Old Cars Weekly archive – May 15, 2008 issue
Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart
Restoring a 1928 Pierce-Arrow Series 36 sedan
Any Italian-American will tell you the atmosphere of Ferrara’s Imported Foods is that of an Italian food market. There’s a wonderful 1950s-style marquee in the requisite red, white and green colors out front. Inside, the market’s shelves are filled with red packages bearing product names ending in vowels and containing the old-world foods one would expect. More importantly, the staff is as warm as a hug from your grandmother, and their last name matches that on the storefront. If you’re a good customer, they will treat you like you’re family, too.
The patriarch of this family business is Al Ferrara, a gentleman with the physical strength and wisdom gained only from spending more than 50 years working daily in the grocery business. Many who pass through his business’s doors only know Ferrara for the cannoli he sells and the delectable sandwiches he makes. Inquisitive and alert customers who look to the wall behind Ferrara’s sandwich-making station will notice a collage of photos depicting Classic cars of the 1920s and 1930s — some of them very famous. If those customers ask the right questions, they will find out those cars aren’t just appreciated by Ferrara, many of them are in his garage.
Not only does Ferrara have his family to thank for the business he’s chosen, but also his taste in fine cars. When it comes to cars, people collect what they are familiar with, and Al Ferrara has known the best since he was a child. The first car Ferrara remembers his father owning was a circa-1930 Lincoln coupe, and it was not just any Lincoln, but a stylish coupe sporting a coachbuilt Judkins body.
The business successes Ferrara’s father found in the Cleveland area during the Depression allowed him to afford the coachbuilt Lincoln, as well as the services of a chauffeur to drive it. Despite the coupe’s tight passenger compartment, Ferrara spent time in the Lincoln and remembers it well, and the man who drove it. The Lincoln, its owner and the chauffeur are long gone, but each left an impression on Ferrara that continues to influence his taste in cars. And when Ferrara buys a car, he hangs on to it, never letting it become a fading memory like that Lincoln.
Even today, Ferrara still prefers the best of the best, collecting cars bearing the names Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Cadillac and Duesenberg. And he’s been doing it a long time, making him a patriarch in the old car hobby, too.
Ferrara does not know what became of his father’s Lincoln, but it was long gone when Ferrara returned from serving in the European theater of World War II. With war behind him, Ferrara immediately picked up his interest in car collecting. Perhaps thinking of his father’s Judkins coupe-bodied Lincoln, Ferrara bought a new Lincoln Continental. Shortly thereafter, he ran across a Buehrig-designed Cord Phaeton for sale. The Cord was essentially a used car at that time, albeit a very unique used car, and it intrigued Ferrara. He bought the Cord and, in short order, sent it to the former Auburn Cord Duesenberg factory showroom in Auburn, Ind., (now the ACD Museum), and had it restored by former Cord Corp. employees who continued to maintain the company’s cars.
In the early 1950s, collectors began to gather for car shows in growing numbers, and Ferrara was there with them, driving his family in the Cord to shows as far away as Pennsylvania. While on such a trip, Ferrara spotted his first Duesenberg and was in love. On the way home, he told his wife he had to have one. Shortly thereafter, he had a Duesenberg in his garage.
Other Classics soon followed, but more importantly, so did friendships with other hobbyists who owned similar cars. Many of Ferrara’s friends were well-known collectors, such as Bill Harrah and Al Thurn, and though they are gone, crowds gather around Ferrara at shows to hear his stories about these men and the histories of the cars they owned. And like a dutiful Italian patriarch with years of experience, Ferrara is happy to share these stories.
Not everything was good about car collecting in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the time in which Ferrara began collecting cars. Many collectors chased only sporting open cars, such as roadsters and convertible sedans. Closed cars, and formal sedans in particular, were considered undesirable by nearly all collectors, and many town cars and berlines were parted out to restore cars with more exciting body styles, or were converted to different body styles altogether. Fortunately, Ferrara feels differently toward Classics with such body styles, so when he found an unrestored 1928 Pierce-Arrow Series 36 sedan in the mid 1980s, he didn’t think of the parts it could supply to his other Pierce-Arrows, he considered it a future restoration project.
Negative opinions of sedans and formal cars also served to keep Ferrara’s Series 36 Pierce-Arrow in unrestored condition. If the car had been a sporty roadster or an elegant convertible sedan, the Pierce-Arrow sedan would probably have been restored many decades earlier, and it wouldn’t have been so affordably priced.
Ferrara found the Pierce in the mid 1980s while on a return trip from the AACA Fall Meet in Hershey, Pa. — a meet he attends every year. During each trip, Ferrara included a stop at Paul Beechey’s home for a visit, and to inquire about Pierce-Arrow parts. On the 1980 trip, Ferrara ended up with more than just parts – he bought two cars.
“I looked in the building and saw this in a corner,” Ferrara said. “It was a big, black sedan. Just a plain old sedan and nobody wanted it. I said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’”
The answer was “sell,” so after Ferrara learned Beechey wanted $3,400 for the sedan, a Series 36 with a Pierce-Arrow-built body, he handed over the cash. Beechey promptly peeled two $100 bills out of the stack and handed them back to Ferrara.
Ferrara asked, “What’s this for?” Beechey replied, “That’s for paying cash.”
Ferrara likes to know the history behind each of his cars, including their previous owners, and learned from Beechey that the car originally came out of Pittsburgh. Beechey didn’t know the name of the car’s original owner, but he did remember the name of the person he had bought the car from. That owner was Elmer Senik, a recluse from the hills of Pennsylvania. Senik was also a Pierce-Arrow collector, perhaps the Pierce-Arrow equivalent of A.K. Miller, the famous Stutz collector. How Senik came upon the car is still unknown.
Once the Pierce-Arrow was in Ferrara’s hands, its slumber continued. All that changed was the location of the dark storage building.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” Ferrara said.
Over 20 years, other more sporting cars entered the garage and pushed the Pierce deeper into its haven. Many of those sporting cars also moved ahead of the Pierce-Arrow to the restoration shop, further reducing the likelihood it would ever be restored.
But all of that finally changed about three years ago when Ferrara visited a Bath, Ohio, restoration shop owned by Miles Morstatter. Even when Ferrara didn’t have any cars in Morstatter’s shop, he frequently visited the restorer. During one visit, Ferrara noticed something different about Morstatter’s shop. It was empty.
“Even after Miles was finished with my last car, I still visited him,” Ferrara said. “I walked into his shop one day and it was all nice and clean. I told him, ‘I have a nice, clean black sedan. Would you like to do that one?’” Morstatter told Ferrara, “Bring it down. You’re number one.”
Since the car had not suffered at the hands of parts pickers, it was very complete when it was trailered to Morstatter’s shop.
“It was very complete, but a mess,” Ferrara said. “It was missing the original coils, but I had those.” Ferrara didn’t need much for parts. He needed a set of rims, but a NOS set he found in Canada were too rough, so a used set was located and painted for the restoration.
Morstatter is a one-man shop, and can fire up a paint sprayer and a sewing machine all in the same day. He and Ferrara selected many of the original materials together, though Ferrara already knew where he wanted to start looking. The correct style of leather was located for the front seat and top. Leather tops on many Classics, including Ferrara’s Pierce-Arrow, did not have a seam running front-to-back; a single hide was stretched across the top of the coachwork. Ferrara found a source on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border that supplies hides of this size, and Morstatter was able to fit a correct-style top.
Closed Classics often have particularly plush interiors, and Ferrara wanted his car’s interior to be worthy of the fine Pierce-Arrow name. All closed-model 1928 Pierce-Arrow Series 36s featured gold hardware within the interior, and Ferrara had every piece replated. His attention to detail continued to the rear compartment, where he went through two different materials before he found a few yards with a pattern that pleased him.
“The car had rip cord in back,” he said. “We found some material from China, and I said I didn’t want that. I found some material from Belgium and said, ‘That’s what I want.’” Since Ferrara fought in Belgium during World War II, the material likely gave him a link to his past.
For the outside, Ferrara chose to brighten the car and selected a two-tone color combination of Laurel Green for the fenders and a color Ferrara calls “Burnt Gold” for the Pierce-Arrow-built sedan body. The original exterior trim and hardware were restored to make the car’s exterior as impressive as the car’s interior, and the restoration efforts were worth every step. When Ferrara debuted the Pierce-Arrow at the Classic Car Club of America Grand Classic in Dearborn, Mich., in 2007, the car scored a perfect 100 points. He also expects to show it at the Pierce-Arrow Society’s 2008 national meet.
Background on the 1928 Pierce-Arrow Model 36
Al Ferrara’s 1928 Pierce-Arrow Model 36 is a rare car, and it was from the year it was built. Pierce built the Series 36 for only two model years: 1927 and 1928. In the book “Pierce-Arrow,” published by A.S. Barnes and Co. in 1980, author Marc Ralston states that 1,500 Model 36s were built in 1927, and only 500 were built in the model’s last year, 1928. (The Pierce-Arrow Society estimates 1,900 were built from 1926-’28.) The Series 36 was Pierce-Arrow’s prestige automobile while it was in production, and was priced between $5,875 and $8,000, depending on the body style the discriminating Pierce customer selected. (Those prices are the equivalent of buying 10-13 Briggs-bodied 1928 Model A Fordors at $585 each.) Pierce-Arrow also offered significantly less-expensive models in an attempt get more production from itsunder-utilized facilities.From 1925-’27, the lower-priced model was the Series 80, which sold for $2,000 to $3,000 less than the Model 36. In 1928, the Model 36’s lesser companion car was the Series 81.
Understanding the Series 36 of 1928 requires turning the clock back to 1920 and the creation of the Series 32. This was an all-new Pierce-Arrow that was smaller than its predecessors, in keeping with trends of the times. But that’s where the car’s innovation ended. Rather than install an L-head eight-cylinder engine, like many of its forward-thinking competitors, Pierce-Arrow officials chose to continue Pierce-Arrow’s six-cylinder strategy. The Pierce-Arrow dual-valve six-cylinder for the Series 32 used the antiquated T-head design, though it was cast en bloc in the interest of making it run smoother. At 3,000 rpm, the 414-cid, four-valve-per-cylinder engine produced 85 hp (a 38-hp NACC rating) and was good for 72 mph in the 138-in. wheelbase chassis, the only length offered in the Series 32. These were also the first Pierces to include three-speed transmissions with forward-sliding gears and left-hand drive. According to the Pierce-Arrow Society, approximately 1,000 Series 32 cars were built and only five are registered with the club.
The follow-up model to the Series 32 was the little-changed Series 33, built from 1921-’25. Nine additional body styles were available on the same 138-in. wheelbase chassis, bringing the body choices to 19. Among the most notable changes on the Series 33 was the consolidation of distributor duties. Rather than have two distributors to spark the dual-valve six-cylinder, later Series 33s featured a large, single distributor. During the production run of the Series 33, more than 6,500 were built. Such sales were a disappointment to Myron Forbes, president of Pierce-Arrow from 1921-’29.
The numbers didn’t get much better for the Series 36 of 1927 and ’28. The Pierce-Arrow Society estimates 1,900 were built from 1926-’28, and of those, only 30 are registered with the club. To separate the Series 36 from the Series 33, the metal in the body was slightly refined, the cars were fitted with six-ply balloon tires, hood louvers were arrayed in six groups of three louvers each and a taillamp with three bulbs was featured at the rear. Mechanical refinements of the engine, which featured aluminum pistons and connecting rods, brought the horsepower up to 100 units.
Ferrara’s sedan includes all of these details, and is the last of a special breed of Pierce-Arrow. After the Series 36 of 1928, Pierce-Arrows would feature eight-cylinder engines.