o simply call Joe Freeman a “car guy” would not do him justice. Joe Freeman is so much more. He’s the expert who established the provenance of the Simeone Automotive Foundation’s Duesenberg, one of the three most important racecars in the United States. He’s the historian and publisher who is preserving decades of automotive racing for the future. He is a kingmaker of sorts, judging prestigious Concours events across the country. And he is an avid collector who restores and maintains some of the most important racecars in the world. You could call Joe Freeman a car guy, but it doesn’t begin to illuminate all he has accomplished and everything he is currently doing to bring others along in the hobby.
Freeman first became interested in cars while a student at prep school, where he admired the Porsche a teacher drove. That teacher shared with him some books on racing, and that was that. “I started to go to Lime Rock and Thompson when I could steal my father’s car,” Freeman says. “I got really interested then, and that interest has just maintained itself.”
In the 1970s, Freeman became a serious racing driver. He had a promising career until suffering a bad accident at Lime Rock, which kept him off the track for nearly a decade. Then he happened to come across two 1930s dirt track cars for sale. They sparked Freeman’s interest in vintage racing, and kicked off the next chapter in his automotive life: his illustrious journey as a collector.
Freeman’s first “really serious” car was a 1915 Duesenberg, which he purchased in 1993 and still owns. The only older Duesenberg in existence resides at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, but Freeman’s car is more original and more complete. This makes it extremely significant, and earned Freeman the prestigious Tony Hulman award at the 2010 Amelia Island Concours. He can trace the Duesenberg’s history back to its 1916 second-place finish at Indianapolis. He easily rattles off the list of former owners, including Lou “Loop-the-Loop” Hoight, a former circus performer who raced “ol’ number 39,” drove it in parades with a bear riding shotgun, and even ran it at 70 mph on a frozen Hudson River. The car has changed hands just five times.
Freeman and his wife, Cynthia, have nicknamed many of the cars in their collection. The Duesenberg is “Magnificent Beast.” The Bugatti Type 30 that did 1,500 miles through the Australian outback with a previous owner is “Adelaide.”
Ever the historian, Freeman recalls the nicknames that the Andersons gave their cars. Their 1901 Winton, dubbed, “The 40-Horsepower Racer,” is the car that first drew Freeman to the Anderson Collection. “It’s a really remarkable assemblage of very early cars in original condition,” he says. “That’s really the crown jewel of the Larz Anderson [Auto] Museum.”
Freeman has been a dedicated supporter of the museum for nearly 40 years, ever since he and some friends had the idea to hold a show on racecars at the Carriage House. “We wanted to do something that was interesting to us. In the process, we got very involved in the museum,” Freeman says. A long-time board member and former president of LAAM, Freeman says he feels responsible for the museum. He acknowledges that fundraising can be difficult with so many charities competing for donors’ dollars, but believes the key is simply keeping people interested: “We have to keep the public’s eye trained on the museum and keep encouraging car enthusiasts to come.”
Freeman has a track record of encouraging car enthusiasts. He was an early investor in—and is one of the primary owners of—Club Motorsports, the members-only track in Tamworth, New Hampshire. He notes that more and more of these golf-club-style road racetracks have been popping up in recent years, an encouraging sign of growing interest. As the owner of Racemaker Press, Freeman continues his work as a historian, propagating and preserving the history of auto racing. Racemaker publishes books designed to present accurate histories in a widely-appealing form. It also maintains a vast collection of important archives and memorabilia from decades of racing.
Freeman has two models on his desk at Racemaker, both of Indy cars he owns: the Chrysler-powered 1952 Kurtis Kraft 500A and the 1960 Joe Hunt Magneto Special. Both cars see regular use and are frequently out of the garage. Freeman shares his collection generously, lending cars for months at a time for exhibitions like Patina, Provenance, Originality, which ran at LAAM from 2013-2014, and the Cars and Stars of the Indy 500 at Heritage Museums & Gardens. Freeman is also a regular at Concours events across the U.S., giving the public an up-close look at his cars.
In addition to all this, and in spite of his bad accident decades ago, Freeman also remains active in the vintage racing community. “Vintage racing is going on at more of a pace now than it ever has,” Freeman observes. This is encouraging, in light of what he calls the “graying of the automobile collector market.” He points out that the nostalgia craze that had gripped the U.S. has faded, and although auction prices currently remain strong, Freeman worries about the future of the hobby, and of his own cars, which require an extraordinary level of commitment to maintain. The Joe Hunt Magneto Special, for example, runs on alcohol fuel, which means it needs to be completely flushed, or “pickled,” every time it is run. This vehicle cannot even be operated without assistance, as its off-board starter makes that a two-person job.
Will there be a lot of people who want to keep up, race, and enjoy these cars in the future? I really can’t tell,” says Freeman. “I hope so. I certainly don’t want to see them junked.” Freeman is doing all he can for the cause. Like his prep school teacher, he encourages youngsters who show an interest in the automotive world every chance he gets.
“I take the trouble to get them seriously involved,” he says, adding that he always lets potential new car enthusiasts sit in one of his racecars, and even takes some out on the track. His 1947 HRG 1100 Roadster often plays the role of ambassador, as kids tend to like its MG-esque looks. The museum also plays an important role in drumming up interest, with its educational programming and the ever-popular summer Lawn Events. “The museum actually came about because of people in the hobby,” Freeman notes. And as one of the most heavily-involved people in the hobby today, he’s well-positioned to keep that momentum going.