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 The firm was soon awash in red ink, its cars hopelessly outdated if still ardently admired.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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The Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow was incredibly futuristic-looking for its time, with no running boards and bulbous "pontoon" fenders.

Test driver Ab Jenkins took to the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1932 with a stripped 452 V-12 roadster prototype that had already done 33,000 miles. It promptly ran 2710 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of 112.91 mph. Jenkins commented: "The car was stable at all speeds, more like a racing chassis." The car was stable enough that Jenkins could write notes to spectators and toss them out at speeds over 110.

No mechanical problems were experienced during the run. Fenders, windshield, and other road equipment reinstalled for the 2000 mile drive back to Buffalo -- a convincing demonstration of Pierce-Arrow stamina.

Jenkins returned to Utah in 1933 with a modified 207-bhp car that set 79 world speed records over 251/2 hours, running as high as 128 mph. The road and weather conditions were more-difficult than the first trip, but neither car nor driver seemed to mind. Ab managed to shave during the final laps.

But speed records, multicylinder engines, and high-priced luxury were not enough to survive "hard times," as Cadillac, Marmon, Packard, and Stutz were learning. Pierce had grossly underestimated both the depth and breadth of the Depression, just like its Studebaker owner.

Extensive advertising didn't help. By 1933, both firms were dangerously overextended, yet Studebaker continued pumping money into Pierce-Arrow. The two companies soon agreed to standardize several manufacturing processes for their vastly dissimilar cars, but this didn't save much money. Still, Pierce was able to reduce some operating costs in light of its fast-dwindling sales.

Late 1932 brought a new sales manager in Roy Faulkner, the dynamic former president of Auburn, which lent credence to rumors of an impending Pierce/Auburn merger. One of his first acts was the revolutionary Silver Arrow that was displayed at the 1933 Chicago World Fair. Designed by Phil Wright, it was the product of numerous wind-tunnel tests yet a striking aesthetic success. Said company literature: "It gives you in 1933 the car of 1940."

Actually, the Silver Arrow wasn't a literal forecast of future Pierce styling, but it was truly futuristic. A four-door sedan on the 139-inch chassis of the model 1236, it bore a ­handsomely Vee'd radiator flanked by Pierce's trademark faired-in headlamps now fully integrated with flush-sided fenders. Running boards were absent, and pronounced pontoon rear fenders set off a radically tapered "beetle back" with a narrow Vee'd slit for a rear window.

Pierce claimed the Silver Arrow capable of 115 mph, but with over 5700 pounds of heft, even the 175-bhp V12 would be hard pressed to get much over 100. At an announced $10,000 (Faulker evidently planned limited regular sales) this dream car would remain just that for most, and only five were built.

Faulkner, the Silver Arrow, and Jenkin's speed runs briefly lifted Pierce fortunes in early 1933. Twelve-cylinder sales were up by 200 percent in January and by 130 percent in February; even through October they ran 55 percent ahead of the previous year's pace. But this recovery was dashed by strikes at tool-and-die makers, and Pierce lost 300-400 orders late in the year. As a result, production rose only slightly to 2295.

Worse, Studebaker went bankrupt in the spring of 1933, leading Erskine to commit suicide that July. Studebaker's receivers ordered Pierce to be sold, so in August the firm passed to a group of Buffalo-area businessmen and bankers who paid $1 million for a chance to turn things around. Faulkner returned to Indiana.

With this, Pierce-Arrow was independent again and, ironically, healthier than Studebaker. With debts canceled, the new owners hoped to break even at 3000 annual sales and to make $1 million at 4000. To achieve that they installed Chanter as president, who began planning for higher volume.

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The 1934 Pierce-Arrow fastback coupe featured a stronger engine than previous models but few exterior improvements.

Somehow, Pierce managed a total restyle for 1934, adopting a more-streamlined look that would continue for '35. Offerings were trimmed, but not drastically. The standard 1934 Eight offered four models with a 136-inch wheelbase and 135-bhp 366 engine in the $2500-$2700 range.

A new long-stroke 385 eight with 140 bhp powered a more-extensive DeLuxe Eight line on 139- and 144-inch chassis shared with Salon Twelves. Both Salons and that year's 147-inch Custom Twelves carried an unchanged 462 engine. The DeLuxe Eight covered a $2800-$5000 price range.

Twelves sold for $3200-$4500 with standard bodywork; six long-wheelbase Brunn "town" models listed for as high as $7000. A notable newcomer was a 144-inch-wheelbase two-door fastback in the image of the Silver Arrow, available as a DeLuxe Eight or Salon Twelve. Other closed bodies sported draft-free ventwing front-door windows, adjustable rear seats, and more head room.

Yet for all this, sales refused to improve, and Pierce kept bleeding cash: $861,000 for the first half of 1934, another $176,000 in July alone. The very next month, Pierce filed for bankruptcy after futile merger talks with Auburn and Reo.

Though Chanter managed to raise $1 million from the Buffalo community and New York banks, Pierce had to slash its work-force some 70 percent. With the new capital, a leaner, reorganized company called Pierce-Arrow Motor Corporation began operations in May 1935.

Despite a threadbare budget, Pierce managed an attractive redesign for 1936. Advertised as "The World's Safest Car," it boasted over 30 significant improvements: more fashionably rounded lines with built-in trunks on sedans; standard vacuum brake booster; added cruciform frame member; engines and radiators moved farther forward; and a steering box mounted ahead of the front axle with a trailing drag link.

Pierces had always been surprisingly easy to drive, but improved steering, brakes, suspension, and weight distribution gave the 1936s outstanding roadability despite the near three-ton bulk of some models. The previous three wheelbases returned for a reduced line of Eights and Twelves downpriced to $3100-$5600. The 366 eight was dropped, but new high-compression aluminum cylinder heads added ten horsepower to the other two engines.

Registrations climbed 25 percent in the first four months of 1936, suggesting Pierce had finally turned the corner, but ­production came to just 770. Pierce bravely carried on with little-changed 1937 models, but built only 191 before suspending production.

Though new financing was simply unavailable now, the company announced 1938 models in October '37, but built only 40. Their only visual changes were a plastic-rim "banjo" steering wheel, new license-plate lamp, and relocated emergency brake handle.

The success of medium-priced cars at Packard and Lincoln prompted a final reorganization attempt, Pierce announcing a $10.7-million stock issue in August 1937 to produce 25,000 medium-priced cars, 1200 luxury models, and 4800 trailers.

It also planned to tap Postmaster General James A. Farley, then about to leave the Roosevelt Administration, as new general manager. But none of this came to pass. Farley had received similar offers from Studebaker and Willys that he also rejected because they meant using his Washington connections, presumably to obtain contract work or federal loans.

The 1936 Pierce-Arrow Model 1601 featured control innovations that provided a safe and secure driving experience despite the car's three-ton curb weight.

Thus, Pierce again filed for bankruptcy in December 1937 after losing nearly $250,000 in the 17 months that followed July 1936. The firm was declared insolvent the following April; a month later, it was summarily liquidated. It was a sad end for a once-great American marque. However, the V-12 engine design was bought by Seagrave and lived on in fire engines until 1970.

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