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.
Go to the next page to learn more about the Silver Arrow Project.