That the Pierce-Arrow of Buffalo descended from a company that originally manufactured birdcages
is among the more charming footnotes to American automobile history – charming because of what the
Pierce-Arrow was – one of the stellar “Three P’s” (with Peerless of Cleveland and Packard of Detroit) in the
U.S. luxury car field.
During the Gay Nineties, the upstate New York firm had successfully added bicycles to its
household product line. Its first automobile, however – a steamer – was a failure. Thereafter Pierce turned to
gasoline engines, the small single cylinder Motorette evolving into the mighty four-cylinder Great Arrow by
1904. Beginning in 1905, a Great Arrow won the inaugural and three subsequent Glidden Tours. These
victories brought the company national fame. In 1907 a six-cylinder model was added. In 1909 the name
Pierce-Arrow was adopted, “Great” being dropped as redundant.
By 1915, when this $4900 “Runabout with Victoria Top” was marketed, Pierce-Arrow had built its
12,000th car, a production figure exceeded only by Packard among U.S. luxury car manufacturers. Pierce-
Arrow had also become the car of choice for U.S. Presidents, starting in 1909 when William Howard Taft
added two Pierce-Arrows to the White House stable. The presidential preference lasted until Pierce was
ousted by another of the Three Ps – Packard – in the Hoover era two decades later.
Painstaking attention to detail was a Pierce-Arrow hallmark, as was a curious amalgam of the
progressive, the conservative and the eccentric. Extensive use of aluminum, power braking and hydraulic
tappets were areas in which Pierce-Arrow pioneered. But right hand drive remained a feature until 1920,
when such positioning was an obvious anachronism. The Pierce-Arrow’s most famous idiosyncrasy – the
fender-ensconced headlamps – endured from 1913 to the end.
The end came in 1938. “Discriminating men and women have little patience with a compromise,”
the catalog promoting the Pierce-Arrow that stands before you had stated. Unfortunately, few discriminating
people during the Depression could afford the car. Introducing a cheaper line, as other high-priced
manufacturers did, was an anathema. Pierce-Arrow went down with luxury flags flying.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
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