Article From the Fall 2001 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
Only the Best Was Good Enough
by Bernie Weis
The Buffalo company that once manufactured America’s premier motor cars was started 100 years ago. To mark the centennial, we asked local Pierce-Arrow enthusiast Bernie Weis to recall the firm’s short but illustrious history. The Pierce-Arrow Society has regions on every continent except Antarctica, and Bernie has edited all their publications since 1962. We couldn’t find a more enthusiastic and informed spokesman for the company and for the fine cars they built.
Transportation history in New York State has many branches—canal boats, railroads, airplanes and more. One company which was a major part of the state’s industrial pride was the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company of Buffalo.
From humble yet prosperous beginnings as makers of bird cages, refrigerators and tinware, the George N. Pierce Company soon expanded into the bicycle and motorcycle arena. In 1901, after unsuccessful experimentation with steam-powered vehicles, the firm engaged a British engineer, David Fergusson, to construct two gasoline-powered, single-cylinder "motorettes". These proved highly successful—so much so, that a new and spacious factory had to be erected on Elmwood Avenue to meet the demand.
By this time (1906), Pierce had brought out 2-cylinder, 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder cars. The latter model, a "Great Arrow", was acclaimed as a powerful, rugged yet luxurious touring vehicle. Its stamina was proven to the world by winning five successive Glidden Tours, and the company name was changed to Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company.
Each year brought more power, more luxury and more fame. Prices were astronomical, but there were large numbers of wealthy individuals in the United States (and around the world) who could and did pay prices up to and over $8000 for an example.
In 1911, the company began production of trucks, featuring worm-drive rear axles rather than the common industry standard of chain-drive. During World War I, hundreds of Pierce trucks were built for the armed forces of the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia.
The Armistice gave Pierce the opportunity to develop their 6-cylinder engines into really powerful motor cars, with dual valves. This feature would continue on the highest priced models into 1928. Most cars produced carried factory-built bodies, with panels of cast aluminum, but customers still could order custom-built designs if the factory offerings did not meet their requirements.
The mid-twenties saw a number of changes in the Pierce organization. Management had come under control of banking interests which, as later events would show, was a mistake. A savior was found in the person of Myron Forbes, former treasurer of the firm. When he became president, he quickly got a less expensive model into production—the Series 80. This proved to be the most popular Pierce-Arrow, with over 15,000 cars built over a three-year period.
Also at that time, a line of deluxe parlor coaches (buses) was put into production. These were more expensive than other inter-city buses of the time, but the cost was well worth it. The coaches were comfortable, powerful and durable, and operators soon realized that their riders preferred to travel in the Pierces rather than lesser vehicles.
Just before the October 1929 stock market debacle, the Studebaker Corporation gained controlling interest in Pierce-Arrow. This put cash into Pierce-Arrow coffers and gave Studebaker a deluxe, high-priced car to sell through its dealerships. If the market hadn’t crashed, this arrangement might have been beneficial to both, but such is fate. Pierce had, for a long time, purchased a number of parts and components from Studebaker. When the new Pierce straight-eight engine appeared in 1929, many parts were similar to those on Studebaker’s eight, although each design was developed separately. The depressed economy lasted longer than anyone had expected. In 1933, a group of Buffalo industrialists purchased (Continued on page 2)
the Pierce assets from Studebaker and continued independently from the South Bend, Indiana auto maker. Pierce was once again independent, although various components (castings, some body panels, etc.) were still bought from Studebaker. By now, Pierce was producing the eight and a powerful new V-12 engine. On the Bonneville Salt Flats, Ab Jenkins set several 24-hour endurance records in cars running these V-12s. (They were later used in many models of Seagrave fire engines).
An early Pierce-Arrow innovation was fender-mounted head-lights, as on this ’33 V-12 Brunn town car.Geo. Domer photo
The truck business had decreased considerably, and most if not all truck assembly was transferred to the White company in Cleveland.
The fantastic streamlined 1933 Silver Arrow show car, five of which were built, created headlines throughout the world. Priced at $10,000 each, they brought publicity but little else. Eventually they were all sold, but not with much effect on Pierce-Arrow’s fading production. In the middle of the decade, about 40 "stretch" sight-seeing coaches were produced, and
used at Yosemite Park, the Broadmoor Hotel, and a few other places. A venture into the house trailer business with the "Travelodge", in three sizes, created initial optimism. Consumer Reports gave them a high rating, but only slightly over 500 were built and sold.
The end was in sight. Fewer than 850 passenger cars were built in 1936, only 192 in 1937, and (author’s estimate) 40 or fewer for 1938. Refinancing of the company was planned, but a deal could not be reached. One creditor (Walter Schott, who happened to be the father-in-law of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, we learned later) pressed for payment of the money due him. Pierce-Arrow couldn’t pay, a federal judge ordered bankruptcy proceedings to commence, and that sank the company.
Final dissolution (a formality) was issued in 1944. What was a bright star in New York’s industrial heritage was now just a page in history, but the quality, prestige and high esteem the company possessed will live on.
Caught in April, 1949 at M&N Auto Sales on Broad St., this ‘37 8-cylinder limo could be had for $650.Bernie Weis photo