Wilson’s presidential limousine going on the road (Wednesday, June 23, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez – Roving Reporter

Al Morkunas climbed into the leather-upholstered chauffeur’s cab of President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine and began the complicated process of starting it.

He manually pumped gas into the engine with a knob on the dash. He adjusted the throttle with a handle behind the wheel. He turned switches and checked gauges. When he turned on the battery, the car produced a grinding noise and then a smoother rumble.

The three-ton black limousine — which conjures the image of a horse-drawn carriage, save for the huge hood and white wall tires — is housed at the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Library and Museum in Staunton.

“The Pierce-Arrow is one of the best cars ever built,” said Morkunas, who professionally restores antique cars at his shop, The Motorcar Company on Lewis Street, and has successfully replaced numerous parts of the limo. “Which is why it’s still around after 100 years.”

On Tuesday, he and two other members of the museum’s volunteer Pierce-Arrow Committee — Chairman Dick Robertson and mechanic Robert Obenschain — formed a caravan to drive the limousine to a Verona trucking company, which will transport the car for a publicity tour in Missouri this weekend.

About a dozen museum visitors watched, many through the displays of their digital cameras, snapping photos as the car started up the driveway and out onto the street.

Morkunas strong-armed the steering wheel — there’s no power steering — and was mindful to hit the brakes only at the right moments. He said driving the Pierce-Arrow requires his full attention, even the little details at start-up.

“Your car does that automatically. The computer does that for you,” he said. “In the old days, you were the computer.”

You’re also an experienced mechanic, if you’re lucky enough to be behind the Pierce-Arrow’s wheel. After the caravan stopped at Cason’s Service Center on Greenville Avenue for ethanol-free gasoline — Morkunas said ethanol damages rubber tubing and decreases gas mileage — the Pierce-Arrow responded to the ignition key with only grinding and burping sounds.

Morkunas, Obenschain and Robertson were instantly under the hood, examining spark plugs and the ignition, checking the gas and water levels. Morkunas jumped back into the cab.

“The starter’s never been this cantankerous,” he said.

Obenschain looked stumped.

“It ought to be running right now,” he said. “It’s got everything it needs to go.”

Committee Chairman Dick Robertson took a minute to talk about the limousine’s schedule for the coming weekend.

On Sunday, the Pierce-Arrow will be a featured among 200 vintage cars at the Kansas City Art Institute’s Art of the Car Concours — with more than 200 vintage vehicles, it’s one of the largest car shows in the Mid-West — before it spends two days at the National World War I Museum.

More impressive than the limo’s distinguished look and age is its story: Donated to Staunton’s citizens after President Wilson’s death in 1924, it waited in garages and a field for decades, falling prey to the elements and vandalism until it was impeccably restored in the early 1970s. Refurbishing the Pierce-Arrow had been a pet project of Robertson’s during his time on the Staunton City Council.

“It’s sort of a living symbol of our president,” said Robertson, who will travel to Missouri with the committee to care for and answer questions about the car.

Morkunas turned the engine over again and the grinding sound gave way to a low hum. The Pierce-Arrow was alive. He said the car is easily aggravated by extreme temperatures and at 92 degrees Fahrenheit, he needed to get the right combination of air and fuel to the engine to get it started again.

The caravan resumed its course toward Verona on Statler Boulevard, but Morkunas took a detour into the Federated Auto Parts parking lot to avoid a traffic light.

“It likes to run better than it likes to sit,” he said of the limousine.

The passenger area — more than twice the size of the cozy cab — included a wide, cushioned bench seat and ample leg room. The rolled-down windows welcomed a comfortable breeze at President Wilson’s preferred speed of 25 miles per hour.

When the caravan reached William Edwards Trucking, Morkunas drove the Pierce-Arrow into a loading dock and onto the tractor-trailer in which the car would ride, free of charge, to Kansas City.

The Pierce-Arrow will return to the Woodrow Wilson museum next Wednesday, and will be appear in Staunton’s Fourth of July parade.

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About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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