Near Auto Mall, a shrine to sporty race cars
Philadelphia is known for a lot of things, but auto racing isn't one of them. There's no speedway here, no raceway. But Philadelphia actually is a destination for racing fans, because it's the site of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, which illustrates the sport's history with cars dating from the late 19th century.
The cars are the result of 50 years of collecting by noted Philadelphia neurosurgeon Frederick Simeone, who opened the museum in June 2008, after retiring from practicing medicine. The story behind the museum is detailed in his book, The Spirit of Competition. Jay Leno, a car collector and enthusiast, featured Simeone on his Internet show, jaylenosgarage.com. The doctor knows his cars.
"My dad was a GP, general practitioner, who loved cars," Simeone told me over the phone. "He taught me all about them and how to look at cars as art and as objects of history. They aren't just for transportation."
Cars teach lessons on competition, he said, and the evolution of cars reflects history. "Competition drives evolution," he said, adding that learning how to compete is important for young people. "These are life lessons."
I was intrigued.
I don't know much about racing, but I do like to look at cars. And these cars tell a story.
The museum, just off I-95 behind the Airport Auto Mall, is in a large warehouse. The cars are parked in order, beginning with the 1909 American Underslung that raced long distances, with 40-inch wheels, at a time competitions were really road races from city to city.
By the second decade of the 20th century, side-by-side race tracks came into vogue in such places as Fairmount Park. Yes, from 1908 to 1911, our city hosted the Quaker City Motor Club 200-mile race. It started and finished at Memorial Hall. A scoreboard from a Fairmount Park race hangs at the museum.
I recognized the names of many of the cars on display from before World War II and admired the craftsmanship. I was more fascinated, though, by the various races and kinds of racing that were being developed. At this time, the cars were stripped of lights, fenders, and other "unnecessary items" to get their speeds up.
Car racing took a back seat to World War II, and didn't really get back on the road till 1948 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. That 6.6-mile course along public roads is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It evolved from that (after the death of a spectator) to become the Watkins Glen International Race Course, with various layouts, and home of the U.S. Grand Prix for 20 years.
The Watkins Glen exhibit shows one of the first Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport cars, built in 1963 to compete with Ford's Cobra. It was easily recognizable, even in this early incarnation.
Walking through, I learned about a prehistoric lake that's great for racing, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah; that the first banked racetrack was built in 1907 at England's Brooklands, and that BMW and Mercedes have been competing since Mercedes joined with Benz in 1927.
As I walked through, the cars became more beautiful. Some were strong and handsome, while others were just for fun. The exhibits show automobile advertisements and how they obviously cater to a particular buyer.
Not all cars here are for racing. The 1926 Kissel 8-75 Speedster was a pretty, sassy number. It was built in the mid-1920s for style rather than speed. The Speedster was favored by Amelia Earhart, Douglas Fairbanks, Jack Dempsey, and other notables who wanted a flashy car, the exhibit said.
There are Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Duesenbergs, and more. But the one that stole my heart was the baby-blue 1933 Squire Roadster - heralded by many as the "most beautiful English sports car of the 1930s," according to the museum website.
In fact, the craftsmanship on the car made it too expensive to sell. Only three of the seven manufactured were made with that body style.
Just my luck.
See the Cars Run
The Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, 6825 Norwitch Dr. in Southwest Philadelphia, has Demonstration Days on the fourth Saturday of each month at noon. Entry is included in admission.
Before extremely rare racing sports cars from the Simeone collection are driven on the 3-acre lot in back of the museum, Frederick Simeone speaks on the importance of the cars and their place in history.
Sept. 28 - What Happened to Ferrari Sports Car Racing?
Oct. 26 - Land Speed Stock Cars
Nov. 30 - People's Choice Demo Day
Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (last admittance 4:30); Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (last admittance 2:30). Closed Mondays.
Admission: $12; $10, seniors; $8, students
Contact Travel editor Philippa J. Chaplin at email@example.com.