. “It kind of plateau’d at a really low number.”
That means the impressive “spirit of competition” display that traces street racing history over the past century, and artfully weaves it into discourse about human evolution and the development of society, reaches far fewer eyes than it could — especially young eyes, the minds behind which Simeone believes can be inspired by the concept of striving to be the best.
Location is part of the issue. The museum is in a former warehouse in an industrial section of the city just north of the airport. Closest public transportation is a bus stop that’s a good 10 minutes away.
However, it’s necessary to provide space for one of the museum’s key components: live demonstration days.
All of the Simeone Foundation cars have their original parts, but all are also still in working order. Every two weeks, members of the staff and 70-person volunteer team take several of them out for an actual spin — and the public is invited to watch. Usually around 150 people show up to watch, per operations supervisor Chris Webb.
Webb has been working at the foundation for around three years. His favorite part is how tightly focused the collection is. “You can go to other museums and see random cars,” he said, “but here we tell a story.”
Getting that story to a broader audience is Dr. Simeone’s next undertaking.
Part of the reason the Classic Car Trust ranked him so highly on its global list, he believes, is because the foundation does already have an established educational side, complete with a large on-site library. Simeone is eager for this part of the project to grow.
Last summer, the museum hosted its first-ever summer camp for area youths. Cosmetic work is planned for the outside of warehouse, so that the building is an attractive destination that kids end up begging their parents to see.
“We want this to be a friendly place for youngsters,” Simeone explained. “We’d love this to be a stop on every kids’ day trip — and a home for STEAM learning in Philadelphia.”