- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

Armistead Peter III received a letter dated Aug. 6, 1919, from the coach-building firm of Brewster & Co. in New York that read: "We acknowledge with thanks your check for $2,176.45 paying in full the bill for the roadster on the Pierce-Arrow chassis which we have just finished."
He had previously paid $865.
That amount of money bought only the custom-built body. Eight months earlier, on Jan. 13, 1919, Mr. Peter had ordered a top-of-the-line 48-horsepower model B5 Pierce-Arrow chassis with a price of $5,250 plus a war tax of $191.25. Americans were still paying off the war to end all wars, which had ended the previous November.
He was allowed credit of $146.26 because the rolling chassis had no hood, dash cowl, dash lamps nor headlamps.
The Foss Hughes Pierce-Arrow dealer received the $5,294.99 April 5, 1919, when the chassis was delivered. At that point it was shipped to New York for the custom coach work to be completed.
What sort of man would or could spend $8,482.70 in 1919 dollars plus shipping costs (as well as eight months of time) on an automobile when a Model T Ford roadster was selling for $500?
The late Mr. Peter was the fifth and last generation of the family that built and owned historic Tudor Place in Georgetown at 1605 32nd St. NW. Built by Martha Washington's granddaughter Martha Custis Peter, the land was purchased in 1805 with an $8,000 legacy Mrs. Peter received upon the death of her step-grandfather George Washington.
The decision to have the New York Brewster firm design and build the body for the Pierce-Arrow was a logical choice since Brewster had made the Peter family's horse-drawn carriages since the company was founded in 1810.
The Peter family favored Pierce-Arrow automobiles since the company was founded in 1901 until its demise in 1938. The family owned five Pierce-Arrow cars, but the 1919 roadster was the only one that the family never sold.
It was the last year for cowl lights on a Pierce-Arrow as well as the dual cowl ventilators. The face of the radiator shell is nameless because the Pierce-Arrow folks thought a name would be superfluous on a car that in their eyes everyone could tell at a glance was a Pierce-Arrow. The top of the radiator cap stands 5 feet plus an inch above the ground.
Probably the most identifiable design cue on any Pierce-Arrow was the faired-in headlights, which sat atop the fenders. That feature was an optional extra starting in 1913 that many buyers, especially city dwellers, chose to eschew.
In those early days of motoring, fender-bender accidents were quite common. If the headlight were fender-mounted the light beam could be knocked askew. Consequently, many Pierce-Ar-
rows left the factory with headlights mounted between the front fenders in front of the radiator.
Pierce-Arrow was one of the last American auto builders to adopt left-side steering. They did so in 1920.
According to Karin Johnston, Tudor Place Foundation registrar, Mr. Peter, a very tall man, took an active role in the design phase of his 19-foot-long Pierce-Arrow roadster. A new seat-to-steering-wheel ratio was designed to accommodate his height. With the top in place the car is 6-feet, 8-inches tall. He also opted for headlights between the fenders. Because he didn't care for standard Pierce-Arrow lights, the German-silver lights on his car are bell-shaped units designed by Rolls-Royce, Ms. Johnston says. Each lens is 10 inches in diameter.
The roadster was Mr. Peters' only automobile for many years until the Great Depression prompted him to buy a smaller, more economical car a 1930 Chrysler. The Pierce-Arrow was placed in storage until 1937 when it was sent back to Brewster to be refurbished. When World War II broke out, the car was returned to storage where it slowly deteriorated for the next 35 years.
In 1973 Mr. Armistead again decided to restore his favorite car. A Boulder, Colo., establishment focused on mechanical and upholstery work for a year.
With the car restored to good mechanical health it was shipped to a Feasterville, Pa., shop where the body work was tackled.
By 1977 the car was like new and delivered to Mr. Peter who drove it home to Tudor Place. Afterward, he wrote, "When the car was delivered to me in Bethesda, Maryland, I drove it the seven miles to my house here in Washington, and I admit that it felt more like a truck than a car. Everything was built very heavily in those cars, including the gears, and a special trick has to be employed in shifting which I still remembered, although I had not driven the car for 47 years."
He must have been referring to double-clutching. Peter Waddell, artist-in-residence and trained Pierce-Arrow volunteer, said, "You have to double-clutch when shifting gears both up and down."
Mr. Waddell, who has been all over and under the car said, "The chassis is so massive you could use it for bridging material."
Starting the huge inline six-cylinder engine cannot be accomplished before pressurizing the gas tank with a hand pump. Before the advent of electric fuel pumps the air pressure in the tank would force fuel to the engine.
Spark and throttle levers on either side of the four-spoke wooden steering wheel hub must be adjusted.
Opening the left side of the engine hood exposes a half dozen priming cups, each able to hold a thimbleful or so of gasoline, which is dumped directly into the cylinder below to facilitate starting.
With the key in the ignition and thumb on the starter button the engine groans until a soothing, low growl ensues indicating that the 82-year-old engine still lives.
"It has enough torque to climb Mount Everest in second gear," Mr. Waddell said confidently.
In the centrally located instrument cluster the top row of gauges from the left are the clock, odometer and 75 mph speedometer. "I've had it up to 60 mph," Mr. Waddell said.
Gauges on the second row measure oil pressure, gasoline level and amperes.
At the bottom is the switch to operate all lights, the ignition, starter and fuel tank pressurizing pump.
The headlight dimmer button and horn buttons are on the driver's door.
The luxury car came equipped with on windshield wiper, one outside mirror (on the left), one spotlight (on the right, and two 5.00x35-inch spare tires, a testament to the quality of both roads and tires of that time.
The clutch operates smoothly and the transmission has four forward gears. "It rolls right away," Mr. Waddell affirms.
Despite the fact the enormous car stretches 5 feet, 8 inches from the windshield to the front of the radiator, it really is just a two-seat automobile.
A rumble seat is on the rear deck with access via three step plates up the right rear fender. Occupants of the rumble seat in most cars were at the mercy of the elements. Not so on Mr. Peter's Pierce-Arrow. Its rumble seat was equipped with a folding soft top to match the one over the front seat.
On the left side of the spare tires is the trademark Pierce-Arrow three-light arrangement above the license plate, which includes backup light, taillight and brake light.
For the sake of safety, Ms. Johnston says, turn signals were installed as unobtrusively as possible during the restoration in the 1970s.
Besides the gas gauge on the dashboard to keep tabs on the 32-gallon tank, a second gauge is mounted directly on the tank at the rear of the car.
Before his death in 1983 Mr. Peter, when his Pierce-Arrow was 64 years old, indicated the high esteem in which he held the car when he related: "My wife used to say that this car was her only rival."
In 2000 the roadster was shipped to a Staunton, Va., restoration shop where it was cosmetically freshened.
An inspection revealed the internal parts of the engine to be in remarkably good condition.
Once it was buttoned up it was returned to Tudor Place, the centerpiece of a foundation created by Mr. Peter, the last owner, to maintain the historic property. Visitors to the property can also view the last owner's favorite automobile, a 1919 Pierce-Arrow roadster.

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