Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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Virtual visit Stateside

A tour of a spectacular American museum GC has never been to – but knows well

One of the great car museums is in Philadelphia, but though I’ve often visited the city I’ve never entered the museum. How do I know it’s so good? Because I’ve seen many of the museum’s contents up close and I’ve driven several. That’s because the Simeone museum of sports-racing cars grew out of the personal collection of Dr Fred Simeone, and I’ve known Fred for over 30 years.

I was astonished when the Philadelphian neurosurgeon first unlocked an anonymous roller shutter in a Philly side road and led me up a concrete ramp. At the top I turned – to see a secret treasure house filled with truly special sports cars, carefully amassed by Fred since his college days. These weren’t merely shiny trophies, but actual race machines with fabulous histories and wonderful pedigrees lined up in a chilly, bare-walled industrial building. Fred not only knew the histories intimately but had assembled an extensive dossier on each as well as an amazing archive of general motoring history, housed in a wooden pagoda in the middle of the room – the only heated area, from where you could gaze round at the cars through large windows as you warmed your hands with a cup of coffee. It was – and is – a sensational assortment, not merely exotic vehicles but the actual cars which raced in and won some legendary events.

I first met Fred in a café in Brescia, where a friend and I were debating our plans for following the retro Mille Miglia and Fred, doing the event in one of his three 2.9B Alfa Romeos, asked to look at our maps. That led to an invitation to the collection to drive one of the supercharged Stutzes that contested the 1930 Le Mans race – the very same car Motor Sport tested in 1931. Far from being precious about it, after an afternoon in the country (which in parts of Pennsylvania boasts rolling hills and winding roads that look more like Sussex than the US) Fred left it to me to drive it home down the packed West Chester Freeway into rush-hour Philadelphia. Which was highly stressful in a ponderous, snatchy-braked behemoth with steering seemingly made of custard. Still, I didn’t ram anything and over the years Fred has invited me to take the wheel of some fabulous machinery: piloting the priceless 1938 Mille Miglia-winning Alfa Romeo 2900B through the rougher suburbs of Philly and onto the freeway remains a prime memory. Assured handling, delicate steering and astonishing acceleration made that one of my great days out; I even stopped worrying about the centre throttle and revelled in the glorious siren wail of the twin blowers. 

Later came another significant Alfa – the 2900A that Farina steered to second in the previous year’s 1000-mile classic. Fred and my restorer friend Dave George, whose DL George Coachworks has looked after many of the Simeone cars, ran it in a retro MM in the 1980s which I attended, and later, despite its value and rare original coachwork, I got to thrust it through gawping Italian traffic as we left Brescia and headed back to the airfreight depot. A privilege. I even got to drive the gorgeous Squire, my schooldays dream car – all of 50 yards…

Back then only the invited got to see Fred’s collection, except when he took cars to events, but the intention was always to create a foundation and museum so everyone could enjoy them. That happened in 2008, and so far I’ve not got back over to see it. But the sheer quality of the exhibits, many arranged in full-scale dioramas evoking Le Mans, Bonneville, Mille Miglia and similar themes, makes this multi-award-winning place a must-see on the US East Coast. 

In describing this collection I’m in danger of wearing out the word ‘original’, so please just insert it in front of any car I mention. Because Fred is passionate about preserving, not replacing, to the point of painstakingly picking off later paint with heat gun and scalpel to uncover original colour, or straightening crumpled panels instead of making new. To him the phrase ‘as found’ means far more than any concours award. In 1988 I was present when a new acquisition arrived – a literal barn-find Vauxhall 30-98E, and I watched Fred practically cooing over the dust and dirt it bore. It still does. 

Of course there’s a Porsche 917 – the psychedelic long-tail second-placer from Le Mans 1970. There’s a MkII GT40 – the Whitmore/Gardner car from LM 1967 – plus one of only four of the honeycomb-chassis MkIVs built, holder of a Le Mans fastest lap. Two Nürburgring winners – an S Mercedes that triumphed in the first 1927 German GP on the new track and the Aston Martin DBR1 which conquered the 1958 1000Kms wielded by Moss and Brabham. And let’s not forget the only surviving Bugatti Type 57G Tank, actual victor at the Sarthe in 1937 – the one you saw at Goodwood 10 years back.

It’s not all about Europe: there are NASCARS including a wonderfully fat 1950s Hudson, a line of American inter-war sports cars, a rare Corvette Grand Sport racer, the Cunningham C4R that placed third at Le Mans. I had a ride in that too, the exhilaration of the barking, unsilenced Chrysler V8’s ankle-scorching sidepipes tempered by the fact that every time Fred hit the brakes it leapt right or left like a startled pony. And in the Bonneville section is a gem of US motoring history – the first Shelby Daytona Coupé, mechanically refettled but essentially unrestored and bearing every sign of its varied life from international GT racing to Salt Flats records under Craig Breedlove to being Phil Spector’s road car. 

Before I sound like a brochure I’ll stop listing cars, but it’s worth checking www.simeonemuseum.org to see what I’ve left out. Visitors even get to see some cars in action: alongside is a small track where exhibits get to show off. If you appreciate sports-racing cars, go and see.

Cheaper by the dozen

Imagine asking Mercedes to sell you a 2016 F1 car, and getting a bunch of pals to order one too…

What sparked these memories of the Simeone cars is news that the museum has recently acquired a magnificent 1907 sporting Renault, a car I went to visit some 30 years ago on a Pennsylvania farm. It’s a smaller version of the shovel-nosed monster that Ferenc Szisz wrestled to victory around Le Mans the previous year in the first event to be titled French Grand Prix.

America’s William K Vanderbilt, more used to spending his millions on horse racing and his America’s Cup-winning yacht, decided that it was time to bring top-flight auto racing to the US and in 1904 instituted the Vanderbilt Cup, run on Long Island roads. He also tried to buy one of the 13-litre AK Renaults which achieved that 1906 historic victory, but the firm refused to sell. Instead, it’s said they agreed to build him a smaller version – as long as he could find another 10 customers. That needn’t prove hard; ‘Willie’ Vanderbilt couldn’t take a step without bumping into a fellow millionaire. In fact there’s no real evidence whether the cars sprang from his prompting or were built to soak up some tempting dollars from the US, but in 1907 10 – some reports say 12 – of these 35/45 ‘Runabouts’ duly arrived on the US East Coast. 

By 1908, following a spectator death in one of his races, Vanderbilt had built the Long Island Parkway which like a rural AVUS served both as a public road (with tolls) and, when closed off, a racetrack with banked curves and over-bridges. Disappointingly, stories of Willie K and his wealthy friends racing their matching cars on his private track seem apocryphal – that would have been the most exclusive one-marque series ever…

Though blessed with only half the GP car’s 90hp, these 35/45hp cars had some racing success but were soon outdated by a new breed of higher-revving, small-engined machines. Their histories are confused; some ended up in dirt racing but perhaps five survive including the well-known ‘Agatha’. It’s believed this could be the 24-hour record car (see left). 

By the Twenties few people wanted an outdated racer, so the Simeone car was lucky to by purchased in 1928 by Kirkland Gibson, an early enthusiast for such veterans; by the time I went to see it it had passed to his son, Kirk Jr. After we rolled it out of an outbuilding he showed me all over it, lifting the coal-scuttle nose to expose two massive pairs of sidevalve cylinders decorated with much brass and copper plumbing in front of that huge radiator pressed against the fascia. (Much of its outflow is directed down under the chassis like an early blown diffuser. And the four-speed ‘box has a sequential change. There’s nothing new…) Sadly Kirk couldn’t start the thumping 7.4-litre motor for me, but I clambered aboard, gripped the sturdy wooden wheel on its brass tree-trunk of a column and tried to imagine having my own racetrack. 

According to Kirk the beast even rode well on its very early telescopic hydraulic dampers, and he remembered as a child clinging onto the skimpy seat as his father raced another enthusiast’s 1907 Benz.

Now after some 80 years in his family Kirk has gifted the Renault to the museum. It may or may not be a race winner, but it’s an impressive survivor of that heroic age.

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