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BOB MARSH'S 1937 PIERCE-ARROW V12 CLUB SEDAN


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Bob Marsh, one of the loveliest old car people I've known, died about two years ago. I haven't been active in the local hobby for a long time but I reconnected with his son, Lon, at a coffee shop recently. Lon's got a sweet '52 Chev Bel Air but he's also taking care of his dad's 1937 Pierce-Arrow V12 Club Sedan. About 30 years ago Bob lovingly restored the car, which originated in southern Alberta. He and his wife June (also long gone) were delightful people, whose drive-anywhere collection included a Ford Model T Coupe, a '37 Lincoln-Zephyr, and June's stunning original Studebaker Avanti.

Lon told me that, as Bob's health was failing, he sold all the old cars except the Pierce. Lon has been starting it up regularly but hasn't taken it out of the garage in over a year. I'm encouraging him to take it for a spin sometime soon, so that I can finally get a ride in it. That's a pleasure I'd somehow missed when Bob, June, and I were avid hobbyists together, in the 1980s. I'm just realizing now how much I miss them.

This magnificent car was very well-sorted but it always suffered, and still does, what Lon understands to be a common problem with this enormous engine. It's somewhat prone to overheating and, when it does so, it absolutely refuses to start again until it has cooled right down. This foible is one of the reasons Lon is reluctant to drive the car. That, and that it's just so incredibly big.

My new/old friend is not interested in the internet, so I'm asking on his behalf: what can be done about this problem, which could allow him to get out and enjoy his dad's old Pierce and maybe even get used to its Titanic proportions? is there a quick fix that's known to other Pierce-Arrow owners?

Thanks for your advice and maybe for getting me that long-awaited drive.

I Googled "1937 P-A Club Sedan" and was going to say the photo below is just like Bob's old car. Then I realized, this looks like Bob and June's old house, too. I think it really is their car, now Lon's.

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Edited by Rob McDonald (see edit history)
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I, and perhaps Ed and others, have been reluctant to chime in because these are complex questions. A comprehensive answer would probably take 20 pages, so this interim reply will **not** be comprehensive! Let me take a quick stab for openers even though the problems could use further description:

Overheating:

1936-38 Pierces (essentially the same) tend to overheat principally because of the relatively narrow radiator opening, especially at slow speeds. The splash pans, if in place, restrict the escape of hot engine compartment air up to about 30-35 mph. Above 30 mph or so, there is enough draft created to suck air out of the engine compartment. Be sure to open the vent doors in the hood sides. Are the radiator shutters opening fully?

How long has it been since this car had MAJOR cooling system maintenance? This will likely take a full day if done right. By this I mean drain and flush coolant, refill with radiator cleaning/flushing compound, then flush and flush--again and again--until the water comes out clear. Follow this by backflushing the radiator and the block separately. If this car has the aluminum heads standard on 1936-38 in both 8s and 12s, be sure to use a flushing product that claims to be safe to aluminum "engines"; if the car has pre-1936 iron heads, a more conventional flushing material will be fine. Before flushing, I place the toes of a woman's stocking (the "footies" worn with slacks are less sheer and work better) in the top tank of the radiator through the upper radiator necks. Fold the selvage over the outside of the neck and reattach the hoses. The stocking tips will catch all the dislodged rust, crud and corruption loosened by the flushing product--stuff that would otherwise clog the radiator further.

Check the hose from the lower radiator to the water pump. Originally that hose run consisted of a piece of tubing with short hoses on either end. Today we usually see one long piece of hose. A single long hose **must** have coiled wire inside to prevent it from being sucked shut by the power of the water pump, especially at speed. If the car has a single long piece of hose, inspect this hose to see if the wire has rusted away over the years. If the hoses are more than five or six years old, this would be a good time to replace **all** the radiator hoses, as they deteriorate from the inside out. By the time they get soft on the outside, they are mushy and coming apart on the inside.

Pierce water pumps (both 8s and 12s) often have deteriorated (corroded) iron on the lower radiator hose connection. This can allow air to be sucked past the imperfect seal, especially when the coolant is hot, even if the connection is not leaking. I address this by using good ol' Indian Head Gasket Shellac on the inside of the lower radiator hose at the water pump connection; however, this means you will have to cut the hose off to remove it.

If a **major** cooling system maintenance fails to correct the problem, the next step (even more time-consuming) is to remove the water jacket plates and chip away at the rust buildup on the outside of the cylinder jugs. And if the water jacket plates are factory steel, replace with stainless reproduction parts with stainless diverters (not cheap).

Hard starting when hot:

There are two possibilities, and I need to know the symptoms.

First, if the starter cranks as fast hot as when cold, the problem is likely heat soak-related loss of fuel from the carburetor bowls, exacerbated by 10% ethanol such as we're afflicted with in most of the U.S. A supplemental electric fuel pump will definitely help--and is a necessity for Pierces for hot weather driving with 10% ethanol.

Second, if the starter cranks much more slowly when hot, the problem is probably the battery cables being of inadequate size and capacity (I use 00 [double-ought] welding cable) or defective grounds. On these big beasties, paint must be removed from ground connections (including the starter ears and bell housing where they mate), and grounds should be refreshed every four or five years.

If you PM me, Rob, I can probably find a Word document or two to help with these issues.

General:

Production of **all** 1937 Pierces is generally acknowledged to be 167 vehicles, both 8s and 12s combined. (Total production for 1936 was 787 units.) From 12-cyl engine numbers recorded with the Pierce-Arrow Society (PAS) since we were founded in 1957, we know that at least 75 of the 167 cars had 12-cyl engines. In 1936-38, Pierces were available on 139, 144, and 147-inch wheelbases. This car, a club sedan, was on the 139" wb. An old roster shows Mr. Bob Marsh's car as a Model 1702 (= 1937 12-cyl), serial (chassis) number 3160016, engine no. 409046, body no. 538-N-209. Without going into a detailed explanation, that was the 16th 12-cyl 139" chassis for 1937, the 46th 12-cyl engine for 1937, and the 9th club sedan body (both 8 and 12) for 1937. All company records, including build sheets, were destroyed when the company was liquidated in May 1938.

The following is an unabashed plug for the Pierce-Arrow Society (PAS). (Full disclosure: I'm a past president.) Pierce-Arrow **never** issued shop manuals, and their "Owners' Manuals" included mechanical adjustments only through 1929. The members-only section of the PAS website has an incredible amount of technical information, including parts numbers and sources. This section also has a message board similar to this one, where members can ask questions and get answers from other members in near real time. Our membership is $45/year 3rd class U.S., $55 first class U.S. and Canada, and $70 other countries. We have also been digitizing the full range of owners manuals and other materials, although they're not up on the site yet. There is also a wealth of info available on the public side of the site as well. Check us out at Welcome to the Pierce-Arrow Society [note dot.ORG] We also offer to members searchable CDs of our "service bulletins" (our technical publication) going back to 1970.

Even though the younger Mr. Marsh doesn't choose to use the internet, I encourage him to join PAS. Because it's far easier to transmit documents electronically, perhaps he can have a son or daughter or other person log onto the website for him to obtain information more quickly and comprehensively.

We also have members he can telephone or write for advice.

Edited by Grimy
correct typos (see edit history)
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Wow. That is, by far, one of the best answer posts to, as mentioned, a complex problem.

What a wonderful car, the second best closed car body style in my opinion, with the coupe being number one, again, IMHO.

I'd look at battery cables first, system flush second, bottom hose third .... It sounds funny but the pump, if working correctly, can suck a soft inlet hose closed easily...or rather, technically, reduce pressure in return hose so that atmospheric pressure squeezes shut...

Good luck with car, there are few late 30's cars to compare...V12 and overdrive...you'd not hold up traffic on the freeway...

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I feel like I've won a lottery! I was cautious about asking such a broad question but I needed some kind of introduction to the Pierce-Arrow community. Thank you George for your extremely generous answers, which show a depth of first-person Pierce-Arrow experience. I was particularly touched when you quoted PAS records for this particular car. I was sure that Bob would have been active in this club and hoped that at least this corporate memory of him would remain.

I'll print this out and pass it to Lon and will also send you my email address, so that you can forward me those other documents. Together, let's get this piece of history back outside, for the world to enjoy.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi, PM sent. I have a 36 V-12 club sedan, same car, just a different dash. George gave a great answer, give me a ring if you still need some help. My number is in the PM. Just for general info, these cars never ran hot new, didn't overheat new, and cranked over fine hot or cold on 6 volts. I just helped fix the same problem on a 100 point 35 V-12 in the past two weeks, it was suffering from a poor starter rebuild. It now turns over fine hot or cold. Ed

Edited by edinmass
more info (see edit history)
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ED, thanks for the assurance that this overheating/starting problem can be solved. This past Saturday, I met Lon Marsh again at a regular, informal breakfast meeting of the Edmonton Antique Car Club. Although the weather was dull and threatening rain, he was going home afterward to fire up the Pierce again, which he does fairly regularly, letting it warm up with the garage door open.

Lon and I agreed that, next Saturday, we would take the car out for a spin. I may be doing pilot car duty because he's nervous about being stranded somewhere. I'll bring my camera along to shoot some video. One of my kids can then show me how to upload it to YouTube, so that this forum can share the experience.

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Saturday's weather was perfect for a ride in a Classic Pierce-Arrow, which I thoroughly enjoyed with my friend Lon Marsh. Unfortunately, I flubbed the starting-up and driving out of the garage video sequence. You'll have to take my word for it that it was magnificent. I did capture some footage of the drive, which I'll try to get up on YouTube and add a link here.

My impressions? First, I really, really need to own a Pierce-Arrow someday. Not gonna happen, but I'll always want it. I now understand the religious-like passion shared by owners of these great cars. Secondly, I was happily surprised at how modern this car feels, at least from a passenger's point of view. The ride is smooth and stable. The massive engine makes itself known but sounds far away, below decks. The braking is assured and even. One decidedly un-modern feature is the supremely comfortable mohair-upholstered seating, which feels like the finest living room sofa from the 1930s. Foolishly, I didn't think to get a ride in the back seat, which is really what this class of car was all about. Next time.

This particular Pierce-Arrow is a club sedan, with closed rear roof quarters. It's also lacking any sort of outside mirrors. Lon's father Bob, who restored the car and enjoyed it for many years, had meant to install metal spare tire covers. He therefore never got around to strapping on rear-view mirrors to the exposed tires. Bob always had his wife June or Lon or someone around to guide him, while backing the car into the garage. Lon's on his own now, without harbour pilots, so he really does need to find and install some mirrors.

Terrific car, about which I hope to report more as the summer unfolds.

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Many years ago, I visited Bob Marsh to witness the progress on the restoration of his P-A. He had finished the project and was now embroiled in the restoration of his parts car. There were many peices that he had to make to restore the '37 and he figured that, as long as needed to do that, he might as well make two of everything and that's how the parts car became a viable project. He had bought the car, a '36 1601 sedan, from Earl Cook in Winnipeg after he had finished with it for his restoration. Naturally, it was missing many parts by then and some parts that were there were unusable as they had been taken from Earl's car and replaced with the good parts.

Some more years went by and I returned to Bob's place to see how his second restoration was coming along. It too was completed and it was gorgeous. It had a smooth running 8 cyl engine and I couldn't believe the interior; it was perfect. I have a '36 1601 sedan as well and don't ever expect that it will be as nice as Bob's car. The car was resplendant in black and had the optional steel wheels (wire wheels are standard) with all the pinstriping done.

I would be interested to know where that car went.

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I would be interested to know where that car went.

DENIS, thanks for this additional information. I missed the restoration of Bob's 8 cylinder Pierce-Arrow because I took a break from the hobby for about 20 years. I'll probably be seeing his son Lon again on Saturday and I'm sure he can tell me where that car went. Will get back to you and try to borrow some photos of that black beauty.

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  • 2 months later...

Lon Marsh has decided to sell this beautiful Pierce-Arrow. It was recently listed in the PA Society newsletter, where more details can be found. The price is $50,000 and the car is located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. If you're interested in owning an automotive masterpiece, please send me a Private Message for the owner's contact information.

Sorry for the randomness of these photos - I was having camera trouble that day.

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'36 1601 sedan... was completed and it was gorgeous. It had a smooth running 8 cyl engine and I couldn't believe the interior; it was perfect. The car was resplendant in black and had the optional steel wheels (wire wheels are standard) with all the pinstriping done. I would be interested to know where that car went.

DENIS, sorry for being so slow with a reply. Lon Marsh told me that his father's '36 Pierce-Arrow is still in the Edmonton area. Send me a private message and I'll try to get the current owner's name and phone number for you.

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