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For the Love of the Road

Culture Watch

By Lawrence Ulrich

While celebrated artist Marina Abramović has no shortage of fans, there’s a certain breed of collector who prefers a faster-paced style of performance art: the automobile. Miles Collier, Peter W. Mullin and Dr. Frederick Simeone are three of America’s pre-eminent car collectors. And unlike with, say, Ralph Lauren, you don’t need to be a personal friend to tour their fantasy garages. At their respective temples of transportation—The Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California; The Collier Collection at The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida and Philadelphia’s Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum—fans can see some of history’s most significant, obsessively preserved and flat-out gorgeous automobiles.

Here, we speak to these passionate collectors about their lifelong love of cars, and what drives them to amass automobiles.

MILES COLLIER, a businessman, philanthropist and Yale-trained painter, hails from the third generation of the Florida family for whom Collier County is named. His father and uncles were road-racing pioneers, importing the first British MGs to America prior to WWII, founding the Automobile Racing Club of America in 1933 and were among the first members of the Sports Car Club of America, which was founded in 1944.  Aside from more than 100 automobiles, Collier’s museum houses an automotive library with about 30,000 books, 300,000 magazines and more than 1 million photographs.

All in the Family
“My dad and his brothers were early sports car pioneers in America, so it was hard for me not to become a car guy. In 1950, I got a ride in the Ardent Alligator (the car Collier’s father drove to a famous comeback win at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix in New York, the previous year). We’re in this full-on racecar on A1A south of Palm Beach, on the far side of 100 mph. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’”

If the Museum is Burning…
“Probably my dad’s MG PA/PB Leonidas. He took it to Le Mans and raced it there in 1939 (as the first American entry since 1921). My brothers would not be happy if I didn’t save that first. It’s a sentimental relationship—more than a car, it’s a family heirloom.”

Old-School Pleasures
“Driving a 1929 Bentley, and driving it well, is a whole different kettle of fish than taking off in a paddle-shifted Porsche today. There’s a great sense of achievement.”

 

Businessman PETER MULLIN—whose recent record-setting $15 million gift to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, will boost its world-renowned auto design program—is also chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. He races vintage cars and is a longtime supporter of the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California. Mullin’s own museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of French cars, mainly Art Deco baubles.

Where it all Began
“My first collector car was a Talbot-Lago Record Cabriolet from 1948. It was phenomenally attractive. Virtually all the cars we’ve collected are French, mostly pre-war. Other cars I love because I love to race them.”

Better than Art
“It’s hard to drive a piece of sculpture around a track. But even fine art museums are embracing the automobile. It indicates that the automobile has reached the rarefied atmosphere of fine art. Cars check all the boxes for collectors to say, ‘This is something I’d like to focus on.’”

The Favorite
“It’s like children—it’s hard to pick which you love the most. But the 1938 Talbot-Lago Teardrop (by master coachbuilders Figoni et Falaschi) may be the most beautiful piece of auto sculpture that’s ever been created.”

The First Time
“My first car was a 1953 Chevy Bel Air, sierra gold with a cream interior. It was as pretty a thing as I could think of. I mowed a lot of lawns and took out a lot of trash to buy that.”

 

DR. FREDERICK SIMEONE is a retired neurosurgeon from Philadelphia, a former Harvard faculty member and neurosurgery professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Simeone has spent 50 years assembling his remarkable collection of racing sports cars, from Ferraris and Bugattis to Corvettes and Aston Martins.

Playing Favorites
“My favorite is the Alfa Romeo 2900B Mille Miglia Spyder. Driving it, you’re one with the road. It has nostalgia, a great racing history and it’s drop-dead gorgeous.”

A Lesson in Mechanics
“As a teenager, my dad bought me a very beat-up Alfa Romeo for a few hundred dollars, and left it to me to build it back up. He was a Philadelphia doctor who made $3 house calls, and we always had car books around the house. The Saturday Evening Post once ran a story on him, about crazy guys who restored cars for fun.”

The One that got Away
“The 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK is the fabulous car which I’ve never been able to get.”

Advice for Amateurs
“Do your homework. You wouldn’t buy an expensive painting without knowing who painted it and who owned it; and an auction catalog is not the honest way to get that history. If a car has historical significance, there’s a way to find that out firsthand.”

 

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