Pierce-Arrow Automobiles

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999

"Dixit et Fecit"
    "He said and he did" (or "He did as he said")
    motto of the Pierce family used on their cars' nameplates

Back in the old days before classic cars were called "classic cars" we could identify a few of them at a glance. There was the Packard with its noble notched radiator shell and hood, the Rolls-Royce with its sharp sculptured radiator shell, and the Pierce-Arrow with its headlights growing out of the front fenders like frog eyes. Those fender headlights were patented and beginning in 1913 they provided a recognition feature for Pierce-Arrow in an age when there were many more luxury car makes than we have now.

In the city of Zenith ... a family's motor indicated its social rank as precisely as the grades of the peerage determined the rank of an English family .... The details of precedence were never officially determined. There was no court to decide whether the second son of a Pierce Arrow limousine should go into dinner before the first son of a Buick roadster, but of their respective social importance there was no doubt ...
Sinclair Lewis
Babbitt  (1922)

The first car to come from the Pierce factory in Buffalo was a tiny one cylinder roadster called the Pierce Motorette. Pierce cars grew in size and power year by year, and by 1908 the Pierce Great Arrow had a big 60 horsepower six-cylinder engine. Additional models were developed in the next few years, and some of them may have been the largest cars ever built in this country.

Extremely conservative in chassis and styling, Pierce-Arrow retained right-hand drive until 1920. All engines had six cylinders until 1928, during the era when most car builders were developing straight eight and V-8 engines. Bodies were hand-hammered aluminum protected by a dozen coats of lacquer. A smaller chassis with a wheelbase of 130 inches was introduced in 1924.

In 1928 Studebaker and Pierce-Arrow merged, and Pierce brought out new models with a straight eight engine. The new cars helped to make 1929 the best year ever for Pierce. In 1932 a stock roadster with a V-12 engine averaged 112 miles per hour for 24 hours on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah.

In 1933 a few futuristic streamlined cars were built as show cars. Called the Silver Arrow, the beautiful cars (built in the Studebaker prototype shops) gave us a preview of the Chrysler Airflow, Lincoln-Zephyr, and the other streamlined cars of the 1930s. Unfortunately neither Studebaker nor Pierce-Arrow could follow up on the ideas suggested by the cars, and they never went into production. Three Silver Arrow cars survive today in museums.

As a final change of hands, in 1933 a group of Buffalo investors bought Pierce-Arrow from Studebaker and continued to build the cars without much change. For a short while a travel trailer, called the Pierce-Arrow Travelodge, was advertised as "Designed by automobile men", but it was not enough to save Pierce-Arrow. The last full year of automobile production was 1937 — only a few cars were sold in 1938.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

"Dixit et Fecit": He said (he would do it) and (then) he did (it).
The Romans are famous for leaving stuff out, and mottoes of course
always go with the shorter is better approach.
— Translation assistance from Latinist Meg Burns

The Pierce-Arrow Society

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