Classic test: 1913 Pierce-Arrow 48

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Colossus of roads

In the years of opulence before the First World War, reputations were being forged in America’s luxury car market. One successful survivor of a time when many firms failed was the Pierce company, established in 1901 in Buffalo, New York State. But it was as Pierce-Arrow, from 1909 onwards, that the company began to make its reputation with large, powerful and well-engineered products which rivalled those of Europe. Amongst these was the Model 48, and we have been driving a 1913 example belonging to American collector Bill Ford.

To power the huge machine — the wheelbase is just two inches shy of 12ft — the Model 48 is equipped with a 525-cubic-inch (81/2-litre) side-valve inline six, with its cylinders cast in three pairs. Originally it was provided with a completely duplicated ignition system featuring two vertical plugs per cylinder; six plugs were connected to a magneto, and six to a coil, and the driver had a switch to select either or both. However, the man who rebuilt the car in the Fifties obviously felt that this was inadequate, and added a third set of spark-plugs by drilling out six of the cylinder-block core plugs. These project horizontally into the combustion space and are triggered by one half of a double distributor which has replaced the original single unit. The other half fires the same six plugs as before. Thus the driver has the choice of one, two or three plugs per cylinder igniting the mixture. But setting the timing must be a nightmare.

Several other major changes were made to the Pierce-Arrow nearly forty years ago, including the substitution of hydraulic brake operation for the older mechanical system. With the enormous weight of the vehicle, keeping all four drums properly adjusted must have been critical, for even now it takes a bone-cracking heave to bring the car to a halt. Also a large electric starter was fitted — not that the chauffeur had to crank the huge engine by hand before that, because he had the benefit of an air-starting device. This used compressed air stored in a tank to turn a small piston engine geared to the flywheel. When the motor was running, the driver reversed a valve and the air-engine became a pump, recharging the tank. A brass gauge showed the pressure in the reservoir. It seems to have been an efficient system, and of course particularly quiet, but after forty years of use the struggle against leaks became too much. The redundant mechanism remains, though, its copper and brass pipe-work gleaming by the driver’s left foot.

As an aside during this explanation, Bill told me that the American Winton company used a sealed-air valve-spring system on its passenger car engines in 1906 — the same principle that Renault’s Formula One engineers adopted for their last turbo V6 and for the new V10.

Also replaced during the car’s extensive rebuild was the body, though the “new” coachwork (at forty years old as aged as many supposedly “classic” cars) follows the lines of the original five-seater tourer. It sports the dominating canvas top with a backward-sloping rear panel typical of American body designs right through from before the First World War to the advent of integral steel saloons, and looks well-proportioned, somehow managing to disguise the sheer vastness of the car until you step up close.

Its size is overwhelming: the radiator cap is at chest-height, and the running-boards are a good step up. Inside are two nicely-upholstered chairs for the front occupants, while the distance between these and the rear bench seat is almost enough to lie down in. A large wooden wheel faces the driver, who has only the bare minimum of instrumentation, a large drum-action Warner speed read-out and mileometer being the important one.

It took only a short press on the button to hear that slow whine of a low-geared starter suddenly change to a regular chuffing sound as the big cylinders swung into action. With the owner in control (in the right-hand seat like so many prestige cars) we rolled down the drive and on to the public highway.

It makes good progress, this 75-year old leviathan; like all such slow-revving long-stroke engines it can be left in top gear to tackle almost any hill. If it shows signs of flagging, switch in the third set of plugs: an extra growl creeps into the engine noise, the exhaust sounds harsher, and the car seems to square its shoulders and set to work on the hill.

The enormous size of the engine means that its useful rev-range is extraordinarily low, I discovered on taking over the wheel. Only a trace of movement in the central throttle is needed as the stiff clutch comes up to get moving, and immediately it is time to change up. It took me a couple of attempts to get into second, until Bill advised me that I was using too many revs. 1200 is all it needs to switch cleanly. Thereafter I could settle back to listen to the hiss of the huge tyres and the gentle puff-puffing from under the bonnet.

One of the Pierce-Arrow’s special features, according to Bill, is the delicacy of the steering compared to other pre-WW1 luxury cars. I cannot say that I found it light or especially sensitive, but there was no more lost motion or delay than in many a vintage car I have tried, which must reflect well on the Pierce company in those early years.

But if the performance of this imposing vehicle reflected its role as a touring car, serene and stately, each corner and junction had its own excitement. Could we stop in time? Even with leg muscles straining on the brake pedal, the car takes its own time to slow down; only a question of mechanical advantage, to be sure, since the drums are adequately sized, but much forethought is called for.

So we sailed along the gently undulating roads of Pennsylvania, so like England but with far less traffic, with the huge sheet of glass pushing the air aside in front of us, feeling quite detached from the everyday scurrying of ordinary cars somewhere below. Returning home, Bill squeezed the towering Pierce-Arrow back into his motor-house (the roller shutter had to be specially raised to allow the car to be put away with the top up) and we looked at some of his other cars.

Like many East Coast collectors, Bill likes British cars, but his Phantom 1 Rolls-Royce neatly bridges the Atlantic. It is one of the very early Derby chassis assigned to the Springfield, Massachusetts, plant to start the Rolls-Royce operation there. It is fitted with Dunlop hubs rather than the American-made Buffalo units on later cars, but has distinctive American lamps and gauges and Springfield coachwork with a folding rear passenger windscreen.

Alongside is a 41/4-litre Bentley with an elegant three-position drophead body by Rippon Bros, built in 1938 but not delivered to its first owner until 1940. Most interesting of all to me, though, was the 41/2-litre car with unique coachwork by Wilder of Kew Gardens, built to the design of Prince Georg Imeritinsky early in 1928. With its sharply cut-off tail it looks unusually rakish for a four-seater, and it is unusual in having fabric (black, not green) over a complete alloy body. The Prince, a Russian, wrote motoring articles amongst other things, and used this car for an extensive tour of Europe.

Bill Ford’s real interest is in the big, powerful cars of what Americans refer to as the “brass era” (essentially pre-WW1) and since my visit, he has added a 1906 Lorraine De Dietrich dual-cowl phaeton to his collection, everyone of which sees regular use. GC

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