Build a car and get in on the ground floor of the automobile busi- ness." At the turn of the century, that thought was in the minds of many men in many industries. It was the transportation of the future, a chance for a financial empire, and a new field for inventors.
By and large the car builders were men whose specialties lay in related endeavors - buggy makers, bicycle designers, mechanical engineers. The Studebakers were carriage and wagon manufacturers; Ford was a mechanic; Royce an electrical engineer. The Stanley brothers were exceptions. They dropped a photographic plate business to build their steamer, and it still seems a far reach from photography to cars.
But 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 This man, who gave us the elegant, classic, massive, Pierce-Arrow, originally made delicate, gilded bird cages!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 contests.
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 as well.