Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company was an American automobile manufacturer based in Buffalo, New York, which was active from 1901 to 1938. Although best known for its expensive luxury cars, Pierce-Arrow also manufactured commercial trucks, fire trucks, camp trailers, motorcycles, and bicycles.
The forerunner of Pierce-Arrow was established in 1865 as Heinz, Pierce and Munschauer. The company was best known for its household items, especially its delicate, gilded birdcages. In 1872 George Norman Pierce (1846-1910) bought out the other two, changed the name to George N. Pierce Company, and in 1896 added bicycles to the product line. The company failed in its attempt to build a steam-powered car in 1900 under license from Overman, but by 1901 had built its first single-cylinder, two-speed, no-reverse Motorette with an engine licensed from de Dion. In 1903, it produced a two-cylinder car, the Arrow.
In 1904 Pierce decided to concentrate on making a larger, more luxurious car for the upscale market, the Great Arrow. This became Pierce’s most successful product. The solidly built, four-cylinder car won the Glidden Trophy in 1905, an endurance run to celebrate the most reliable car. Thirty-three cars entered the 1100-mile race from New York City to Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, won by Percy Pierce in a Great Arrow.
The noted industrial architect Albert Kahn designed the Pierce Arrow Factory Complex at Elmwood Avenue and Great Arrow Avenue in about 1906. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Pierce sold all rights in the company in 1907, and he died three years later. In 1908, Pierce Motor Company was renamed The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company.
Hood ornament of a 1919 roadster
In 1909 US President William Howard Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrows (and two White Model M Tourers) to be used for state occasions, the first official cars of the White House.
The Pierce-Arrow’s engine capacity started as 11.7 L and later was 13.5 L. In 1910 Pierce dropped the rest of its 4-cylinder models and focused exclusively on 6-cylinder cars. The model 6-36, 6-48, and 6-66 continued for the next decade. Starting in 1918, Pierce-Arrow adopted a four-valve per cylinder T-head inline-six engine (Dual Valve Six), one of the few, if only, multi-valve flathead design engines ever made.
In 1910 George N. Pierce died. In 1912 Herbert M. Dawley (later a Broadway actor-director) joined Pierce-Arrow, and designed almost every model until 1938. Up until 1914, Pierce-Arrow also made a line of motorcycles including the Pierce Four.
1919 Pierce-Arrow advertisement; ads for the cars in early years were understated and artistic, and did not discuss details about the cars
In 1914 Pierce-Arrow adopted its most enduring styling hallmark when its headlights were moved from a traditional placement on either side of the radiator into flared housings molded into the front fenders of the car. This gave the car an immediately visible distinction from the front and from either side. At night, the car appeared to have a wider stance. Pierce patented this placement, which endured until the final model of 1938, although Pierce always offered the customer the option of conventional headlamps. Only a minority ordered the option. A restored 1919 Pierce-Arrow is on display at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. An open-bodied Pierce-Arrow carried Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding to Harding’s 1921 inauguration.
The Pierce-Arrow was a status symbol, owned by many Hollywood stars and tycoons. Most of the royalty of the world had at least one Pierce-Arrow in its collection. Some have described Pierce and two of its rivals among American luxury cars, Peerless and Packard, as the “Three P’s of Motordom.” Industrial efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth extolled the virtues of Pierce-Arrow, in both quality and in its ability to safely transport his large family. Its wheelbase was 12 ft 3 in (3.73 m). Actor Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) famously drove a custom ordered gold plated Pierce-Arrow as a status symbol which angered American families and instilled disdain towards Asian males due to his extravagant lifestyle and romances, which resulted in negative stereotypes of Asian men.
Pierce-Arrow advertisements were artistic and understated. Unusual for car advertising, the image of the car was in the background rather than the foreground of the picture. Usually only part of the car was visible. The Pierce-Arrow was typically depicted in elegant and fashionable settings. Some advertisements featured the car in places a car would not normally go, such as the West and other rural settings, a testament to the car’s ruggedness and quality.
Several second-hand Pierce-Arrow cars were bought by fire departments, stripped down to the chassis and engine, the wheelbase lengthened, and built back into fire engines. Some of these fire engines were in service for up to 20 years.
In 1928, the Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Indiana, gained control of the Buffalo firm. The association was to last for five years, with moderate benefits to both companies’ engineering departments, which continued to function as separate entities. Pierce-Arrow also gained a dealer network, as the cars were sold through Studebaker dealerships. Under Studebaker ownership Pierce-Arrow retired the venerable 6-cylinder engine and in 1929 introduced an L-head [straight-eight engine], which displaced 366 cubic inches.
1933 Silver Arrow and the end of the line
In 1933, Pierce-Arrow unveiled the radically streamlined Silver Arrow in a final attempt to appeal to the wealthy at the New York Auto Show. The car was well received by the public and the motoring press, being announced with the slogan “Suddenly it’s 1940!” Pierce sold five examples but, since it was priced at $10,000 during the worst of the Depression, the rich were hesitant to spend so much. The bodies were built at Studebaker, which subsequently assisted in rolling out a lower-priced production model. This, however, lacked many luxury features of the show car and still failed to generate enough sales.
Starting in 1936 Pierce-Arrow produced a line of camper-trailers, the Pierce-Arrow Travelodge. They also produced a new V-12 sedan that was redesigned and considered the safest and most luxurious sedan back then.
The Rio Grande Southern Railroad converted five Pierce-Arrow automobiles (and a couple of Buicks) into motorized railcars, effectively buses and trucks on rail wheels. The nickname Galloping Goose was soon applied to these vehicles, based on their waddling motion and honking horn. All still survive.
Pierce was the only luxury brand that did not field a lower-priced car (e.g., the Packard 120) to provide cash flow, and without sales or funds for development, the company declared insolvency in 1938 and closed its doors. The final Pierce-Arrow assembled was built by Karl Wise, the firm’s chief engineer, from parts secured from the company’s receivers. Pierce’s remaining assets (which probably would include the forty Arrows made in October 1938) were sold at auction on Friday, May 13, 1938.
The factory equipment used to make Pierce-Arrow V-12 engines was bought by Seagrave Fire Apparatus, which used it to make engines for fire engines.
In 2006, a group of classic car enthusiasts from Switzerland applied the name to a 10 L, 24-cylinder car designed by Luigi Colani. According to their website, the company intends to revive the Pierce-Arrow car in the form of a Pierce Silver Arrow II.
A 1911 Pierce-Arrow advertisement,Syracuse Post-Standard, 18 March 1910
A 1912 Pierce-Arrow advertisement,Syracuse Journal, 12 April 1910