If ‘Presidential Preferences’ were awarded to a car – then before World War 2 those preferences would have been associated with only one make of car. That marque was chosen, above all others, by every American President from William Howard Taft to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and almost certainly the majority of the Four Hundred had at least one Pierce in their motor stables. Yet the car which symbolised such an atmosphere of intelligentsia had sprung from very humble origins.
George N. Pierce
In 1865, George N. Pierce had set up in business in Hanover Street, Buffalo, New York, making bird cages, squirrel cages and similar wire products and, eventually, the company's skill in wire working led to the manufacture of bicycle spokes and then to complete cycles. Comfort and speed were the hallmarks of the Pierce cycles, which boasted shaft drive, cushion frame, sprung forks and freewheel in their most popular models.
The Overman Steam Car Company
It was natural, therefore, that at the dawn of the motor age, Pierce should take up the new invention with enthusiasm, if not initially with success. Their first car, built in 1900 to designs supplied by the Overman Steam Car Company, was hardly a world beater. For one thing, it was apt to strip its rear-axle gearing at the slightest provocation. So, the company turned to petrol, acquiring a de Dion-type tricycle built by Diamond. This 2½
hp machine proved more practicable, but its passenger seat, mounted above the single front wheel ahead of the handlebars, promised some fairly violent upsets.
Perhaps this was the reason that the board of directors decided to convert the Diamond to a four-wheeler. This proved successful, and the production of motor cars was contemplated. The man they called in to do the design work, David Fergusson, was an Englishman from Bradford, Yorkshire, whose grounding in automobile engineering had been colourful, at least, as he had come to America as part of the entourage of Edward Joel Pennington and his partner Baines, in 1899, when that pair of rogues arrived in New York to sell 'war motors' to the United States Government.
The Government failed to place the order, Pennington and Baines went their separate ways, and Fergusson was left to fend for himself. He found a job at the E. C. Steams Company of Syracuse, New York, where he began work on a petrol car. However, at that stage, the Steams Company thought there was more future in steam and, hearing of the Pierce quadricycle, Fergusson applied for the job of designer where he soon made his presence felt by the Pierce management.
The Arrow Motorettes
Fergusson began work on the first true Pierce car in February 1901. Known as the Motorette, it was a 2½
hp de Dion-powered Stanhope buggy which appeared to have borrowed design points from just about every popular vehicle of the day. Nevertheless it ran successfully, impressing the Pierce board - and, just as importantly, their nation-wide network of cycle dealers - that the decision was taken to go into quantity production of the design. During the 1902 season, 25 2¾
hp Motorettes were delivered, plus 125 of a new, more powerful 3½ hp model, which could boast the feature of a reverse gear (to go backwards with the 2¾
hp, the driver had either to use a favourable camber or get out and push).
The quest for power and speed continued with the development of a twin-cylinder 15 hp model called the Arrow late in 1902. This really broke away from the buggy image, with a long hood, wheel steering and a five-seater tonneau body plus, at $2500, big-car prices, too. Nevertheless, a total of 50 of the new Pierce-Arrows were built during 1903, and one of them took fourth place in the October 1903 New York-Pittsburgh reliability trial, winning a gold medal (however, one of the old tiller-steered Pierce-Stanhopes fared even better, coming in second in this demanding and prestigious event).
In fact, the gold-medal car represented a considerable advance over the original 15 hp model, which had obviously been inspired by the de Dion (suppliers of its power unit), having a low-slung frontal radiator and a rear-hinged crocodile bonnet; the later 15 hp's had honeycomb radiators and Roi-des-Belges coachwork, retaining only the column gear change and tubular chassis of their predecessor. The old single-cylinder Stanhope, which was apparently popular with doctors, continued in production until 1906, by which time this thoroughly outdated vehicle had been reduced in price from $1200 to $900.
1904 Pierce Twin-Cylinder Roadster.
1909 Pierce Roadster.
1913 Pierce-Arrow 66-A-1 powered by a 12.7 liter engine.
1918 Pierce-Arrow 66-A-5 Six.
1919 Pierce-Arrow Tourer, available with engines ranging from 48 to 66 hp.
Pierce-Arrow advertisement for the 1924 Model 80 Sedan.
1928 Pierce-Arrow Model 81 Runabout.
1930 Pierce-Arrow Coupe 8.
The Pierce Great Arrow
It was apparent by 1904, though, that Pierce were firmly committed to a multi-cylinder future. For that was the year that Fergusson (who was to remain Pierce's chief engineer until the beginning of the 1920s) introduced his classic Great Arrow four-cylinder, a 24/28 hp 3770cc model on the fashionable Mercedes lines, with a pressed-steel frame, a sure sign that the marque was swinging away from its cycle origins (although the four-cylinder Pierce motor cycle was one of the great designs to be seen during pre-World War 1 days).
The next year saw two more big four-cylinder Pierce Great Arrows (the two-cylinder was now discontinued), a 30 hp and a 6135cc 40 hp. It was also the year that saw the marque's outstanding victory in the very first Glidden Tour, a 1000-mile trial 'to establish before the whole world the identity of the best touring car obtainable'. Percy Pierce (son of George N.) drove a standard 28/32 Great Arrow carrying as passengers his parents, his fiancee and mechanic George Ulrich, and earned 996 points out of 1000; the car was voted the most successful by a majority of the contestants (a condition of, the event), and took time off midway to take part in a hill-climb up Mount Washington.
The enormous amount of publicity resulting from this victory boosted sales-and the marque proved it had been no freak performance by winning the Glidden Tours three times in a row (in 1906, 1907 and 1908) as well. Incidentally, the 1905 Pierce Great Arrow Rei-des-Beiges tourer had body panels cast from aluminum, a method of construction that was to be a distinctive feature of the company's products for the next fifteen years. Although a wood framework was used, the cast panels resulted, claimed the manufacturers, in a lighter, stronger body - it also facilitated the production of elaborately curved contours without panel beating.
The Association of Licenced Automobile Manufacturers
Also available in 1905 were three closed Great Arrows - the Landaulet, the Suburban, and the Opera Coach-bodied by the leading coachbuilder Quinby, all three were priced at $5000, against the $4000 of the open model. The Opera Coach, which was a sort of station bus, had seating for eight, and looked somewhat like an opera box on wheels. By now, the George N. Pierce Company was a major power in the American motor industry: one of its directors, Charles Clifton, was president of the Association of Licenced Automobile Manufacturers, which claimed to control the production and sale in the USA of 'all gasoline automobiles which are accepted as commercially practicable'.
In 1906, increasing demand for their products compelled a move to a brand-new purpose-built factory on Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, on a 44-acre site which had formed part of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. An experimental six-cylinder model was entered for the 1906 Glidden Tour, and the first production six appeared the following year. Thereafter, the four-cylinder models were gradually phased out, until in 1910 only sixes were available. The company and the cars had taken the inevitable step of adopting the Pierce-Arrow name in 1909, in which year they claimed: 'We believe that every Pierce-Arrow car is today running and giving satisfaction to its owner, except in the case of cars that have been put entirely out of business by a collision'.
The Pierce-Arrow 66
The 1909 range consisted of 36 hp, 48 hp and 66 hp sixes, of 5686cc, 7423cc and 10,619cc respectively. The biggest six was the latest development of the 1907 model and, for 1910, it was uprated to 66 taxable horsepower and given a swept volume of 11,700cc. Separately cast T-head cylinders gave the 66 engine a curiously archaic look, but with sales varying between 66 and 206 a year, this behemoth was successful enough to warrant a further inflation of swept volume to 13,514cc in 1912, in which year the gargantuan 66 rode on a wheelbase of 12 ft 3½ in.
Together with the 1916 Fageol, the Pierce-Arrow 66 could claim to be the biggest-ever American production car; its total production of 1638 over ten years must represent some kind of record, too. In later years, many of these Pierce 66 models found their way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Fire Chief Waiter Ringer had discovered that it was possible to create a fire engine very cheaply by lengthening the chassis with channel steel, bolting the existing rear axle to the frame and fitting it with sprockets to drive a new dead axle by chain.
His lead was followed by other fire departments, and quite a few Pierce-Arrow 66s ended their days as fire engines, lasting for upwards of 20 years in this guise. In 1913, Pierce-Arrow decided to adopt a new marketing policy: from that point on, there would be no annual model changes. Instead a 'Series' designation was introduced, which changed only when radical alterations to the specification were made. Pierce-Arrow claimed this move was made because their cars were so perfect that there was no point in introducing a new model each year, but in fact the 'Series' concept fitted the Pierce-Arrow production methods perfectly.
The Pierce-Arrow Fender Headlight
These were the exact antithesis of mass-production, as Pierce-Arrows were built in batches of a single model. For example, they would turn out several hundred 38 hp cars, then a similar amount of 48 hps and finally several dozen 66 hps, with scant attempt at rationalisation of parts between the three models. Typically, Pierce-Arrow started numbering with the 'Second Series'. The Second Series introduced a design feature which was to become the Pierce-Arrow hallmark, the 'fender headlight'. Mounting the headlamps in housings on the wings was a novel concept, and one which the company patented in 1912; it was possible, as an optional extra, to have conventionally mounted lights instead, but few owners chose this alternative, which was offered until 1932.
The last 66 was produced in the spring of 1918, after the model's best year of production, in which 301 had been turned out. At the same time, the 38 hp was dropped, and a new 47 hp introduced, known as the Fifth Series, with four valves per cylinder, and cylinders cast in pairs. This lasted little more than a year, and then a revised series with monobloc power units appeared. More importantly, the 1920 Pierce-Arrows were the first with left-hand steering, right-hand steering having been retained long after most American makes had abandoned it, partly out of Pierce's innate conservatism, partly because it was more convenient with a chauffeur-driven car to have'the driver on the pavement side so that he could quickly dismount to open the rear doors for his passengers to alight onto the sidewalk.
Steel bodies were now predominant, too, the cast-aluminum construction having also had its day. Indeed, there were ominous signs that the Pierce-Arrow policy of aiming at the upper-crust market was losing its potency. Sales began to slide, and in an effort to reverse the trend, the company brought out a 'cheap' model, the Series 80 - its high-priced running mate, the Series 36, had the dubious distinction of being much sought after on the second-hand market by the prohibition-busting 'rum-runners', as its engine had just the right qualities of silence and reliability that they wanted to power the boats used to bring bootleg hooch ashore past the watchful eyes of the Federal agents.
The Pierce-Arrow Series 80
The Series 80 introduced four-wheel braking to the Pierce-Arrow range, and its moderate price (starting from $2895) and refined engineering combined to make this a best-seller in Pierce-Arrow terms. A more powerful engine was available from the end of 1927, and this was used in the Series 81 which succeeded the 80 for 1928. Unfortunately, the styling of the Series 81 was entrusted to one James R. Way, whose trendy Art Deco ideas did not go down at all well with the Pierce-Arrow clientele. He even committed the appalling solecism of putting the Pierce-Arrow name on the radiator, which had been one of those things which is never done. The customers did not like it, and the slipping sales proved it. The Model 81 was hastily interred.
At the same time work was proceeding on a straight-eight successor to the Model 36, which was beginning to show its age. Then, frightened by the company's falling revenues, the shareholders voted that Pierce-Arrow should be taken over by the prosperous Studebaker Corporation
. It was a disastrous mistake with serious consequences. While Studebaker ownership did not diminish Pierce-Arrow quality, it demeaned it: to the typical Pierce-Arrow owner, accustomed to buying his car from a bespoke dealer, it was highly infradignibate to do business with the new 'dual distributorships' which sold Pierce-Arrows alongside cheap Studebakers.
It was a pity, as the new 5998cc straight-eight of 1929 was an excellent car, a fact reflected in sales of 8000 for the season; even at the height of the Depression, in 1930, 7000 cars were sold. Now, Pierce-Arrow began development work on a radical new model, a V12, which made its bow in 1932, in 6522cc and 7030cc forms, with prices starting at only $3900. Ab Jenkins took a 1932 roadster with a prototype 7571cc V12 engine on Salt Lake Flats for a record attempt, and set up an unofficial American 24-hour speed record of 112.9 mph. The following year, he took a stock V12 on to the flats and made the record official with a 117mph average, breaking 14 international and 65 other records for Pierce-Arrow. He subsequently upped the 24-hour figure to 127.2 mph with a modified Pierce-Arrow, but even the excellent publicity accruing from these record runs could not help Pierce-Arrow revive sales, which had crumbled to 2692 in 1932.
The Silver Arrow
A consortium of Buffalo businessmen had bought Pierce-Arrow back from Studebaker in 1933, but they might as well have saved their money. The addition of hydraulic tappets to that year's V12 made no difference to the sales graphs, nor did the exciting Silver Arrow designed for the Chicago World Fair of 1933, with futuristic full-width styling and a streamlined rear end with a tin rear-view 'dormer window' cause more than a ripple of excitement. Ten were built, with a $10,000 price tag but, although a 'production' Silver Arrow was subsequently offered, this was no more than a fastback version of the standard sedan.
The Safest Cars in the World
After only a year of regained financial independence, an achievement of dubious value in view of the company's crumbling reputation and status, there were rumours that Pierce-Arrow was seeking new mergers, and some financial reconstruction was already being undertaken. Sales for 1935 were down to 1000 cars, yet at the end of the year, three outstanding new models, which were advertised as 'the safest cars in the world', were launched. These were the Model 1601 eight and Models 1602 and 1603 twelves, and their advanced specification included huge vacuum-servo brakes, strong X-braced frames, anti-roll bar at the rear, quadruple headlamps, reversing lights, dual tail-lights, tinted safety glass, overdrive, crankcase emission control, freewheeling and many luxury items. It was too good a package to offer at $3195, and the company began building trailer caravans as a sideline to try and bolster its finances.
However, it was too late. Pierce-Arrow struggled on through 1937 and into 1938, and then a creditor demanded that the compary should be liquidated to pay back the $200,000 he was owed. The firm was declared insolvent and its assets, worth nearly $1 million, auctioned ... to realise only a paltry $40,000. The Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company purchased all the engine-making plant to produce Pierce-Arrow power for its fire engines; the last Pierce-Arrow to leave the plant was sold to the company's chief engineer, Karl Wise. But there was one last twist to come to the story.
When Pierce-Arrow was wound up, the Pierce-Arrow Buffalo Parts Company was formed to look after the sales of the company's spares. When they decided to dispose of their remaining stock in 1941, the very last Pierce-Arrow was constructed out of a melange of 1930s components. The sum of its parts was averaged out as '1934' for registration purposes. It was a curious end for a marque - and a disappointing one.