How Pierce-Arrow Cars Work

The 1931 Pierce-Arrow Model 42 received small tweaks to the wheelbase but retained the robust engine from the 1930 model.

Of all the great American classics, none is more famous for meticulous craftsmanship or refined luxury than the noble Pierce-Arrow. Along with Packard and Peerless, it was one of the fabled "three Ps" of U.S. automotive royalty.

Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company started out in 1901 as an outgrowth of the George N. Pierce Company of Buffalo, New York, a bicycle manufacturer and, earlier, a birdcage maker. By 1918, it reached the pinnacle of preeminence with cars like the Model 66A. This mounted a giant 147.5-inch wheelbase, carried a huge 824.7-cubic-inch T-head six, and sold for upward of $8000 at a time when a Model T Ford cost a paltry $525; even the costliest 1918 Packard, the Twin Six Imperial limousine, seemed modest at $5850. But staunch conservatism led to stagnation, and by the mid-'20s, Pierce-Arrows were technically passé. The firm was soon awash in red ink, its cars hopelessly outdated if still ardently admired.

That Pierce survived to build any cars in the '30s was owed to Albert R. Erskine, the accountant-turned-president of Stude­baker who wanted a prestige nameplate for the automotive empire he hoped to erect in South Bend, Indiana. Thus, after months of negotiating, Studebaker acquired Pierce in 1928 through a stock transfer. Pierce remained ostensibly independent with its own general manager, Arthur J. Chanter, though Erskine named himself president. More importantly, Buffalo and not South Bend would retain responsibility for developing new Pierce-Arrows.

Pierce sold its traditional big sixes through 1928. Its first Eight of 1929 did much to restore the make's flagging reputation. Against the Sixes it was better looking, better handling, faster, lower slung -- and, remarkably enough, lower priced. As a result, Pierce enjoyed its best year ever: some 8000 built for the model year.

Eights comprised the entire 1930 lineup, which was quite broad for such a low-volume producer. A vast array of body types covered three series, four wheelbases -- 132, 134, 139, and a regal 144 inches -- and three nine-main-bearing inline engines: a 115-horsepower 340 cid, a 125-bhp 366, and a 132-bhp 385. Prices were stiff, ranging from $2700 for the short-chassis Model C club brougham to over $5000 for the long Model A seven-passenger salon town car.

Still, Pierce sales remained healthy through spring despite the stock market crash. Though demand began flagging in the second quarter, there was no immediate concern, for 1930 would be the firm's second-best year with 7670 built. Once again, Pierce viewed a worsening market with a combination of arrogance and naïveté.

The firm forged ahead with an even broader line for 1931. Engines stood pat, but wheelbases shifted: 134/137 inches for the least-expensive Model 43s, 142 for the midrange 42s, and 147 for the top-line Model 41s. The last now included five semi-custom "catalog" styles by LeBaron; and Derham, Dietrich, and Brunn contributed special bodies on a few individual chassis. But production withered to just 3775, a worrisome 53 percent below the high-water mark of just two years before.

Determined to improve sales and prove its mettle, Pierce cut back on Eights for 1932 but cut loose with two new V-12s. Flagship of the fleet was the Model 52, offering five body types on 142- and 147-inch wheelbases at prices in the $4295-$4800 range. All carried a new 150-bhp 429-cid V-12. Designed by chief engineer Karl M. Wise, this was a super-smooth, super-quiet engine with an 80-degree cylinder-bank angle, seven main bearings, and dual downdraft carburetors.

A smaller-bore 398 version with 140 bhp powered the Model 53, which listed more choices on 137- and 142-inch wheelbases for some $500 less than comparable 52s. Anchoring the line was the Model 54, essentially the 53 with an improved 366 straight-eight. Common to all '32 Pierce-Arrows were ultrasteady eight-point engine mounting, stronger frames, and "fingertip" adjustable shock absorbers. Yet despite all these worthy developments, production skidded to a disheartening 2100 units and Pierce posted a $3 million loss.

Save skirted fenders, the 1933s showed slight external change. Series rose to four: straight-eight Model 836 and V-12 Models 1236, 1242, and 1247. The smaller twelve was axed for want of performance, the eight gained 10 bhp for 135 total, and the 429 V-12 went to 160 bhp for the 1236 series. The top-line 1242/1247 carried a bored-out 452 V-12 with higher-compression heads giving a majestic 175 bhp. All engines featured hydraulic valve tappets for quiet operation and less maintenance -- an industry first.

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