Pierce-Arrow Society Feature Article 

Restoring our 1931 Pierce-Arrow Phaeton
A detailed account of one man's Pierce-Arrow restoration
by Bob Dluhy
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The New England Pierce Journal, published quarterly by the New England Region of the Pierce-Arrow Society. Our thanks to Bob and New England Region editor June Gould for sharing this article!

I bought my car from John Fogarty of West Palm Beach, Florida in May 1995. It was a very nice, unrestored car with 56,000 miles. It was solid and remarkably straight, but not running. The car appeared to have the original paint, and at first I thought the original upholstery. I later found signs that it had been reupholstered. It was nice enough that my plan was to get it running, use it for a while, and after I had a feeling for its performance, restore it to its full potential.

When I tried getting the car started, however the engine was so dirty that the valves kept sticking. The valve blocks were masses of goo that looked like axle grease. It became clear that the engine had to be taken apart, cleaned and at least the valves needed to be done. Even though the body and interior were very nice, the engine was tired. It takes a lot of time and effort to take an engine apart to clean it. I decided to just rebuild it and do it correctly and authentically. As the engine restoration progressed, it became clear it was too nice to restore only the engine and leave the rest of the car alone. I reasoned that by the time I got the rest of the car restored the engine would no longer look good enough. I decided on a full restoration and decided it should be body off, frame up. Does this pitiful reasoning sound familiar to anyone else out there?

My plan was to have John Cislak of Classic Auto Restoration in Indian Orchard, Mass. do the engine. John is an excellent engine and chassis guy and a very good painter. He no longer wants to do painting, but he did want to do the chassis as well as the engine. Steve Bono of M & S Auto Restoration in Bouckville, N.Y. agreed to do the painting/body assembly and Steve recommended Marvin & Lydia Sensenig of Sherman Hollow Coach, Penn Yan, N.Y. for the upholstery and top. The die was cast; I was into a cross-country restoration with multiple schedules to merge to be ready for the 2007 PAS Meet in Williamstown, Mass. on June 24, 2007.

I'm not a gear head. Working on cars is not something I did as a kid. I was a jock and egghead in high school. I am an electrical engineer who spent his career as a project engineer building military electronics systems, mostly minehunting sonar systems. I started restoring cars as a change of pace from my job, but I found that if I do it all on my own, it takes forever. I also found that my expectations for quality exceeded by ability. I wanted to work with John and Steve, do some on my own and manage the parts and restoration sequence with their help. John Cislak and Steve Bono were willing to let me work with them, in their shops, using their tools, and learn as we proceeded. I learned a lot, had a ball, finished a car I am proud of and they both still talk to me. Could I ask for more?

I'm a compulsive note taker. I took notes of activities on the restoration project (at the end of each day) and have five 100-page spiral bound notebooks of activities during this process. I also have hundreds of photos of "before and after" shots to help put things back together. For me these are necessary to do a good job. Because of the notes I have been able to put together a summary of activities during the restoration. Some of the results were surprising, even to me. I have never seen anyone document a restoration before. I hope you enjoy it.

The Overview

I started the restoration when we removed the engine from the car. This was August 2003. We took the car to the Pierce-Arrow Meet in June 2007. That's a four-year window and I think it would be difficult to do a "body off" restoration in much less time unless you have shops with large teams. I documented the restoration process with time lines as shown in Figures 1 through 3. There are three time lines on each page. The upper time line documents activities at John Cislak's shop. The middle time line is work at my home or at major subcontractors other than John Cislak or Steve Bono. Steve Bono's activities are on the lower time line. The time line scale is at the top (each tick is about one week) and the V represent visits to their respective shops and the number above the V represents number of days in a visit. Absence of a number means it was a one-day visit. The arrows are major events or milestones.

I summarized the time that I spent working at each shop including travel time:

  • Cislak: 71 trips and a total of 988 hours with 16,330 miles traveled, & 15 overnights
  • Bono: 16 trips and a total of 701 hours (this total includes trips to upholsterer) with 13,164 miles traveled, & 37 overnights
  • Other: 49 trips and a total of 185 hours (Radiator, Platers, Harness, Balancing) with 3840 miles traveled, & 2 overnights
  • Total: 136 trips and a total of 1874 hours with 33,334 miles traveled, & 54 over nights (not counting 60 hours driving time, 2856 miles & 24 overnights at Hershey AACA Fall Meet where my major objective was to find 31 PA parts )

The above hours represents time in travel or at one of the shops. I worked hours in addition to these at home. For example I have documented 849 long distance phone calls, and I'm sure the real number was closer to 1300. I estimate the average number of hours each week at home to be about 8 hours a week for 200 weeks including phone calls, subassembly, making parts, buffing, and preparing for and off loading from trips, etc. This is another 1600 hrs. My total involvement was 3474 hours. There are approximately 2000 hrs in a year of work. This total doesn't count the individual shop labor hours for which I paid. It's safe to say that only a mad man would restore a car this way. This is the hard way; the more straightforward way is take it to a shop, write checks and pick it up when it's done. I enjoyed doing it my way. Throughout the duration of this restoration I worked 20 hrs per week at the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Clearly restoring this car was a major part of my life for four years, accounting for the other half of a 40-hour workweek.

The Restoration

The restoration started on August 2, 2003 when a friend of mine, Keith Mackenzie, and I removed the engine and transmission from the car. Even though a restoration is never really "done" at a car's first meet, I considered mine done at the June 2007 PAS Meet. As the summary numbers above indicate the bulk of the work was done at John Cislak's shop. The schedule, however, was dictated by the work done at the Sensenig's, first with the interior installation in April and May 2006 and then the fabrication of the convertible top approximately seven months later in November and December 2006. These two activities required coordination and completion of many predecessor activities and particularly in the case of the interior installation caused much anxiety and stress.

The Sensenig's primary business is building horse drawn carriages such as the ones we are accustomed to seeing with the Pennsylvania Amish. Their schedule is less flexible than most restorers.

At the time when we removed the engine from the '31 Pierce, I was enjoying my second retirement having retired from the ATMC at UMass-Dartmouth six months earlier. Before we started the engine disassembly in October, 2003 two major things occurred. First, I was unexpectedly rehired on a half time basis (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) by the ATMC. Secondly, the Bujak's, May's and Dluhy's signed up to co-chair the 2007 PAS Meet in Williamstown, Mass. We started negotiating for the William's Inn in September, 2003. One can make two observations. First it takes as long to restore a car as it does to plan a PAS meet and second, I was going to be busy and stressed for the next 4 years.

John Cislak is a very talented and experienced guy. He has rebuilt many gasoline and diesel engines as an employee and had done several antique and motorcycle engines in his restoration shop including Ed Minnie's 1936 Model 1602. He used the "before and after" pictures from my 1603 for Ed's restoration and we had become comfortable with each other. John is very thorough and meticulous. He disassembles every piece of every part of the engine and accessories and checks every piece for wear and tolerances. John has no fear. He disassembles everything to the smallest piece. When he took the UUR-2 carburetor apart, for example, every single jet was removed, cleaned and checked for tolerance. I remember thinking that if anything happens to him before he reassembles, I'm in trouble. I've worked around engineers and technicians throughout my career and I observed that John has an extraordinary mechanical aptitude and memory and he can reassemble parts taken apart more that a year previously with little reference to photos or notes. It's fun to watch.

I took the engine and transmission to Cislak's at the end of October of 2003 when he finished work on another project and was available to start the rebuild of my engine. John is primarily a one-man shop and as is true with all small shops, he must keep two or more projects active at a time in order to have other work when the inevitable hold-ups waiting for parts or services occur. This period of the restoration was characterized by a single serial activity at a relatively casual pace. The pace would accelerate at an accelerating rate. At the time we had not yet come to grips with the magnitude of the restoration of the remainder of the car to meet the Williamstown, Mass. PAS 2007 deadline.

John is compulsive (in a good sense) about cleaning. Every engine part was cleaned professionally then re-cleaned by John (or his helpers) prior to painting and/or reassembly. His secret weapon is carburetor cleaner. He loves carburetor cleaner. One example of his thoroughness is the water jacket. We felt that the junk inside the block had to be cleaned really well if we were to have a reliable car that wouldn't heat up when driven in hot weather. John had me buy a 3/8 inch thick steel plate, 8 1/2 wide by 36 inches long and drill 28 holes for head bolts. We used this to seal the block while we soaked it with muratic acid (mild hydrochloric acid). This process was used to make sure the internal and inaccessible water jacket passages were clean of rust and deposits. I also had a new honeycone radiator made by Chuck Niles of Topsham Radiator in Maine. These two decisions seem to have been worthwhile investments because the restored car has never gotten above the midpoint of the temperature gauge.

Figure 1 depicts the events leading to the restoration of the engine. Most of those reading this article have been through an engine rebuild so I will only outline some of the key decisions we made and why. First, we decided to put connecting rod insert bearings in the engine. I believe connecting rod bearings are a main limitation to sustained high speeds in early cars. In order to implement this we made a fixture to hold the rods while they were machined for a good side face. We welded a bead on the side then machined the rod on a milling machine. We decided on new forged pistons and cast iron rings. We made new valves from modern valves machined for length and modern keepers. We also put in new valve guides. The engine cylinders had already been bored .030 over and we took them to .040" over size. This cleaned them up nicely. We cut .046" off the head to straighten it and decked the block. This increased the compression a little but not significantly.

The crank was reground and John personally align bored the main bearings on his own machine. This was a fascinating process to watch. John has a special feel for getting this right. We sent the pressure plate and clutch to Ft. Wayne Clutch after cleaning. It came back in two weeks and looked great. We used stainless steel cylinder head bolts and buffed them. We had some of the other special exposed engine bolts made by Tioga Stainless and had some of the other engine/accessory parts plated.

As I mentioned earlier, the radiator was "condemned" based on flow rate and we had an authentic honeycone radiator made. The core material is made only in England or Australia. It took over 19 months to get the finished product back. It looked great but we had several adjustments to get a good fit. The carburetor needed a new throttle shaft made oversize to ensure a fit free of air leaks. The generator required rewinding field coils. We decided later that we needed new, modern rod bolts, new valve springs and we ended up having to use two rods and several valve blocks from my spare engine ( more on that later ). We tried to match the original light gray paint on the block as closely as possible.

The engine reciprocating and rotating pieces were done by the end of February, 2005. The last step prior to final assemble was to send the parts to Lindscog Balancing in Boxboro, Mass. for static and dynamic balancing. Lindscog does race car engines, turbines and other high tech projects. They are very good. After a week Willard White of Lindscog called to tell us that the rod weights varied too much to balance. We knew the engine had seen hard times because the rods are numbered and there were three 8's! This is not a good sign. It means that three different engines gave up rods for this car. We decided to take my spare engine apart. This was no trivial job. It had sat for a long time outside and clearly didn't want to come apart. After new rods were taken out of the engine, they had to be welded and machined. We lost three months with this change. I believe balancing the engine has contributed significantly to the smoothness and the useable RPM of this engine. It was worth the effort.

It was August 2, 2005, two years to the day after we removed the engine from the car, that we mounted the engine and transmission on a dolly. It looked great and I thought it was truly an object of art. The rebuild was done very thoroughly so I was convinced it would perform as well as it looked. It would be September 28, 2006, more than a year later, and three years into the restoration, until we had an opportunity to start the engine.

While the engine was being restored the body/chassis was sitting at my home waiting for its time in the sun. I had ordered a new enclosed trailer and as soon as it was available in May 2005 we loaded the car in the trailer and headed to M & S Auto. Steve Bono agreed to paint the body and to coordinate the upholstery and top restoration at the Sensenig's. The Sensenig's are Amish (Mennonites to be precise). They don't own a car. They do quality work and it is a family affair. You get Marvin, his wife Lydia, the seamstress, and all of their three boys have contributed at one time or another. They use electric sewing machines and pneumatic staplers but their work ethic is exemplary. They are genuinely nice people and it was easy working with them.

On June 3, 2007 when I first returned to Bono's the first task was to take the car from Steves's to the Sensenig's where we removed the upholstery. I felt it important to have the people who were going to restore the interior be the ones to disassemble it. Steve and I helped and took pictures of the process. After the interior was removed the car went back to Bono's shop for removal of the body from the chassis. We took the bumpers, fenders, runningboards, doors, steering gear/steering wheel, top, lights, windshield, and dash, off and mounted the body on a moveable dolly. Everything except the wheels, exhaust, rear end, driveshaft and harness had been removed. I remember looking at it and thinking "I took a magnificent, almost original car, and turned it into a pile of parts; what have I done?"

Steve continued to work on the body using Kwik Poly to seal the wood and doing body work as required. Meanwhile I planned to take the chassis back to Rhode Island and get it ready to take to Cislak's for painting and restoration of the chassis including the exhaust, brakes, steering gear, front end, springs/covers/shackles, rear end, drive shaft, gas tank/lines, installation of the wiring harness and finally installation of the engine into the chassis.

Steve and I decided that the wire wheels would be powder coated at Best Powder Coating in Utica, N.Y. We sand blasted and powder coated the wheels. We then rubbed them out just like a primer or paint and did them again in red and finally with a clear. The result was very nice. Wire wheels can be difficult to paint. The spokes always have a shadow from another spoke that either creates a run or light paint. It takes a lot of time to get good painted wheels. Powder coating on the other hand does not spray paint, but uses an electrostatic charge to coat the area with powder, which is then melted. The powder will even go around corners to attach to the charged metal. This greatly reduces the cost of "painting" wire wheels and the results are very nice.

Best Powder Coating can do frames also and similar advantages are true. The difficulty with painting a frame is that the paint doesn't want to blow into the square of the inside of the frame. If I had to do it over again, I might have powder coated the frame too.

On June 6, 2005 back in Rhode Island I started chassis disassembly for cleaning. I removed the harness, exhaust and gas tank and cleaned the chassis up before delivering to Cislak. The chassis was incredibly greasy with years of oil covered by dust and dirt, etc. Bono recommended oven cleaner for grease and paint removal. I took the chassis to a friend's shop where we didn't have to worry about mess and lifted one end of the frame in the air with an engine lift. I sprayed the oven cleaner, then removed it with a power washer. Oven cleaner is a very strong alkali and is dangerous to use. I covered myself with a hooded overall, facemask, goggles and double gloves and went at it. It worked great, but I got a drip under one of the gloves and it got to my skin. By the time I got it washed off, it had burned to a third degree. Drips on the underside were the problem (don't spray up - ever). I did finish it and it came out very, very clean. I have three scars to remind me of my educational experience and a sore ear from my wife Nancy's ear massage.

I delivered the chassis to Cislak on September 5, 2005. We disassembled the front end, removed the rear end and axles, so that we had a bare frame. The first step for reassembly was one more cleaning, sand blasting and painting of the frame. It came out great and we installed the junction boxes, conduit and wiring harness, exhaust, gas tank, electric fuel pump (emergency for starting or vapor lock) and made a right hand tail light bracket (we put on turn signals for safety). We got new king pins from Scott Stasny, new tie rod ends and worked on other front-end parts. The steering gear looked very good and only needed a good cleaning and reassembly. We did the brakes and matched the curvature of the new shoes to the turned drums. We put the gas tank on along with new King Seeley tubing. We cleaned the rear end and decided that the 4.07 rear end was fine for the car. It travels 60 MPH quite comfortably, and I suspect I will leave it as it is.

The springs turned out to be a very difficult part of the restoration. We sent the springs to Eaton Detroit Springs to make new ones, front and rear. The right rear had been broken and had a truck spring in it. We wanted the springs to spec, right down to the rolled, tapered leaves with the proper leaf thicknesses. Dave Coco provided his rear spring as a sample. I used one of my fronts as a sample. All of the fronts in 1931 are the same. The rears vary from model to model. The fronts came from Eaton with no problems. The rears required making a leaf thickness that was no longer available. We had to get a thicker leaf piece and grind it down. When the rears arrived the arch was not quite right and the tapering was not correct. We re-arched the leaves, and reground the leaf ends by hand then made the covers(gaiters) to finish them off. We then put the wheels and rear end on and hooked up the brakes. Lastly we lowered the engine in position attached the pedals and loaded the car in the trailer to take to Bono's for installation of the body.

On April 4, 2006 the chassis was returned to Bono's where he had diligently been stripping and priming the body. When Bono stripped the car and got a good look at it the body was in incredibly good shape. There was no wood rot anywhere to be observed by our critical inspection. There was no rust anywhere, except surface staining where the paint had cracked. We later found one area in one fender well that was thin and needed to be removed and fixed. The engine was really beat but the body was remarkably good. We decided on black and metallic silver for the body paint. We wanted the elegant understated look. I would later learn that metallic silver is a tough color to paint or repair. We decided on red wheels and red leather interior with a fine red pin stripe. I was pleased with these choices when the car was done. Paint colors are really important. I sprayed a dozen samples before settling on the final choice. I used 2' by 3' cardboard (big is important) and put the primer underneath (primer can change color) before I was convinced it was what I wanted.

We mounted the body back on the chassis, installed the doors and began aligning the radiator, hood, and doors. This is a very slow and tedious process and finally on April 10, 2006 we took the car to Sensenig's for the installation of the leather interior. We discovered that the upholstery in the car was not original so we needed to make certain that the new interior would be authentic. We called on two good PAS members, Phil Marshall of Kendall, N.Y. and Dave Coco of Winchester, Virginia. Steve and I went and visited Phil. Dave sent digital photos of his interior. They were identical and both are 1931, Model 43 Phaetons, the same as my vehicle. Unless they were restored by the same guy (they weren't) that is pretty good evidence. It's great to have such good members in the club.

On June 3, 2006, the body returned to Cislak's where we finished the chassis work including making new floorboards, modifying the exhaust to solve an interference problem, rebuilding the shock absorbers and working on the windshield. We started preparing for putting the top on including making rivets for the top irons, having Mel Draper of Mel's leather in Jeromesville, Ohio, make new steam bent top bows and Matt Patrie of J & M polishing in Wilbraham, Mass. plate the top irons.

The first week of October, 2006, we finally were in a position where we could start and run the engine. This was exciting. We put external temperature and oil pressure gauges on and started the engine. It started well, but made a racket. It turned out to be the starter, which wouldn't release. After a small adjustment it sounded good with 40 PSI of oil pressure. The fan belt was tight and the engine quieted down when we backed off the tension a little. John adjusted the carburetor and it was better still. Finally after it had fully warmed up John readjusted the valves "hot" and it really began to purr. I was thrilled and I was impressed with the deep rumble of the engine. It sounded great. Just before we loaded the car on November 6, 2006 to take to Bono's we had a chance to drive it. It ran great and drove with the powerful and distinctive sound of a classic Pierce-Arrow. I was excited and John Cislak was proud of his achievement on the engine, and the power and smoothness of the car.

On November 6, 2006 we loaded the car in the trailer and took the car back to New York for installation of the top. The top was finished January 3, 2007 and finally our project looked like a car. All it needed was fenders. But the fenders couldn't be put on until the runningboards and moldings were finished. Cislak and Patrie were doing these in Massachusetts.

Finally on March 29, 2007, the runningboards were done and it was back to New York for final assembly of the body. After a week of fitting and assembly the car was finished. Steve Bono is a morning person working from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. He is like the Energizer Bunny. We made a lot of progress in a short time.

While we were waiting for runningboards at Bono's we had gone ahead with assembly of the trunk, installing seat belts ( I have grandkids-no belts, no rides say Mommies ) and pin striping, so that we could start installation of the fenders and final wrap up in New York. By this time it was early February in central New York State. This is not a good time to travel there and 2007 proved to be a record setter for snow in the area. Steve Bono plows snow and has a list of customers that he has done for many years. He gets up at 3:00 a.m. to plow and it usually takes till 9:30 p.m. to finish. He would let me in his shop at 6:00 a.m. and then come back at 9:30 and work with me until 6:30 p.m. He'd then go home and do it all over again the next day. That's a good shop and a good friend.

On one visit in February 2006, it had snowed extensively in central New York State, mostly lake-effect snow north of Bouckville near Lake Ontario. We had made an appointment for Mike Hubbard of Pulaski, N.Y. to do the pin striping. I wanted a 3/64" stripe per P-A spec. Mike agreed to come on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Mike called at 9:30 and said he had to delay for a day because he had 5 feet of snow on the roof of his house and he was concerned that it would collapse. The next day he called at 9:30 and said he would be an hour late. They got three more feet of snow overnight. He said they had 105 inches of snow in the previous 8 days. He made it as promised and finished the pin striping.

Working with Steve Bono has been a very positive experience. Steve has run his own businesses for many years while raising a family. He's had several successful businesses including truck repair, radiator repair, auto body paint, retail auto parts, snow plowing and antiques. Several years ago he decided to restore antique cars, mostly brass era. My car is about as new as he cares to do. Because of his previous successes, diversity, and his own temperament he is happy doing antique car restoration. He comes to work because he loves it not because he has to. He takes problems as challenges and he makes working with him enjoyable . His part time staff of John, Monte, Darrell, Gabe and Jim reflect his personality. Steve is tireless and stops only when the task is right. He has taken several cars to the AACA Hershey car show and has never failed to win first place with an entry.

Bouckville, N.Y. is a very small town about 320 miles from my home. Because of the distance I tended to visit for 3 or 4 days at a time. Steve is a highly respected businessman and member of the community. When I mentioned at a motel, restaurant, or service station that I was working with Steve Bono, I was immediately accepted as a good guy and one of them. To this day towns people still ask when the guy form Rhode Island is coming back.

I brought the car back to Cislak's on May 9, 2007 for final clean up, test drives, and the infamous "punch list". The punch list included installing the instruments, wipers, headlights, side mount tires/hardware, wing vents, front-end alignment, brake adjustment, and a myriad of other things. We also put 400 miles on the car traveling to Belchertown and Palmer, Mass. for test runs. There were 83 items on our punch list. John is the perfect guy to finish the punch list. He is very detailed and committed to a flawless effort. On May 16, 2007 I brought the car home and did some final clean up. I replaced the leather hood corners, fixed the King Seeley gas gauge with Bob Koch's help, installed the doorsills and painted the hubcaps. We finished on June 23, 2007 at 10 p.m. and left for the meet at 6:30 the following morning.

I thought the car did look good when finished and its performance was all that I had hoped. As most of you know, it won first in its class at the 2007 PAS Meet. I also received many nice comments from PAS members. These made the work all worthwhile.