the most wildly improbable change in careers was made by George N.
Pierce. This man, who gave us the elegant, classic, massive,
Pierce-Arrow, originally made delicate, gilded bird cages!
Pierce made the leap in 1901
by producing two cars. They looked very much like the curved-dash
Oldsmobile except that the dash curved inward. Pierce named his
first model the Motorette, and he powered it with a one-cylinder
De Dion engine. The tiny machine had only two forward speeds, no
reverse, and the usual tiller for steering. But this lightweight
car was only a start. In a very few years the Pierce Motor Car
Company was producing huge, richly appointed automobiles.
They were first known as
Pierce Great-Arrows and great can be applied with more than one
meaning. These early cars had one of the largest engines ever
used. Six cylinders, but with a capacity of 13 liters! Almost
enough to run a train. It was a reliable engine, however. A
Pierce-Arrow won the first Glidden Tour in 1905, and most of the
runs in following years.
The Glidden Tours were
actually the beginnings of the American rally or regularity run.
Jaspar Glidden, one of the developers of the Bell Telephone
system, laid out a long distance course between cities, arranged
hotel stopovers, and awarded a trophy to that car that completed
the rough cross-country tour closest to schedule. Some of these
tours were over 2,000 miles in length, most of it on muddy dirt
roads. In a sense, it was the popularity of the Glidden tours that
focused the attention of the American public on the necessity for
good roads, and our fine highway system today can be traced to the
interest in touring that Jaspar Glidden inaugurated with his
Throughout the pre-World War
I period the Pierce-Arrow, champion of the Glidden Tours, was a
much respected automobile. It ranked with the finest cars in the
world in luxury, performance and dependability. Incidentally, it
out-weighed them all. Then, in 1914, a design feature was adopted
that made the Pierce Arrow completely distinctive. The headlights
were faired into the front fenders, thus anticipating headlight
placement by many years. The company went this idea one better in
1935 by adding another pair of smaller headlights, mounted between
the fenders and the hood. Here in 1935 was the first use of what
is now a big selling point on modern American cars, the somewhat
unnecessary four headlights.
In 1925 an attempt was made
to regain the sales losses that most big cars suffered in the
twenties, when Pierce-Arrow, in cooperation with the Aluminum
Company of America, built an aluminum car. Almost everything
except a few essential steel components was built of the light
metal. It was done for publicity, but to no avail. In 1928 the
struggling firm was put up for sale and Studebaker took it over.
They immediately entered the cylinder race. Packard, Cadillac,
Lincoln and others were building cars with huge V engines, and
Pierce-Arrow countered with a V-12. But they could not compete
with Ford and General Motors. By the 1930's only an involved
corporate structure with its own lines of supply and subsidiary
equipment plants could survive the depression. In America the days
of the small, high-class manufacturer were over. Complicated
machinery supplanted the individual craftsman and the public had
become much less appreciative of custom quality.
During its death struggle
Pierce-Arrow made the biggest mistake possible. In a final appeal
to wealthy customers, a new car -the Silver Arrow -was released in
1933. It cost $10,000! This was at the depth of the depression and
even rich customers hesitated to spend that amount of money for an
automobile. It'was a beautiful car, but very few were produced.
Studebaker sold' the firm shortly after, and the new owners fought
a desperate rear-guard action, but it was too late and the final
curtain fell in 1938.
It is amazing that
Pierce-Arrow lasted as long as it did. It is a tribute to the
quality of the car. Thirty-seven years is a long time for a high
standard to be maintained without compromise, but Pierce Arrow
held that standard in the face of many economic problems. There is
now a great demand for the old classic models, but it would be a
real triumph to find one of George N. Pierce's gilded bird cages