In the years of opulence before the First World War, reputations were being forged in America's luxury car market. One successsful 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, manufactured in 1913. To power the huge machine - the wheelbase was just two inches shy of 12ft - the Model 48 was equipped with a 525-cubic-inch (8½-liter) side-valve inline six, with its cylinders cast in three pairs. The Model 48 was provided with a completely duplicated igniition 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.
The brakes were by a mechanical system, and it took a bone-cracking heave to bring the car to a halt. Thankfully the chauffeur did not have to crank the huge engine by hand, there being 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. For the time this was not only an advanced system, but was suprisingly efficient and of course particularly quiet.
The American Winton company used a similar sealed-air valve-spring system on its passenger car engines in 1906.
Various body styles were fitted, the five seater tourer configuration be amoung the most popular. This style had a 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. It was this sloping rear panel that made the car look well-proportioned, somehow managing to disguise the sheer vastness of the car until you got up close.
If you ever have the opportunity of seeing a Model 48 in the flesh, the first thing that will strike you is the size, which is overwhelming: the radiator cap is at chest-height, and the running-boards are a good step up. Inside are two seats 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 had only the bare minimum of instrumentation, a large drum-action Warner speed read-out and mileometer being the important one.
Once the big cylinders swung into action, the Model 48 was able to make good progress by the standards of the day, and if it showed signs of struggling up a hill, you could switch in a third set of plugs: an extra growl would creep into the engine noise, the exhaust would sound harsher, and the car would seem to square its shoulders and set to work on the hill.
The enormous size of the engine meant that its useful rev-range was extraordinarily low. Only a trace of movement in the central throttle was needed to get moving, and immediately it would be time to change up. A clean change to 2nd gear would require the revs to be set at around 1200. One of the Pierce-Arrow's special features was the delicacy of the steering compared to other pre-WW1 luxury cars. It was certainly not light or especially sensitive, but there was no "lost motion" or "delay" evident in many vintage cars of the era.
In its role as a touring car, serene and stately, each corner and junction had its own excitement. Would the chauffer be able to stop in time? Even with leg muscles straining on the brake pedal, the car would take its own time to slow down; only a question of mechanical advantage since the drums were adequately sized, but much forethought was called for.