Pierce-Arrow Society Feature Article
1922 Series 33 Touring Car
An Owner and Driver's Report
by Tony Doughty
Contemporary auto magazines like Autoweek and Car & Driver feature reports evaluating new cars on style, mechanical innovations, and driving performance. As one who has recently had the opportunity to become the conservator of a 1922 Series 33 4-passenger Pierce-Arrow touring car, our editor Greg Loftness asked me to apply the same type of analysis to my initial experiences with our new acquisition. With the evangelistic zeal of a new convert to the small but loyal cult of dual-valve fans, I'm happy to give it a try.
Background and Context
The 1921-28 Pierce Arrow Series 32, 33, and 36 dual-valve cars have tended to be an under-appreciated segment of Pierce-Arrow history. Top-end speed is less than that of the preceding Series' 4, 31, and 51, and also the straight 8's that followed. Furthermore, they fall into the organizational black hole created by the limits of our national car clubs; too late for the HCCA brass events, and on the early end of the CCCA CARavans dominated by classics of the 1930's and 40's. A quick check of market prices confirms their status as the Rodney Dangerfields of Pierce-Arrow history, as the dual-valves generally sell for much less than the earlier T-heads and later classics. For the careful market shopper, however, this can be a great opportunity to own an affordable gem.
Ten years ago I bought my first Pierce, a 1930 Model C sedan, in the car corral at Hershey. Eager to learn all I could about the history of the company, I ordered all back issues of Automobile Quarterly with articles on Pierce-Arrows. On page 251 of the Winter Issue of 1968 (vol. VI, number 3), I saw a photo of what I thought was just about the best looking, most nicely proportioned car I'd ever seen. Styling was by the custom house of Rubay, and the lines were clean and uncluttered. In its sport touring form, with custom disk wheels, Westinghouse shocks, and double rear spares, it personified the racy look and energy of the Roaring 20's. I made a mental note that it was owned by Robert Lyons of Michigan. Later, when Bob Lyons sold it to John Gambs of Indiana, I filed that bit of info away as well. Last fall a 1924 7-passenger Series 33 was coming up in a Kruse auction in Indiana. I called Kruse to get further information, and they referred me to the car's previous owner, John Gambs. I was delighted to have an excuse to call, and when I reached him we wound up making a deal on the 4-passenger car instead.
John was very open with me about the condition of the car when I purchased it. Due to long storage and inactivity, it had carburetor, gas, starter, and ignition issues that required a through going over before it would be road-worthy. Accordingly, I had a great opportunity to dig into the mechanics and get to know the operation of the vehicle. I removed both the head and the pan, and replaced all the ignition wiring. The dual-valve, dual ignition aspects of the engine are remarkable. Seven main bearings and twin cams smooth the operation of the 6-cylinder engine. John had installed new Ross aluminum racing pistons, which had not even been run in. The 4 valves per cylinder are a feature now highly touted by some modern manufacturers on their 2006 models! Pierce-Arrow's Chief Engineer, David Fergusson, had worked closely with Orville Wright on the design of aircraft engines in WWI. The dual ignition features of the Pierce-Arrows of the post war period are a direct result of that partnership. Just like an aircraft, the car has built in redundancy. You can run on the right bank, the left bank, or both banks of plugs and coils. In addition, the carburetor can be adjusted from the driver's position to run either rich or lean, depending on conditions. From a marketing standpoint, these expensive features caused Pierce-Arrow significant pricing problems, with cars retailing from $5800 to $8500, huge sums for that time. Conversely, now that the dual-valve, dual-ignition cars sell for less than the earlier T-heads and the later classics, they actually represent a significant value advantage in this day and age.
The first time I ever got the car running I had only fixed the carburetor and the starter. It was still unmuffled, had old cracked wiring, an as-of-yet undiagnosed stuck valve, and ran on about 3 1/2 cylinders. I drove it only about a quarter mile. It ran terribly, but it handled like a dream. The steering is so light and so well balanced that this 5000 lb car drives like a 2000 lb car. It is the most pleasurable car I have ever driven. Pat took the photo on the right just as I backed into our garage at the end of that first drive. Even though the engine ran like junk, I couldn't wipe the grin off my face as it handled so beautifully.
Since that first drive, with much consulting help from Paul Johnson, Greg Loftness, and Leo Parnagian, the other issues have been corrected. The smooth, strong engine operation is now as pleasant as the handling. At the 2006 PAS meet in Oregon, and then on the Modoc Tour, the car topped high mountain passes with ease in high gear. It's comfortable cruising speed is 45 mph, which for a 5000 lb car with 2-wheel rear mechanical brakes is probably about as fast as I care to go. This being a 4-passenger touring, it is equipped with a 4:1 final rear end ratio. Roadsters have a 3.75:1, making them a little faster. Sedans and the 5 and 7 passenger tourings came with a 4.29:1, giving them a slightly slowly pace. The ride is very smooth and quiet. In sum, I consider myself very fortunate to be its conservator, and look forward to many pleasant years of touring with this terrific automobile.