Automotive History and Vintage AQ Review: Peerless – One of the Great American Luxury Marques and a Close Look at a Brass-Era 1910 Peerless Landaulet

1910 Peerless Landaulet, Body by Brewster

Peerless was one of that famous triumvirate of the “Three P’s”: Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and Peerless. These three were among the most revered and sought-after ultra-luxury cars of their times, from their Brass-era beginnings until the depths of the Depression, when two of the three succumbed as car-builders. Their early success was based on an unwavering dedication to building the very finest automobiles possible, with only the very the best materials, technology and craftsmanship; they were built to a standard, not a price; both of which were inevitably very high.

The 1910 Peerless Laundaulet reviewed by Automotive Quarterly (reprinted further down) is a splendid example of Brass-era car building at its finest. As an introduction, I’ve prepared an abbreviated history of the company. It’s old history now, but Peerless and the other long-gone classic marques are an integral part of what shaped the industry, both then and in their aftermath.

Originally known as the Peerless Wringer & Mfg Company in Cleveland, Ohio, manufacturing washing-machine ringers, in 1892 it became known as the Peerless Mfg Company.  In 1895 the company moved to new facilities and began soon to manufacture bicycles for the booming bicycle market, as sort of bicycle enthusiast craze taking off in the USA in the 1890’s.  By the turn of the century the company was making automotive parts for the nascent, developing automotive market.   The company was renamed and re-established as  “The Peerless Motor Car Company”   in 1900  producing automobiles from 1900 until 1931 when the effects of the “Great Depression” impacted it as well as many other American Luxury brands.

1901 De Dion-Bouton Motorette

Initially in 1900, the Peerless manufacturing facilities were at 43 Lisbon Street manufacturing  an auto under license from the French manufacturer De Dion-Bouton, the De Dion-Bouton Motorette.  Almost at the same time, 1901, approximately 200 miles to the east in Buffalo, New York, the George N. Pierce ( later known as Pierce Arrow) began its licensed manufacture of the similar De Dion-Bouton Motorette.  It is an interesting fact that two of the most early prestigious auto manufacturers (both Peerless and Pierce) began with bicycle production morphing into the production of virtually similar licensed De Dion-Bouton Motorettes from which both quickly evolved into producers of luxury brass era cars.

 

1901 Pierce De Dion-Bouton Motorette

The 1900 De Dion-Bouton four wheel carriage/voiturette/Motorette had a single cylinder 402 cc (24.5 C.I.D) engine with overhead valves, inlet atmospheric, trembler coil ignition, spinning to an unprecedented 3500 RPM maximum engine speed and usually run at 2,000 RPM,   delivering 3 3/4 HP(CV), positioned under the seat (actually a Victorian Era mid engine design) with drive through a 2 speed gearbox with shift on the steering column and a decelerator pedal applied to a transmission brake.  An advanced design for 1900 produced by both Peerless and Pierce under license.

 

1901 Packard

Already begun in 1897, 65 miles to the east of Cleveland, in Warren, Ohio, the Packard brothers had begun production of an auto, essentially an improved Winton with one of the first steering wheels.  The Winton Motor Carriage Company had been established in Cleveland in 1897.

Cleveland and Buffalo were already manufacturing hubs and with the addition of Detroit, the Great Lakes region became the epicenter of American auto manufacturing, the early 20th Century manufacturing and wealth generating equivalent of  the current Silicon Valley.

 

 

From 1905-1910, Peerless experience rapid expansion in size, production numbers, and prestige under the leadership and direction of Lewis H. Kittredge.  Peerless began to produce and sell luxurious car models that by 1905 were priced at $3,200, $4000, and $6,000.

As the fame and prestige rose, the focus was on luxury and the carriage trade set, with Clevelander John D. Rockefeller and New Yorker Cornelius Vanderbilt becoming customers.  Peerless was quick to innovate, electric lighting in 1911, and along with Cadillac, was an early initial, adopter of electric starting in 1913.

 

The first production V8 of the 1910 De Dion-Bouton, the inspiration for the Cadillac and Peerless V8’s

De Dion-Bouton introduced the first production automobile V-8 in 1910, followed by the first American productions V8’s by Cadillac in 1915 and by Peerless in 1916 displacing 331.8 C.I.D, with side valves, and built by Herschell-Spillman for Peerless.

 

The production Cadillac V8 of 1915, followed by the Peerless V8 of 1916.

In distinction, Cadillac built its V8 in house, not outsourced.  Herschell-Spillman’s V8, in its various production versions, would be the only engine option offered by Peerless until the lower-priced Model-6-70 was introduced in 1925

Peerless, Pierce Arrow, and Packard, known as the prestigious 3 P’s, quickly evolved from the single cylinder beginnings into the most storied and prestigious multicylinder luxury cars of the Brass Era, which extended from 1896 to approximately 1916.   The Brass era is an American term ( Edwardian or antique in the U.K.) for the early period of automotive  manufacturing in which brass lighting fixtures, radiators, horns, engine accessories, etc were made of brass, often ornate in appearance.

The Brass Era came to essentially an abrupt end by 1916 as there was a developing worldwide shortage of copper and brass being diverted to the insatiable demands of the new industrial based command economies producing armaments and machines for World War I.  Brass was vital for millions of artillery shells, for the billions of small arms bullets, for bearings, for radiators, and for the new applications in aeroplanes for warfare.  The Brass Era brass automotive fittings/accessories were replaced  initially with painted steel pressings, and then with Nickel Plating, becoming called the Nickel Era, which in turn was replaced by later Chrome Plating (i.e radiator shell of the 1930 Model A Ford).

 

1911 Peerless

The pre-WW1 cars, the Brass Era cars like our luxurious subject car represent the zenith and then the twilight of a soon to fade time in history.  The 3 P’s had to change and adapt in the post WW1 recession losing some of their glamour in the process to survive in the 1920’s

1920 Peerless, clearly a smaller, less prestigious appearing model compared to the Brass Era models

The six cylinder Model 61 ad with a price, size, and degree of prestige far removed from the Brass Era.

The relentless down market ride in order to remain viable with less expensive 6 and 8 cylinder models.

When it became clear in the late teens with the post World War One recession of 1919-1920 that the market for the large touring cars that Peerless had produced prior to the war was limited, the company lowered its prices and tried to promote medium sized, ultimately less prestigious cars. Even competitor Packard followed this path, eliminating the prestigious twin-six V12 models for less expensive straight eight models.  Once the rabbit hole of competing on price was entered, to ultimately compete with the larger volume competitors, the slow process of ultimate doom for these once prestigious brands was sealed.  In the 1920’s Peerless went deeper and earlier into this rabbit hole than Packard with lower priced 6 and 8 cylinder models.

                                                                                                                 1930 Peerless

 

1931 Peerless

As the boom economy of the 1920’s developed, auto derived profits increased.  Starting about 1926 Peerless management planned for a return to the upper luxury market by developing two aluminum intensive prototype V12 engines and a prototype aluminum intensive V16 engine independent of the concurrent V12 and V16 developments of Cadillac and Marmon. More upscale body work was developed for the late 1920’s extending into 1930 and 1931.   Plans and engineering were underway for new aluminum intensive chassis and bodies for those new engines.  James Bohannon was hired away from Marmon for management.  Alexis de Sakhnoffsky was engaged for styling direction. Murphy was contracted for the custom bodywork to restore Peerless to the preeminence it had enjoyed in the Brass Era with Kittredge.

Then the Stock Market Crashed and everything changed.

With the 1929 Crash, and the onset of the great Depression causing great economic changes, the management of Peerless led by President James A. Bohannon ceased auto production on November 4, 1931 to save the company and its existing cash reserves by doing the generally unthinkable, changing their business model ( as in 1895 for bicycles and then yet again in 1901 for auto production) allowing Peerless, of the 3 P’s,  to ultimately out survive Pierce Arrow (demise 1938) and then Packard (demise 1957).

 

Seeing the end of Prohibition, confirmed by the election of FDR on November 8th, 1932 who promised repeal of Prohibition, Peerless bought licensing rights from Carling Brewing of Canada, and in 1933 remodeled the car factory into one of the larger breweries in the United States for Carling Red Cap Ale and Carling Black Label beer (slogan:  “Hey Mabel, Black Label”).  Because there had been other beers called “Peerless”, and to eliminate confusion, the Peerless name became the American Brewing Company with the same President, Board of Directors, and stock holders as the Peerless Motor Car Company, continually brewing beer until 1979 when the company was bought by Heileman Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is now owned by Coors.

 

 

Obviously the Peerless Board knew that during the post-prohibition Depression that beer was a likely savior for the Company and beer did allow it to outlive its long term rivals, Packard, Pierce Arrow, and other independent smaller car companies.  Peerless, by having a long standing tradition of adaptability, of being able to change it’s business model as needed, survived by evolving from producing washing machines, then bicycles, followed by auto production, and then ultimately to producing beer.  Peerless, proved that truly it was without peer as a survivor by doing the unusual and unexpected for survival.

 

So you are invited to enjoy a cold one as you read the story of the 1910 Peerless Landaulet written by the outstanding automotive historian, the late Beverly Rae Kimes.

The story was published by the late Gerry Durnell, Editor and Publisher of the no longer published Automobile Quarterly.   Gerry was also the photographer for the article.  Publication was in the Automobile Quarterly, Volume 41, number 2, second quarter 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Above are the delightful Donzes with their family who did the restoration of the 1910 Peerless in their Strongsville, Ohio garage.

Finally, I personally knew both the late Dr. Bill Donze and the late Mrs. Bernice Donze who were absolutely delightful people, who happened to be car enthusiasts, and were owners of this 1910 Peerless.  Bill was an Obstetrician/Gynecologist who would drive daily to the hospital with one of his many “old” cars, personally restored by himself and Bernice, and his most frequent favorite was a 1938 La Salle.  His patients and families would get drives in his cars delivering many smiles along the way while he delivered many babies for those young families.   It was a pleasure to have known both of them, and my life was personally enriched knowing them.

 

 

 

 

Stillborn 1932 Peerless V16 prototype, Body by Murphy.  Aluminum engine and bodywork.

Because the luxury Peerless cars contained between 2 to 3 times the aluminum usually found in other luxury cars of their period, many Peerless cars fell victim to the World War 2 scrap metal drives, so that very few Peerless cars survive to this day.