Pierce-Arrow was once one of America’s premier luxury marks, producing some of the most expensive and alluring cars of the early 20th century.
The early 20th century was a unique time for the automobile. As the country turned the page from the horse and buggy to the combustion engine, the market for cars expanded from what had been the exclusive province of monied aristocrats to the everyday transportation of the masses. Cars like the like Model T democratized the automobile.
But not all carmakers shifted their sites down market. Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, and Packard, sometimes referred to as the Three Ps, were America’s premier luxury car brands specializing in bespoke autos of high refinement and ambitious engineering. Of the three, Packard was the only one to survive the Great Depression and WWII. They did so in part, thanks to following the market’s downward trend and offering a more affordable car. Pierce-Arrow would not deign to offer a “less than” product, instead creating some of their most impressive and expensive cars during the hardest of economic times. As a result, sales dwindled, and Pierce-Arrow folded in 1938.
So, what was it that made Pierce-Arrow’s cars so laudatory in their day and so fascinating for posterity?
Pierce did not start out building cars. The company Heinze, Pierce, and Munschauer founded by George Pierce and his partners in 1865 manufacturing all manner of goods from toilets to bird cages. In 1872, Pierce bought out his partners. In the 1890s, they expanded into the newly burgeoning bicycle industry, which became their sole focus by 1895.
Pierce’s first foray into automobiles was an Overman steam car built under license in 1900. While unsuccessful, that lead Pierce to building their own car powered by a one-cylinder gas-engine, the “Motorette.” This model was followed by the Stanhope and Arrow models in 1903, the latter featuring a 15-horsepower front-mounted engine.
Pierce-Arrow, based in Buffalo, New York, quickly established themselves as one of the US’s premier automakers proving their bona fides in long distance racing and producing some of the most luxurious vehicles of the day. It’s not too much to say they were the American equivalent of Rolls-Royce. Like Rolls-Royce and their reliable six-cylinder, Pierce-Arrow’s engines were central to the company’s identity. Their four- and six-cylinder inline engines of the time were smooth, torquey, large displacement machines. Pierce-Arrows were also the height of luxury, a pair serving as the first official White House cars starting under President Taft in 1908 and through the mid-1930s.
Pierce-Arrow helped define the bleeding edge of new automotive technology. In 1913, they debuted electric lights on their cars. In 1914, they added electric starters and integrated the headlights into the front fenders, a feature they patented and exclusively held until their dissolution in 1938. In 1915, they added a pressurized fuel system. The highly profitable company went public in 1916 and produced trucks for the war effort in WWI.
One of the most important cars of this time for Pierce-Arrow was their Model 66, thus named for its 66-horsepower output. Produced from 1910 through 1918, the Model 66 was powered by the largest displacement engine ever used in a production vehicle, an 825-cu.-in. (13.5L) “T-head” straight-six. Due its massive displacement, the engine loped along at a lazy redline of roughly 1,800 rpm but provided impressive torque and mechanical longevity. The car was also extremely heavy by today’s standards. Depending on the build, the car could weigh from 4,000 to over 7,000 lbs. in its seven-passenger Touring manifestation.
The “Roaring Twenties” had been good to Pierce, and in 1928 Studebaker bought a controlling interest in the company for around $2 million dollars. Pierce introduced a new straight-eight engine the following year and a V12 in 1932. The advent of tougher financial times starting in 1929 dented the company’s sales which went from a healthy few thousand cars a year to less than a thousand by the middle of the 1930s. During this time, Studebaker was losing the battle for profitability and entered receivership in 1933 and sold Pierce to a group of investors from Buffalo for approximately $1 million dollars. For its part, Pierce executives seemed determined to forge ahead with their opulent automobiles despite the economic headwinds that suggested otherwise. The beginning of the decade saw Peerless fold in 1931 and nearing the close of the decade Packard shifted down market with the reintroduction of the Packard Six in 1937.
Pierce introduced the all-new Silver Arrow concept at the New York Auto Show in 1933, in the hopes that the daring new car could stimulate their otherwise declining sales. The Pierce Silver Arrow represented the next evolution of automotive styling and engineering. The car was the creation of a young Phillip Wright, who had brought his bold design to GM, who summarily rejected it. Pierce-Arrow, however, was more receptive and in less than two months Wright and Pierce-Arrows engineers and designers had the first concept completed.
The Silver Arrow is a self-consciously modern design with its sweeping, aerodynamic lines, huge vertical grille, and Art Deco styling. The car was pitched with the tag line: “Suddenly it’s 1940!” Under the hood was a stout V12 capable of propelling the car to a top speed of 115 mph. Just five Silver Arrows were completed, each carrying a price tag of $10,000, equivalent to over $225,000 dollars today.
Pierce-Arrow shambled on through the 1930s producing very fine, very expensive cars at a time when even the well-to-do were shying away from lavish expenditures. While Packard was releasing their more affordable junior series 115 and 120, Pierce-Arrow was moving the opposite direction with a line of travel trailers. These “Travel Lodges” included the 19-foot Model A, a 16.6-foot Model B, and the rarest of all a 13.7-foot Model C, of which just 74 were built. In all, Pierce-Arrow produced around 450 travel trailers in 1937 and ’38.
The company folded for good in 1938. They did, however, sell their V12 factory to Seagraves Fire Apparatus who went on to build V12 fire engines for many years to come. In the end, Pierce-Arrow’s inability to adapt to the times meant its downfall. Though more obscure than American classics like Duesenberg or Packard, Pierce-Arrow cars remain valuable collector’s items replete with historical novelties like their massive engines and distinctive aesthetics.