At 96, Jim Pearce has finally put down his tools. But he says his love affair with automobiles will never end. And don’t even think to try mowing his lawn — unless you’re looking …
At 96, Jim Pearce has finally put down his tools. But he says his love affair with automobiles will never end. And don’t even think to try mowing his lawn — unless you’re looking for a fight.
Last year Pearce finished his final project: a 1978 MG MGB roadster. He wasn’t too happy with it. Make no mistake, when finished it was almost like new. Pearce’s complaint: It was too new. He restored the British sports car with his son, Bill, who lives in Lovell. In recent years Pearce has also restored a 1964 Chevrolet Corvair 95 Rampside pickup — a very rare vehicle — and his pride and joy, a 1930 Model A five-window coupe with a rumble seat in back.
Pearce started working with automobiles on a school program while studying at a vocational school in Havre, Montana.
“The first job I got was seven cents an hour for three hours a day and 25 cents an hour if I had overtime. But they never had enough money to give me overtime,” he said.
It was at the end of the Great Depression and a few pennies went a long way.
“Times were tough then,” he said.
By 1940, Pearce got his first full-time job as a mechanic, but the job didn’t last long. The next year he volunteered to serve in the Army during World War II. There, he used his skills repairing Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber used during WWII and later in the Korean War.
After his military service, Pearce went back to northern Montana and continued his love affair. He and his partner started a shop and eventually were able to start a dealership, selling Kaiser-Frazer models. In 1954 the company went out of business. So they started selling DeSotos.
The work selling and fixing cars never stopped. Pearce is used to hard work, but the stress and the fumes were getting to him. In the early ’60s Pearce developed a pain in his neck and wound up in the hospital, thinking he was near the end.
“I just couldn’t go no more,” he said, 58 years later.
It turned out to be an ulcer; his stomach acid had found a path to his spine. After surgery, his doctor told him he had to get out of the repair shop, forcing him to look for a different way to support his family.
“The doctor told me I had to get away from the exhaust fumes and quit mechanicing,” Pearce recalled. “Well, I told him, I’ve got three kids. What am I going to do for a living? He looked at me and said, ‘Can you make a living if you’re dead?’”
So he moved his family to the country and took up dry land farming. Life as a farmer is always busy, but Pearce was like a machine that never stops.
“He always worked hard — from sun up to well into the night every day,” said Bill, his son.
There was plenty of repair work to keep his hands busy. There was never much money, Pearce said, so his tractors and equipment were “well used.” He wasn’t the type to procrastinate and, despite a lack of funds, he made things work with what money was available.
“Dad’s a perfectionist,” Bill said. “It’s always been that way. What we had might’ve been old, but it was always perfectly maintained. He had one way to do things: You did it right or you did it over.”
When Pearce wasn’t working the land and maintaining farm equipment, he worked on cars.
“It was just something to do, I guess,” he said.
Eventually his sons took over the farm and Pearce and his wife, Beverly, retired.
They moved around a bit before landing in Powell. Originally they moved to Billings, but that “was too busy for two old people,” he said.
Once settled in Powell, Pearce got the itch to rebuild some classics. He prefers the older models. His Model A was a wreck when he got it, but he returned it to its original beauty. Pearce did all the work except the paint job. For that he turned to Tait Murdock at Body and Paint By Tait, in Powell.
He brought Murdock the car in pieces for the paint.
“It looked pretty good,” Murdock remembers.
“It was awesome,” Christeena Murdock said.
Murdock has photographed many favorite projects that have moved through his facility and knew right where he could find snapshots of the Model A. The new burgundy shined like a new car by the time the final coat was applied.
Most of Pearce’s projects have already been sold, but the Model A is special.
“I’ll always have it,” said Bill.
At 95 years old, Pearce decided he’d had enough.
“When you get to my age it’s too hard to get up and down,” he said.
He still has the strength and resolve of most people half his age. If you tell him you find it amazing he still drives, maintains his home immaculately, cooks his own meals and tools around town with his 100-year-old girlfriend Ethel, he’ll look at you with a friendly face and wonder what all the fuss is about.
To Pearce, working hard and having pride of ownership is a way of life, not something to brag about.
Pearce’s secret for longevity: “Don’t smoke and don’t drink. Look at Ethel: She never drank or smoked and she got to a hundred.”