1931 Pierce-Arrow
1931 Pierce-Arrow. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Few American cars rose higher on the prestige ladder, or stayed there longer than Pierce-Arrow. From humble beginnings it went on to rank, along with Packard and Peerless, as one of the legendary “Three Ps of Prestige.”

At the turn of the century, George Pierce of Buffalo, N.Y., operated the George N. Pierce Co., which manufactured household appliances, bird cages and bicycles. Pierce decided to go into the automobile business, and the first real effort, after an initial flirtation with steam cars, was the 1901 Pierce Motorette, powered by a 2-3/4 horsepower French De Dion engine.

This was followed in 1902 with a 3-1/2 horsepower model, and in 1903 with a 15 horsepower car called the Arrow. In 1904 the 28 horsepower Great Arrow appeared, a model that won five consecutive Glidden Tours, a prestigious endurance run sponsored by telephone magnate Col. Charles Glidden.

The power and size of Pierce cars quickly increased, as did their reputation and prestige in the luxury market. In 1909, the company and its cars would become Pierce-Arrows, with the Great Arrow name being discontinued.

Then in 1913, Pierce-Arrow introduced the feature that, more than any other, came to symbolize Pierce-Arrow cars. This was headlamps that were moulded into the front fenders, and perched up like frog’s eyes. Although drum type lights continued to be available, the fender mounts were such a distinguishing hallmark that few Pierce-Arrows were ordered without them.

Another Pierce-Arrow feature which was many years ahead of its time was a gearshift lever mounted on the steering column. They also kept right-hand steering until 1920, approximately 10 years after most other manufacturers had abandoned it.

In 1910 Pierce-Arrow introduced one of the mightiest six cylinder automobile engines ever. This came in the model 66, and it grew to a 5-inch bore and a 7-inch stroke (127 X 177.8 mm), displacing 13.5 litres (825 cu in.). It was offered until 1918, the year in which the Pierce-Arrow Dual-Valve Six was introduced with four valves per cylinder.

Pierce-Arrow seemed to drift somewhat during the 1920s, although sales were helped by the introduction of its “cheaper” Series 80 model in 1924. They also experimented with an aluminum car, but it didn’t go into production. Some of Pierce’s prestige slipped due to a conservatism that kept it tied to a six cylinder engine while its competitors had eights and twelves.

Although retaining a good reputation, Pierce let the development of its cars fall behind, with the result that by 1928 the company required financial assistance. Help came from the Studebaker Corp. of South Bend, Ind., which wanted to market an even more luxurious model than the Studebaker President.

With the infusion of capital, Pierce-Arrow brought out a new line of cars for 1929 powered by a sturdy, side-valve, inline eight with nine main bearings. This turned the tide, and Pierce-Arrow’s 1929 sales doubled those of 1928, totaling 9,700 cars. It would be its best year ever. With Studebaker’s help, Pierce-Arrow would make it into the 1930s, the classic era of American automobile history.

When the bubble of speculation and false profits of the “Roaring Twenties” finally collapsed the stock market in October, 1929, the Great Depression soon followed. But Pierce-Arrow, like other luxury car manufacturers, forged on Titanic-like, apparently oblivious to the economic chaos around it, or trying to will it away by ignoring it. Not surprisingly, Pierce-Arrow sales for 1930 fell to 6,795, and in 1931 the figure slid to 4,522. But rather than retrench, Pierce pressed on, bringing out an improved Eight model, and then a side-valve V-12 engine for 1932. The ’32s were carried into 1933 with little change.

There was, however, a startling addition to the lineup in the form of the Silver Arrow, which made its surprise debut at the New York and Chicago auto shows. With its vee-shaped grille, trademark fender-mounted headlamps, fenders integrated into the slab-sided body, lack of running boards and, of course, its silver paint, it was indeed an impressive-looking car. Alas, at $10,000 the price was too high, and only five Silver Arrows were built.

With the Depression still raging, Pierce-Arrow continued to slide. Studebaker suffered financial difficulties in 1933 and was forced to sell Pierce-Arrow. The company was rescued by some Buffalo investors and managed to bring out improved models for 1935, and again for 1937.

But it was not enough, and in a desperate attempt at survival Pierce-Arrow announced that it was going to enter the medium-priced field, as Packard had done in 1935 with its company-saving One-Twenty model. The move came too late, however. While Pierce-Arrow would manage to announce 1938 models, only a handful were built before the company failed.

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