The Great Depression had cast a long, deep shadow over America by 1933.
Those who attempted to shake off the gloom by attending the World's Fair in Chicago saw three very special autos, not the least of which was a Pierce-Arrow; however, the 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow would soon be introduced.
The 1930s may be hard for many to comprehend now, but the facts are there for all time. By 1933, America was a nation looking for work. Unemployment ran one in four nationally and was much higher in cities. Banks were shut against depositors unable to get at their own savings. Former millionaires were begging for low-wage jobs.
There was no government-sponsored work relief, let alone medical- or family-aid programs. The record seems to indicate that Franklin Delano Roosevelt probably did not save the republic for capitalism, but those who remember the Threadbare Thirties can be excused for thinking he did.
Whatever the success or failure of his programs, FDR imparted something else that was, in the end, more important: hope. Still, it took a new world war to end "hard times" for good.
The automobile industry reflected the national misery. From a healthy 4.5 million cars in 1929, annual production slid to barely a million in three years.
Ford, which had once built 1.8 million cars in a year, settled for 335,000 in 1933. Among smaller manufacturers, bankruptcies, mergers, and desperation tactics were legion. The Great Depression was especially hard on luxury makes, whose market almost disappeared.
Peerless and Marmon, two of America's grandest marques, built beautiful Sixteens that nobody wanted, and both companies were gone by 1933. Even their stronger competitors had trouble. It wasn't simply that former Cadillac, Packard, and Lincoln customers could no longer afford those cars -- many had marshalled their money and insulated themselves from the slump -- but that those who could simply preferred not to be seen in them.
For a couple of years after the Wall Street Crash, the nation acted stunned, for it had never seen anything like this before and its leaders seemed powerless to cope.
Slowly, however, the country's spirit revived, and though the economy only got worse into 1933, institutions public and private began putting on a brave face, fearing nothing but fear itself, projecting dreams of a bright new future just around the corner.
Roosevelt signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act and an alphabet soup of other "New Deal" programs, Hollywood produced 550 films (one of the few entertainments people could still afford), Robert Byrd began his second South Pole exploration, Sir Malcolm Campbell broke the land speed record at over 270 mph, the New York Giants beat the Washington Senators four games to one in the World Series, and Chicago proclaimed a "Century of Progress" at its World's Fair Exposition on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Auto manufacturers looked upon all this with their traditional enthusiasm, trying to comprehend how they might turn disaster into opportunity.
Luxury-car makers dealt with the situation in various ways. Cadillac, though sheltered under the large General Motors umbrella, cut back hard on production, but Lincoln output tapered almost to a halt, then was restored by the streamlined, medium-priced Zephyr starting in 1935. Packard, still proudly independent, sought salvation with its slightly lower-priced 1932 Light Eight, failed, then planned a still-cheaper volume product that emerged in 1935 as the company-saving One Twenty.
All three of these leading luxury makes brought out specials and show cars for the round of 1933 automobile shows, culminating with the Chicago fair. Their onetime archrival, the still highly respected Pierce-Arrow Motor Company, followed suit with its own stunning creations.
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The Pierce-Arrow Motor Company Story
The Pierce-Arrow Motor Company and Packard were the last two great automotive independents.
Though each make had its own distinctive appearance -- fender-mounted frogeye headlamps and lovely Tireur d'Arc radiator mascot for Pierce -- their engineering was remarkably similar.
In the 1920s, however, Packard was more successful, reflecting the inherent advantage of its Detroit location and a more progressive management team than possessed by Buffalo, New York-based Pierce.
By 1929, Packard's sales lead was insurmountable, although Pierces of the early 1930s showed the company could still build great automobiles. In engineering, styling, quality, refinement, and prestige, Pierce-Arrow and Packard marked the summit of American Classic-car achievement. They acknowledged few peers and no superiors.
By the time the Depression bit, Pierce-Arrow seemed to have found its own corporate shelter, having been acquired in 1928 by Studebaker. Pierce had been seeking a guardian angel for several years, and Studebaker's accountant-turned-president, Albert Erskine, wanted a prestige nameplate for the empire he hoped to build.
Pierce continued as an independent entity in Buffalo under its own general manager, Arthur J. Chanter, though Erskine took over as president and Studebaker engineers designed Pierce's 1929 Eight.
Toward the end of the 1920s, Pierce, whose sales had initially picked up under Studebaker's aegis, joined an industry trend toward multi-cylinder engines. Chief engineer Karl M. Wise designed a new sidevalve V-12 comparable to Packard's and announced at the same time, 1932.
That turned out to be precisely the wrong time, as both companies soon learned, but nobody could know it when the projects were begun. Indeed, Pierce's fortunes didn't immediately plummet after the Wall Street fiasco.
Sales picked up after Studebaker's takeover to reach a record 9,700 in 1929. The 1930 total was down to 6,795, but that was still the second-best performance in Pierce history.
Wise's V-12 was initially offered in two sizes, 398 and 429 cubic inches, but the smaller version was dropped after 1932 because it didn't perform any better than the Pierce straight-eight.
To keep up in the horsepower race, a 462-cubic inches version was added for 1933, packing 175 horsepower (versus 160 for that year's 429 and 135 for the eight).
Test driver Ab Jenkins took one to the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1932, basically a standard car that had already seen 33,000 miles, and piled up nearly 3,000 miles over 24 hours at a 112.9 mph average.
Fenders, windshield, and road equipment were then reinstalled and the car was immediately driven the 2,000 miles back to Buffalo.
The superiority of the Pierce Twelve lay in its essential simplicity and smoothness. Classic-car historian Maurice D. Hendry compared it favorably with the legendary Model J Duesenberg eight: "When we consider Duesenberg's double overhead camshafts, supercharger, general racing car design, plus the mechanical clatter and greater attention required by same, the Pierce shows up very favorably. It is doubtful whether an unblown Duesenberg would have improved on the Pierce 24-hour time."
Pierce claimed other innovations in these years. The 1932 line introduced eight-point engine-mount bushings for ultra-smooth running, a stronger frame virtually impervious to twisting or bending, and standard "fingertip-adjustable" shock absorbers, all in a wide range of body styles of conservatively tasteful, Classic-era design.
Skirted fenders further improved appearance for 1933, when an automatic choke, hydraulic valve lifters, and standard power brakes arrived.
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Silver Arrow Project
By the autumn of 1932, when the Silver Arrow project began, the Depression was still worsening and both Pierce and Studebaker were deep in trouble.
Erskine's company had continued to pay dividends out of capital reserves, even while sales were dwindling, which forced Studebaker into receivership in 1933. Erskine resigned in despair, then committed suicide soon afterwards.
Pierce-Arrow, meanwhile, lost $3 million on sales of only $8 million in 1932, when volume plunged to 2,692 units. Like Studebaker, Pierce had underestimated the Depression's severity.
The dynamic Roy Faulkner, former president of Auburn, took over as sales vice president that fall. No sooner had he arrived in Buffalo than he received a call from a young stylist named Phil Wright, who proposed a Pierce supercar. "Why not?" we can imagine Faulkner asking himself. "Nothing else has worked. This might."
Phil Wright was still in his twenties, but he packed distinguished experience with two coachbuilders, Union City and Murphy, and with a major manufacturer, General Motors.
Wright's Silver Arrow concept originated from his time with GM's original Art & Colour Section styling department during one of the many exercises in "futuristic design" held by A&C's founder, Harley Earl.
Among Phil's contemporaries were Gordon Buehrig, whose future concept was the famous Cord 810, and John Tjaarda, who evolved his ideas into the Lincoln-Zephyr. After being laid off due to Depression budget cuts, Wright took his ideas to Pierce-Arrow with Mr. Earl's approval.
Working at home, Wright created a 1/8-scale clay model and delivered it along with his conceptual drawings to Faulkner. Enthusiastic, Faulkner endorsed the proposal with Studebaker management in South Bend, which agreed to handle development work. "Although both companies were at rock bottom, Studebaker had more design and construction talent," Wright recalled.
Wright's shape was nothing less than revolutionary. Citing it as an automotive styling landmark for Road & Track in 1955, the late designer, instructor, and critic, Strother MacMinn, wrote that the Silver Arrow was "considered by almost everyone to have been ahead of its time ... [the] first in this country with slab-sided styling [although] it suffered with compromises (such as a high frame) like many pioneers."
Compromises did indeed occur. James R. Hughes, Studebaker's chief body engineer, who handled the development, made one drastic change immediately, selecting the 139-inch Pierce-Arrow chassis instead of the 147-inch wheelbase on which Wright had based his clay model, and requisitioning a group of these chassis from Buffalo.
"This meant relocating the rear seat over the rear axle and raising the roofline," Wright commented, though it probably gave the car better proportions, with a more close-coupled look.
Out back, Hughes threw in some ideas of his own, incorporated from a rejected design for a fastback 1933 Commander created by Studebaker stylist J. Herbert Newport: an inset backlight and tapering, pointed rear fenders. The Silver Arrow was thus one of the first cars where the rear had as much styling importance as the front.
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Designing the 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow
Designing the 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow was not an easy task because like so many other dream cars, the Silver Arrow had an impossibly short deadline; the New York Automobile Show of January 1933.
Get one car done by January 1, Hughes was told, and worry about the rest later. Ultimately, Pierce built five 1933 Silver Arrows.
Paul J. Auman, late of Fisher Body but then superintendent of Studebaker's body prototype department, wrote about the job 30 years ago: "Working with us were about 30 men and helpers, all skilled craftsmen with years of experience. Not only were they good, but they were fast. The work went on around the clock. By the last week in October, the full-size body draft was completed. Work on pine models for parts had already begun [which were] then translated into hardwood hammer forms upon which all steel body parts were made. The largest panel, the roof, was hand-hammered out over a maple form. All steel panels were welded together."
Aside from the traditional archer mascot and fender-headlamps, the Silver Arrow resembled no other Pierce. "Even the headlamps were a combination of tradition and innovation, being mounted high, their line flowing up and back past the doors and sweeping down to the tail."
Because the baggage compartment was small and the front fenders long, the latter housed the twin spare wheels in special lockers, opened by remote controls in the dash.
Aerodynamics was in its infancy then, but the engineers knew enough to hide the horns under the hood, set the parking lights into the headlamp and taillamp shells, and apply flush-fitting rear fender skirts. Even the door handles were recessed pull types, not unlike those on today's cars.
MacMinn thought the fenders and frame a bit high, but they dictated a floor set well below the frame side members, something Hudson would dub "Step-down Design" 15 years later.
A vee'd windshield led to a smooth, sharp roofline, which ended with a notched, slit-like rear window that almost seemed an afterthought and certainly obstructed visibility.
Paul Aumun added: "The side windows were framed in a metal molding which flowed from the outer edge of the windshield back along the entire length of the car, passing on either side of the trunk lid down to bumper level. This served both to stiffen the panels and to facilitate the separation of the two-tone paint treatment. The cars were originally painted a two-tone tan, the darker shade being above the beltline."
In overhead view, the Silver Arrow bears a certain resemblance to another ahead-of-its-time car, the famous Tucker "48." But Preston Tucker's dream was hopelessly impractical and forbiddingly expensive to build. The Silver Arrow was not, what with its conventional chassis and a production powerplant, albeit an exotic one.
Being a Pierce-Arrow, it was luxuriously trimmed inside, with diamond-pattern broadcloth set off by leather over heavy-wear surfaces and hand-finished curly maple. The rear compartment contained an auxiliary speedometer, a clock, a rear radio speaker, and Pierce's traditional fixed center armrest.
Evidence suggests that the 1933 Silver Arrow was as fast as its swoopy looks implied. Although curb weight was no less than 5,700 pounds, the factory claimed a top speed of 115 mph, and no one has suggested this was much of an exaggeration.
But with a price tag of $10,000 -- as much as three or four suburban bungalows in 1930 -- the Silver Arrow would clearly serve dealerships only as inspiration. It was Pierce-Arrow's contribution to the nationwide preoccupation with better times a-coming.
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1933-1934 Pierce Silver Arrow
An improved design for the 1933-1934 Pierce Silver Arrow was the next objective for James Hughes and his team, after they made their short deadline for the1933 model.
The first Silver Arrow was a sensation in New York. According to Auman, the second car went to Buffalo on the 12th, while number three was shipped to Chicago on the 26th for the upcoming "Century of Progress" fair. Cars four and five reached Buffalo in February.
Number three was later rescued from a Cicero, Illinois, junkyard by the late well-known collector Henry Austin Clark, Jr. He used to say that he'd found bullet holes in the trunk and so presumed the car was owned for a time by the Capone mob. Besides that car, at least two other survivors exist.
It was an age of supercars and super dreams, so we should not pause long over the logic of building a car that cost the price of three houses in rock-bottom 1933.
Other companies did the same: Cadillac with its aerodynamic special for Chicago, Packard's famous close-coupled Dietrich sedan, the fair's "Car of the Dome."
But as Maurice Hendry considered a quarter-century ago, "the only design among all these that would have stood a chance as a concept in the postwar decade would be the Silver Arrow."
Evidence suggests the Silver Arrow did boost Pierce's morale and, briefly, prospects. Twelve-cylinder sales rose 200 percent in January 1933, 130 percent in February, and were 55 percent better through October versus the year-earlier period.
Then came strikes at tool-and-die makers, and a lack of cars cost 300-400 sales in November and December. Studebaker made up the losses before going bankrupt in early 1933.
Pierce-Arrow was ordered sold, and by August it was independent again, reorganized under a group of businessmen and bankers to break even at 3,000 cars a year. Unfortunately, 1933 sales fell short of that mark by a third (2,152).
Nevertheless, the 1934 Pierces were thoroughly improved, offering adjustable rear seats, draft-free ventwing windows, and updated styling announced by more rakishly tilted radiators. As before, the two V-12 series, the 1240 Salon and 1248 Custom, were almost made-to-order cars.
The 840 Eight was more humble, and April introduced a pair of even cheaper 836A models with a modest 136-inch wheelbase, a 366-cubic inch engine (versus the regular 385 eight), and prices as low as $2,195. Other 1934 Pierces ranged from $2,795 to $4,495.
Among them was a fastback two-door style that was called Silver Arrow but looked nothing like the showstopping 1933 four-door. Available as an Eight or Salon Twelve on a 144-inch wheelbase, it has been denigrated by some as a loss of the pure, original concept -- but that has gone on since the first dream car was created.
In fact, Pierce styling for 1934 to 1935 was beautifully evolved and streamlined, benefitting from the Silver Arrow experience. Anyone who owns a "production" Silver Arrow has one of the Classic era's most splendid cars.
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1934-1935 Pierce Silver Arrow
Alas, good styling, V-12 luxury, superb craftsmanship, and a patrician image were not enough to stop declining sales by the time the 1934-1935 Pierce Silver Arrow models were produced.
By mid-1934, former general manager Chanter, who'd been brought back by the new management, found sales slipping and money running out with a $681,000 loss.
Seeking funds from the Buffalo community and New York banks, he managed to raise about $1 million, but Pierce was still forced to sell its retail sales branches.
After just 1,740 registrations in 1934, the company was reorganized and began again in May 1935, only to end that year with just 875 orders.
Somehow, Pierce managed more than 30 improvements for its 1936 line, which lacked a Silver Arrow but boasted more power, the industry's first vacuum-assisted brakes, standard overdrive with automatic freewheeling, and fresh styling.
Despite all that, sales declined to 787 amid increasing rumors of mergers, new stock issues, and yet another reorganization. When the little-changed 1937s managed a paltry 166 sales, money sources dried up completely, and Pierce declared bankruptcy for the final time in December 1937, a mere two months after announcing its 1938 models (of which an estimated 17 were built).
In the end, the original Silver Arrow could not reverse its maker's fortunes any more than the Avanti could singlehandedly save Studebaker 30 years later.
Yet it was rightly billed as "The car of 1940 -- in 1933," and it's fascinating to think about how it might have evolved had Pierce survived or found a corporate savior, as Lincoln had much earlier.
The Packard Clipper (styled 1939, announced 1941) still looked up to date after World War II. Would not a 1941 Silver Arrow, designed along the same enlightened concepts of Phil Wright and James Hughes, have stood an equal chance? Almost certainly history might have been different.