1932 Peerless V-16
1932 Peerless V-16. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Although many automobile companies evolved from the carriage and the bicycle business, others had more uncommon roots. Peerless, for example, began life manufacturing clothes wringers, but in spite of this unusual start Peerless would produce some of America’s most prestigious automobiles.

The Peerless clothes wringer business began in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1869, then relocated to Cleveland in the 1880s. The cycling craze of the late 19th century led Peerless into bicycles in 1891, and then when the bicycle boom collapsed, Peerless changed to automobiles.

In 1901, under the direction of its new chief engineer, Louis Mooers, Peerless began building light, one-cylinder, four-wheelers based on the French De Dion Bouton design. Not entirely satisfied with De Dion, Mooers began developing his own one and two-cylinder models.

These were ready for 1902, the year the Peerless Manufacturing Co. became the Peerless Motor Car Co. They had what would become the conventional automobile layout: engine in front driving the rear wheels via a shaft and bevel-geared rear axle. Peerless had such advanced features as a water pump, channel-section steel frame and tilting steering wheel. It even had a form of cruise control, a flyball governor that kept engine speed constant. Peerless added a four-cylinder for 1903.

To gain publicity, Peerless competed in races and hillclimbs, most with considerable success. Among its drivers was flamboyant, cigar-chomping ex-bicycle racer Barney Oldfield whose exaggerated style brought racing fame to Peerless. But his brash manner was a little too flashy for the conservative Peerless board and he was soon released.

By 1905, production was nearly 300 cars per year and the larger more powerful models had up to 60 horsepower. With its luxurious coachwork, and advertisements in such magazines as Harpers and Vogue, Peerless was definitely aimed at upscale buyers.

As a further mark of prestige, Peerless added a six-cylinder engine in 1907, one of the earliest to exploit the six’s greater smoothness than a four. By 1912, Peerless and competitor Pierce-Arrow both offered sixes of 13.5 litres (824.8 cu in.), so huge that the Guinness Book of Records lists them as the largest series automobile engines. Peerless discontinued fours in 1913.

Peerless was now clearly ranked along with Pierce-Arrow and Packard among America’s elite cars, called the “Three Ps of Prestige.”

In 1911, Peerless added trucks, and during the First World War it supplied many cars and trucks to Europe. Unfortunately, its civilian car sales flagged, due partly to having to juggle the production of three six-cylinder models, the 38, 48 and 60 horsepower which overlapped and competed with each other in the limited luxury market.

To address this, Peerless offered smaller, lower priced fours and sixes in 1915. Then for 1916 it followed Cadillac and moved exclusively to a V8, a 5.4-litre (333 cu in.), 78 horsepower, side-valve engine from Herschell-Spillman of Buffalo, a company better known for midway carousels than automobile engines.

The Peerless Eight rejuvenated sales and new buildings were added to the Cleveland complex. With 1916 production reaching an unprecedented 5,000, prosperity had returned to Peerless.

By 1920, production went to 6,000, dipped to 3,500 in the 1921 post-war recession, then returned to 5,700 in 1923. Recognizing the narrowness of the luxury car market, Peerless introduced a lower priced six-cylinder model for 1925. In addition, the V8’s crankshaft was redesigned for better balance, producing the “Equipoised Eight.” Four-wheel hydraulic brakes were fitted.

Although Peerlesses were good cars, the relentless competition from cars like Cadillac and Packard, and several ownership and management changes were unsettling. Also, automobile financing was more difficult to obtain in Cleveland than it was in Detroit.

For broader appeal, more six-cylinder models were offered. By 1928, the Peerless V8 required replacement but the company couldn’t afford to engineer a new one so it used a rather mundane Continental straight-eight.

Sales had been dropping steadily, from over 10,000 in 1926 to about 4,000 in 1930. Only eight-cylinder models were offered for 1930 and 1931, a questionable decision during the Depression. Although very stylishly turned out, by 1931 the last production Peerless had been built.

There would be one last grasp at glory, however: the fabulous 1932 Peerless overhead valve V16. In collaboration with Cleveland-based Alcoa, Peerless used aluminum extensively in the engine and body. With 7.6 litres (464 cu in.) and 173 horsepower it was fast. Some Peerless executives took it on a tour to California, and while there clocked it at over 161 km/h (100 mph) on Muroc Dry Lake.

Alas, only one Peerless V16 was produced. It was the last car built in Cleveland and has been preserved in Cleveland’s Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum.

While out of the automobile business, Peerless wasn’t gone. In 1933, with Prohibition repealed in the United States, Peerless went into brewing Canadian Carling beer and ale; thus ended the saga of one of America’s great cars.

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