1931 Pierce Arrow touring car rebuilt into award winner

Doug Hill / For The Transcript

Ron Blissit with the 1931 Pierce Arrow touring automobile that he restored to award-winning perfection.

Ron Blissit restores other people's automobiles, but he won't do it for just anyone. The owners have to understand cars and preferably not be an attorney-at-law. One of Blissit's latest completed projects is a 1931 Pierce Arrow touring car.

The automobile was brought to his Norman shop by San Antonio patent lawyer Ted Lee. He had to convince Blissit that he wasn't an ambulance chaser and worked only in intellectual property rights. Now, the pair are friends. Not only that, they co-own the Pierce Arrow with an unusual possession pact.

"The car is part mine now," Blissit said. "We came to an agreement that if I would restore the car, when it was finished, he would leave it with me. If he died first, it was my car, and if I died first, he'd come and get it."

Lee had acquired the Pierce Arrow, along with some other vintage cars, from Dee Howard. Howard was a millionaire collector who invented an aircraft reverse thrusting system.

Blissit had worked for Howard and was well aware of his mechanical genius and interest in old cars.

"Dee Howard decided he wanted nothing but rain water in his cars' radiators, which is the worst thing you can do," Blissit said. "There are all kinds of acids in it, and these cars have aluminum heads and other parts, which corrode up bad."

Three years ago, Lee opened a substantial financial account for Blissit and gave him the green light to properly restore the Pierce Arrow.

"He said you don't need to call me about spending details," Blissit said. "Just restore it like it was your car."

Blissit was recovering from a stroke. He'd experienced the abrupt artery blockage while on a long motorcycle trip and crashed into a New Mexico interstate guardrail. Blisset had to explain some fundamental facts to his new client.

"I told him, 'Ted, this car is worth about $50,000 right now before restoration, and once I take it completely apart, it will be worth around $5,000. If I die or something happens to me, you'll have a $5,000 car.' He said, 'I don't care. I'm going to bet on you.'"

Blisset took on the job. The work had an unexpected and, some might say, a miraculous benefit beyond mechanical refurbishment.

"It rehabilitated the left side of my body completely," he said. "You have to remember all the things when you take a car apart. There is no shop manual on this car, just a parts book with only a description and number. There's a jillion rods and bolts, and I am a stickler for absolute authenticity. I had bolts made for the car that are correct. That's just the way I am; I want the car back to just the way it left the factory."

Blisset had been going to physical therapy every day after his stroke, but it was pretty rudimentary. He had a heart-to-heart with his medical folks.

"If you turn me loose so I can get back to my shop, I'll be all right," he told them.

The challenges of restoring a luxury automobile dating back to the Great Depression proved to have therapeutic value. Blissit is near the same age as the Pierce Arrow, which provides for poetic symmetry. They fixed each other.

"The biggest challenge to restore this car was trying to get all the documentation about it," Blissit said. "According to the elders in the Pierce Arrow Society (car club), it had belonged to Charlie Chaplain. I have reason to believe it was his car. It has a five bow top, which no other 1931 Pierce Arrow car has. That top gave you more head room in the back seat. Charlie Chaplin always wore a top hat and couldn't have worn one in the car without a special top that made it higher."

Another feature of the Prohibition-era ride is a hidden hooch compartment with trap door under the rear floorboard carpet. It's not unreasonable to believe that a celebrity such as Chaplin owned this Pierce Arrow. They were among the most luxurious and expensive autos of their day.

Pierce Arrow was a status symbol. There's one in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Advertising for the 1931 models appealed to Americans desiring a patrician lifestyle. Blisset's father was a Pierce Arrow Motor Car dealer in Tulsa for many years.

"Dad said I cut my teeth on these cars," he said.

Blisset's Pierce Arrow had been restored once before by someone in the 1970s. Getting the car to run had been the goal then, rather than authenticity.

"It had wrong everything on the car," he said. "I knew the guy in New York who had done it."

As testament to the job Blisset did, his 1931 Pierce Arrow won Best of Show this year at Gilmore Car Museum's annual "Grand Experience" in Michigan.

"It's a powerful automobile that's easy and thrilling to drive," he said. "They built those cars by the micrometer, not by the clock. The company went broke from building too much quality into their cars -- that and making too many different models and body styles. The engines are incredibly precise pieces of engineering. Tolerances were held to a 10th."

A new 1931 Pierce Arrow would sticker price for $4,000. As contrast, Ford's Model A cost as little as $400. The Pierce Arrow has no heater, air conditioning or radio. It has windshield wipers and a Waltham Eight Day Clock, which is how long the timepiece can run between windings.

"The ventilation system is good, because you can tilt the windshield out," Blisset said. "Be prepared to get stung by a bee, though."

Have you seen a cool vehicle around town? Writer Doug Hill is always on the lookout for future Dig My Ride columns. Email him at hillreviews@hotmail.com.

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