Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

1930-1939 Pierce-Arrow

1937, 1938 Pierce-Arrow

Now let's chronicle the 1937 and 1938 Pierce-Arrow lineup. 

Briefly during 1936 it appeared Pierce-Arrow had turned the corner. Registrations showed a 25 percent gain for the first third of the year, but sales quickly tapered off to below 1935 levels. Despite the smart appearance, engineering advances, and superlative comfort of the new models, deliveries totaled just 787 units.

The Buffalo automaker was clearly in trouble, and the months ahead would seal its fate. Merger rumors came and went amidst talk of new stock offerings and another reorganization. There was even speculation about a cheaper "companion" car to be announced as soon as sufficient capital could be secured.

1938 Pierce-Arrow
The 1938 models were all but indistinguishable from the 1937s, but they were unmistakably Pierce-Arrow in appearance. Note the vee’d front bumper on this Model 1803 limousine.
In the meantime, the firm bravely carried on with a 1937 line bearing only a few interior trim changes to distinguish it from the previous year's group. Chassis, engines, and most other specifications remained unchanged, as did the styling.

In a throwback to a breed long since consigned to history, Pierce made a last desperate bid for the super-luxury coachbuilt market with a "Special Custom Body Group." This referred to several esoteric body types that were given prominent space in the 1937 catalog, including two town cars and a high-roof "Opera" limousine.

Unfortunately, neither these nor the standard models succeeded in reversing the slide toward oblivion. Suppliers, justifiably dismayed by the abysmally poor sales of just 166 cars in 1937, turned a deaf ear to company pleas for additional credit, and Pierce soon suspended all production save auto show cars and spare parts.

Yet somehow, there was a 1938 Pierce-Arrow. Only 17 are estimated to have been built, making them among the rarest in the company's 37-year history. A "banjo-type" plastic-rimmed steering wheel, a new license plate lamp on closed cars, a color change for hubcap centers, and a relocated emergency brake handle were the only clues to these last-of-the-line models, announced in October 1937.

The success of Packard and Lincoln with their medium-priced models inspired another reorganization scheme for Pierce. In August 1937 the company announced plans to raise $10.7 million through a stock sale for the production of 25,000 medium-priced cars, plus 4,800 trailers and 1,200 luxury models, and proposed turning over management duties to Postmaster General James A. Farley, then intending to leave the Roosevelt Administration. But none of this came to pass.

Farley had received similar offers from Studebaker and Willys, which he also rejected because all required him to use his influence with the government, presumably to obtain contract work or federal loans. Pierce declared bankruptcy again in December 1937 after losing nearly $250,000 in the 17 months from July 1936 through November 1937. The firm was declared insolvent the following April. A month later, it was summarily liquidated.

1938 Pierce-Arrow
Pierce-Arrow produced only a handful of 1938 models, its last cars. Most sources peg actual production at less than 40 units.
Why did Pierce-Arrow wait so long before considering a medium-priced car? There are several reasons. For one thing, the firm's share of the total market was constant through 1932, and its share of the prestige segment actually increased. Summer and fall sales increases during 1933, together with a higher level of V-12 sales, indicated that the three-year sales decline had been reversed.

The Model 836A of 1934 actually was an attempt at a lower-priced product, but as noted, it was not sufficiently less expensive to generate the needed sales volume. Then, too, the 1935 reorganization would have been jeopardized had the company admitted that it could survive only with cheaper models, given the prohibitive tooling costs for any sort of new product in those days.

Pierce publicity unwittingly gave a clue to the firm's insoluble dilemma when it proclaimed: "Pierce-Arrow's floor area, if used for ordinary mass production, would have a capacity four times that possible under Pierce-Arrow methods."

The Pierce-Arrows of the 1930s will be remembered as superb road machines of uncompromising craftsmanship. Their engines were powerful, smooth, and quiet, and provided outstanding acceleration and hill-climbing ability. Braking, steering, and handling were all of a high order, yet tuning and maintenance were straightforward.

Though Pierce-Arrow lacked the enormous technical resources of General Motors, its cars remained comparable with Cadillac's throughout the decade. Success, however, has always been on the side of the big battalions. Thus, America's pioneer grand marque -- built by highly skilled craftsmen in a plant run by old New England gentlemen -- passed into history and with it, an American institution.

Find specifications for Pierce-Arrow cars in our final section.

For more information on cars, see: