What Alex Watt thinks is a 1901 Peerless automobile in a Florida front yard
To anybody else, it looked like a junked soapbox derby entry, draped in Florida weeds.
But not to Alex Watt. The acting head of the Planning Branch’s Regional Planning Section sees both the past and the future. “I saw a lot there,” the native Scot recalls of his first glimpse of what he suspects is a 1901 Peerless, loaded with history, memories and a promise of what can be.
Watt had bought what was left of the vintage car on eBay from an estate in Florida. The car reportedly had run as recently as 20 years ago, but it had been parked on a front lawn for a long time. So over the Memorial Day weekend, Watt drove his pickup truck 4,700 round-trip miles over 4 ½ days to fetch the 4-foot-wide, 7-foot-long vehicle. It fit nicely in the bed.
Why such exertions for what amounted to little more than the ghost of a machine? Watt, who has forged almost a second career restoring old cars, recognized the historic value of the 103-year-old relic. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Peerless began in the 19th century as a bicycle maker. In 1900, according to an eponymous Web site, Peerless started importing De Dion engines and chassis from France, making its own bodies. “The first Peerless Motorette was displayed at the New York auto show in November 1900,” the Web site relates. Less than a year later, Peerless displayed a 2-cylinder car and quickly expanded both horsepower and designs. In 1904 the legendary Barney Oldfield was hired as a racer.
The company continued to make and sell an ever-widening gyre of cars, including a V16 model, but eventually original management was replaced by men from Cadillac. By 1932, an automaker once mentioned in the same breath as Pierce-Arrow and Packard had been converted into a brewery. It couldn’t even keep its own brand name, and Carlings of Canada began churning out Black Label beer at the plant.
“You seldom see a Peerless car today,” the Web site states. “They are very rare. They were a limited production luxury car and were one of the more expensive cars sold in the USA.” Watt reckons fewer than 150 cars were made in 1901, and only a handful of photographs remain of them. “It’s as if their early cars disappeared off the face of the earth,” he says.
Except for the one in his garage.
From the time he unloaded it at his home, Watt has proceeded like an automotive Sherlock Holmes - - searching libraries, asking car club members, plumbing online sites—trying to detect the elusive Peerless. Even when he first saw it on eBay, there was no nameplate and he identified the marque only because of its unique tiller steering (no wheel) and chain drive from the transmission to the rear wheel. Within a year or two, that system had been replaced by the more conventional one described in the 1904 ad. (eBay is a very unusual way to acquire an early car, as most are located by word of mouth or through ads placed in automobile club newsletters.)
Now that his quarry is safely ensconced, Watt must doff the tweed Deerstalker and don his restorer’s cap. “Right now I’m still taking pictures,” he says, “making a list, checking it twice.”
The car has to be totally disassembled, with each part photographed, checked and measured so he can use them as a pattern if he cannot use the originals. The 10-speed-bike wheels now on it have to be replaced by 18-inch wire wheels, as will the Kohler engine, which is currently installed. Since the De Dion company has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, he’ll be searching all the booths at the Beaulieu Automobile Swapmeet this fall during his annual automotive treasure hunt in the United Kingdom. There he hopes to try to track down the correct engine and transmission.
He’ll be using similar methods as those used by the original Peerless blacksmiths who put the first cars together by hand, since there was no assembly line. “They’d try different things on different cars,” Watt explains. “If it worked, it worked. If not, they’d change it the next time.”
Compared to the 1936 Riley Lynx which he’s still working on, or the 1922 Model T Ford or the 1961 Aston Martin DB4 that he’s finished, the ’01 Peerless “will be an easier,” he says.
Watt easily envisions the refinished Peerless product: “It’s going to be exciting as hell driving that thing down the road since the top speed is only about 25 miles per hour. It will be really different driving.”
Move over, Barney Oldfield.
Feel free to contact Alex Watt by email - especially if you can help positively identify this car! His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org