Story of the Week

Posted: 10.15.2014
Historical Snapshot: The Pierce-Arrow Automobiles
By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection

As we look back over the early days of our automotive heritage, we admire the Pierce-Arrow automo-bile as a unique and fascinating vehicle. The vehicles manufacturing dates back from 1901 through 1938 out of Buffalo, New York. Ironically, the Pierce-Arrow journey began with the production of bi-cycles in the late 1890's, followed by light cars produced and powered by Dion-Bouton engines shortly after.

Their automobiles were known as ‘Motorettes’. Advertised as “A Motorette Runnabout”, this model sold for $1,275 dollars which was considered expensive in that time period. It was an ideal vehicle for anyone who wanted to have great driving adventures and travel to exciting new places. The company was organized by Mr. George Pierce of Buffalo, New York. Mr. George Norman Pierce (1846-1910) was a great Buffalo businessman who built birdcages and ice boxes before he started manufacturing bicycles.

In late 1902, Mr. David Fergusson designed his first front-engine car, which was called the Arrow. Mr. Fergusson, who came from the E.C. Stearns Co., had remained with the Pierce Company until 1921. By 1909, Pierce-Arrow became the official name of the company and its products. Then, in 1928, Pierce- Arrow merged with the Studebaker Corporation which gave the Buffalo firm a much needed investment of capital. This great partnership helped to build and launch their exciting new product line of automobiles of 1929. The new automobiles were called the 133 and 143 models which were in reference to their respective wheelbase measurements in inches.

Mr. Albert Enskine, President of Studebaker, became Chairmen of the Board at Pierce-Arrow while Mr. Forbes remained President. As a result of this great union, Pierce-Arrow automotive sales were great in 1929 and paved the way for continuous growth in 1930. However, due to the Great Depression, automotive sales began to unfortunately decline as the economy struggled.

There was, however, some good news within the company in 1933; The Silver Arrow model show car was introduced to the public. On January 1, 1933 at the New York Automobile Show a new design by Pierce-Arrow appeared on display. The new model was called the Silver Arrow which was a streamlined four-door sedan designed by Mr. Phil Wright and Mr. J. R Hughes. The steel top and its sloping back design was a revolutionary concept in 1933. Known as the “car of the future”, the model was created for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and was the first of many cars to have a futuristic design. The manufacturer advertised the Silver Arrow as the car for 1940’s because it was so adventurous and ahead of its time. The most outstanding feature of the car was its completely streamlined design.

When I look at the Silver Arrow design, I often am reminded of the Chrysler Airflow designs and the Torpedo body designs that were manufactured in 1941 by General Motors. Between five and ten Silver Arrow models were produced and are quite rare among automotive collectors today. One of the models was owned by Mr. Marquis Donald d'Oyley of Houston Texas. Mr. d’Oyley had purchased the Arrow automobile new in San Francisco in 1933 and had driven the model over 300,000 miles enjoying every ride.

In the spring of 1933, the Studebaker Corporation went bankrupt and the receivers sold of Pierce -Arrow to a group of Buffalo businessmen for one and a half million dollars. The new owners included Mr. Arthur J. Chanter, who was a former Studebaker employee and a Pierce-Arrow Vice President since 1928. After the early 1930's, the sales of Pierce-Arrow automobiles quickly started to go downhill which was not good for the company. By April 13, 1938 the Pierce-Arrow motor car company faced an unfortunate Bankruptcy by the United States District Court which took place in the city where it all started, Buffalo, New York. This was a sad day in automotive history for the Pierce-Arrow company. After the Bankruptcy, the renowned Pierce-Arrow automobile name plate was over and this marked the end of a truly great American classic company. The legacy of the Pierce-Arrow automobiles will always be remembered for their visionary design which influenced the shape of automobiles to come.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Jones R. Edgar. “The Pierce-Arrow Old Days.” 1961. Ward's Automobile Topics. “Yesterday's Car Of The Future” 1950. Abrom G. Arthur & Fowler Perry. “Pierce-Arrow America's Answer To The Rolls-Royce”.)

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