A Peerless Run to Brighton

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In this year’s Benson & Hedges RAC Veteran Car Run, which attracted 472 entries of pre-1905 cars from 16 different countries, I had the memorable experience of going with Don Meyer on his 1904 60hp Peerless, with his co-driver Edward Rowen and his wife, all of whom had flown in from America to do the inimitable Hyde Park to Brighton drive. This great car is well-known in VSCC circles, since Roger Collings borrowed it to win the Edwardian Trophy in this year’s Pomeroy Trophy contest at Silverstone and the enthusiastic Don has himself competed with it at Prescott, etc. “

The Peerless Company of Cleveland, Ohio, after a start in 1900 with a series of little low-power cars, branched out under designer Louis Mooers into the upper-crust market, with some fine models, including a vee-eight in 1916, which followed closely on Cadillac’s innovation of a car with this multi-cylinder formation. Apart from being known for their luxury cars which in pre-war days ranked with the Packard and Pierce-Arrow, the name became well-known during WWI because Peerless lorries, along with Pierce-Arrows and Rikers (which I can never distinguish, one from another) served on the Western Front and after the Armistice a British Company was set up at Slough making these lorries from warsurplus stock in the nearby Government dump. In America car manufacture ended in 1931 but by 1933, prohibition having ended, the Peerless Corporation began brewing Carling’s Ale!

Mooers also embarked on the production of some racing Peerlesses, which achieved much fame because they were successful in “barnstorming” races on the dirt ovals of the time, driven by the irrepressible Barney Oldfield. He called these cars his Green Dragons and Don Meyer’s car is a re-enactment of these. Barney raced in the early days after having performed well in Henry Ford’s famous “999”.

It is not altogether easy to decide quite which of these Green Dragons took us so swiftly to a rain-drenched Brighton on November I. but the car’s history is briefly this: Oldfield apparently acquired the 1904 Gordon Bennett Peerless. With it, the flamboyant cigar-chewing Barney undertook a series of runs at dirt-tracks, setting many local records, until he had a big pile-up at the St Louis track, wrecking the car, the third of its kind. He came back with a new car, using the engine from the other one, but with an under-slung chassis. With it he set more local records and is said to have beaten the GB-winning Richard-Brasier in a Match Race at Yonkers. Then he wrote this Green Dragon off, but again returned, either with a new car or another rebuild, before going on to more professional motor-racing after 1907.

The Peerless then lay derelict until discovered by Jeffrey Pattinson of Coys in 1970 at the estate of Arthur Lieberman of Chicago. Tom Lester was entrusted with its restoration, which took from 1972-75, making it suitable for road use. The car had been owned before that for 60 years by Bill Long of Lorain, Ohio, who maintained that Oldfield had given it to him, Barney being his boyhood friend. (Peerless cars raced in Europe when one competed in the GB race at Athy, Ireland, in 1903, Mooers giving up after one pedestrian 19.8mph lap, but this car had a T-head engine). After Don Meyer had bought the car to add to his collection of other veterans, including his Pope-Toledo, he found that the chassis of what was presumably Green Dragon V had had some 8in extensions to the front dumb-irons, to set the radiator ahead of the front axle, and that a larger radiator had been fitted, by Lester. When the car had been found only the radiator, seat, fuel tank and tool box were missing and some of the original body parts had survived. The square under-seat fuel tank was used on the GB car and all the Green Dragons, so the lower body sections, determined by its location, in aluminium, seemed reasonably accurate. Don scaled up a new seat from photographs. The wheels probably came from the first of Oldfield’s cars.

That was the exciting car on which I was going to Brighton. Examining it in the Park Lane Hotel garage prior to the start I saw that the four-cylinder engine (bore and stroke of six inches, or 11,250cc) has long push-rods on the near-side, actuating vertical overhead valves via rockers that must each be some five inches long. The valve springs are very big and the whole of this valve-gear is completely exposed. On the same side four exhaust stubs emerge from the slim bonnet. They incorporate a feature I have never previously encountered; each has a butterfly valve, all four of which are coupled to a rod protruding from the dash. When this is operated it gives a cut-out to each cylinder, in lieu of a cut-out normally on a tail-pipe, or quieter running for road driving, as required. (Don obviously prefers these cutouts fully open!).

Also on the n/s is a Bosch ZU4 magneto, although, for starting, coil ignition is available, from coils in a box on the dash, but with one sparking-plug per cylinder. The oiler-box with its six dripfeeds also occupies the dash. As was not unusual in 1904, the timing gears are exposed. The Stromberg carburettor for this cross-flow engine is on a long riser on the off-side; consumption is estimated at around 2½ mpg in hard use. Lubrication was clearly contrived by the car’s makers, for the oiler is labelled “Peerless Motor Car Co, Cleveland, USA”. Two pleasing items are vertical brass barrel-heads on the right side of the dash, with enclosed-cable drives, one calibrated 0-2000 (a tachometer), the other 0-100 (a speedometer), with ribbon-type readings, made by Warner. On the floor lives a massive turn-type ignition switch. The rh gear and brake levers, and spark and throttle quadrants above the steering wheel on its long column, are normal. The half-elliptic springs are painted to match the chassis and the steering track-rod, ahead of the tubular axle, has a friction damper. For our outing two more low-back seats had been fixed to the rear platform, for Mrs Meyer and me to occupy. The gearbox is four-speed, the gear-shift accommodating, transmission by shaft, with (as raced) a top-gear ratio of 1.1 to 1. The artillery wheels are shod with Goodrich Silvertown 6-ply 36 x 4½ Cord tyres. The car wears “No 7” in memory of the Peerless entry for the 1903 Gordon Bennett race.

So Don took his place at the wheel and pressed the starter-button. The carburettor caught fire for a moment or two, the exhaust stubs filled the confined space with enormous sound, and this Peerless, raced in the later days of its original career as the Blue Streak, roared into action, ready for our trip. Here let me say that never have I had such an exhilarating “Brighton”, save when going on Roger Collings’ Sixty Mercedes. The acceleration, not to say speed, of this Peerless Sixty is quite astonishing! Add to this Don Meyer’s great skill at taking advantage of any and every gap in the traffic, and you progress about as rapidly as you might in a modern sports car… It was remarkable how the hand-operated rear brakes pulled up this car with its heavy load as effectively as 4WB. This rapid-go, rapid-stop driving produced G-forces on one’s back but the foot-applied transmission brake was there for emergencies that never arose. What is more, those sorely-stressed narrow Goodrich tyres resisted slides when Don crammed the brakes on, or hurled his Peerless through the roundabouts, while clutch and brakes stood up to this treatment without protest. In the streams of traffic the great car seldom had much chance to be extended but in the few clear periods it must have been doing around 60mph or more. That, and its so-impressive acceleration, allowed its drivers to overtake as if on a swift 1990s’ car, overtaking for instance a motor coach and several veterans in one powerful stride; some occupants of these vehicles looked astounded, apprehensive, jealous and disconcerted all at the same time! It was a run I shall long remember. Sitting behind the two burly Americans l saw little of the road ahead, which may have been as well but I am not complaining, because they acted as a very effective wind-break, even more welcome when later the rain started.

I am a believer in the saying “there is no substitute for litres” (see a forthcoming book) and I truly believe that we might have arrived first at the Madeira Drive, in spite of starting in a late group, had the engine not suddenly cut out early on, in S London. Don got down and got under, armed with a circuit-testing lamp, and found a “short” in the wiring of the fuel pump — clearly a later addition to this 1904 car. Soon we were away, to the staccato blast of the stub exhausts, onlookers obviously loving it, even if sometimes stepping back from the hot gases when we paused at traffic-lights. The trouble occurred again just before the run down to Streatham Common and we rolled to a halt behind a Police car. Don again went to work, eventually agreeing to be pushed into a side road at the Officers’ pleadings, from which, with the engine running again, a very young Constable stopped the traffic for us to reverse out.

After that it was a meteoric progression, punctuated only by the usual halfway stop for petrol and quite a lot of oil, others for more water, change of drivers, etc. Even so, a triumphant finish was made after some four hours of truly breathtaking motoring. Outstanding for a car 88 years young. Don and Edward had driven magnificently, preventing the passengers from having nervous breakdowns. With its ohv engine this Peerless is an advanced car for its age, and the rear axle and other castings are of “Reynolds weldable steel”, an exotic alloy for 1904 apparently. Another “Brighton” accomplished, Mr Meyer and his lady were left meeting friends and anticipating the VCC dinner dance that evening, the Peerless was trailed back to Devon, and the Ford Sierra took us back to what in contrast seemed for quite a time, a dull and humdrum existence.