Pierce-Arrow Company     ...................  Buffalo Auto Industry

Adventures in Western New York History:
Manufacturers of Wheels and Motors:

The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co.

By Roger Squier
(online September 2017)

The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. had a less spectacular career, but from the beginning it earned its way to the top through sound engineering and management.

George N. Pierce, the founder of the company, began business in Buffalo in 1872 or 1873 when he established the firm of Heinz, Pierce and Munschauer to manufacture bird cages, tinware, toilet seats, bath tubs, water filters, and washing machines. In 1887 he organized a new firm, George N. Pierce Co., to make children's tricycles, and in 1891 made bicycles his main product.

In 1898, recognizing the importance of the automobile, the company was reorganized again and began to experiment with gasoline-driven motors. In 1900 while these experiments were continuing, the company turned out six steam cars, but soon abandoned the project because of the many problems encountered with a steam engine. In 1901 the engineering department under the direction of David Fergusson concentrated upon the gasoline-driven Pierce Motorette, and the company sold twenty-five of them during the year. The mechanical evolution of this car can be sketched briefly.

The first model was powered by a De Dion one cylinder 23/4 horsepower motor, imported from France and capable of a maximum speed of about 25 miles an hour. It sold for $850. In thirty years this primitive "horseless carriage" evolved into a twelve cylinder, 150 horsepower limousine, town car, or runabout capable of cruising at 80 miles an hour .

In 1903 four models were produced. Three had one cylinder vertical Pierce motors, varying from. 3 to 8 horsepower. The most luxurious had a De Dion motor of 15 horsepower, a tonneau-type body with a rear entrance, three forward speeds and reverse. This was the first model that did not look like a buggy.

Wheel steering with the wheel on the right, appeared in 1904, as well as the gear change on the steering column. The Pierce kept this right hand steering wheel until 1920, long after the rest of the industry had abandoned it. In 1905 the frame was made of pressed steel, and the tonneau entrance was moved from the rear to the side. The motor now had four cylinders. A number of mechanical improvements took place. In 1907 the magneto appeared and shock absorbers added to the comfort of the ride. The six cylinder model of this year, with a motor generating 65 horsepower, weighed 4,150 pounds.

In 1909 the general lines of the car were smoother with fewer projecting parts. The runabout was introduced. The wheelbase averaged about 130 inches. In the 1910 model the body and motor became more of a unit with the hood and body in line. One year later the front doors were added. The 1912 additions were an electric horn, demountable rims, and an electric lighting system. In 1913 the electric generator appeared. 1914 was the year in which the headlights were affixed to the fenders, one of the Pierce- Arrow's contributions to the industry, and the pressure fuel system introduced, as well as the electric starter. In 1918 the foot accelerator made driving simpler. The 1921 model was streamlined with a slanting windshield and had a thick sheet aluminum body.

For the next fifteen years as the entire industry developed in the direction of greater efficiency, comfort and power, engineering refinements continued.  The style of the body went through many changes which enabled the Pierce-Arrow to hold its reputation as one of the most beautiful cars in America.

The Pierce-Arrow was tested on the road and driven to the dealer. Great numbers of them were sold through the annual brochure, with the customer picking out its exclusive accessories such as a toilet, or writing desk, and choosing the type and color of the upholstery, etc. One famous car, built for an Asiatic ruler, had a gold-plated radiator with a solid gold cap encrusted in jewels. Another infamous one was used by a bootlegger during Prohibition to run liquor from Canada to buffalo. This twelve cylinder model could run on four cylinders, so the enterprising owner used the eight inactive cylinders as containers for whiskey.

The owners and officers of the first company which grew out of the bicycle company in 1902 were: George N. Pierce, president; Henry May, vice-president and general manager; Charles Clifton, treasurer; Laurance H. Gardner, secretary; and William B. Hoyt, legal adviser. Other owners were William H. Gardner and George K. Birge.

In 1906 the automobile business was moved into a modern plant at 1685 Elmwood Avenue with 1,500,000 square feet of floor space. At its peak this plant employed over 10,000 workers.

In 1908 the name of the firm was changed to the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. In the same year Mr. Pierce left the company. Mr. Birge, a successful manufacturer of wallpaper, succeeded him as president and directed the company's affairs until 1916 when he resigned, and Col. Clifton was elected to the position.

Col. Clifton was a generous, able man of integrity and vision. It was he who brought two French cars to Buffalo in 1904 to style the Pierce-Arrow after them and built the first tonneau-type car in America. For his leadership in the industry  he was made president of the National Automobile Manufacturers Association for eleven years. Mr. May directed the development of the car and the management of the plant. The two Gardners, father and son, both made important contributions as officers, as well as Mr. Hoyt who was consulted in all legal matters.

In 1910 the company introduced a worm gear truck, which was expanded into a line of four models: 2-ton, 3Y2-ton, 5-ton, and tractor. This truck played a vital role in moving troops and supplies during World War I and was a complete success. It finally disappeared from the market, largely because of a lack of interest among the officers who were committed to the development of the finest automobile in the country.

In 1916 when the company was earning about $5,000,000 a year and selling a large number of cars and trucks, Mr. Birge decided to withdraw and broaden the ownership by converting into a stock company with shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Accordingly, its owners sold out to a banking firm for $16,500,000.

This was the beginning of hard times for the company. In 1919 the New York interests turned the management over to Goethals & Co., a famous firm of industrial engineers which sent John C. Jay, Jr., to be president. Col. Clifton became chairman of the board. In an attempt to modernize production, Mr. Jay discharged most of the key men of the plant. Henry May, the general manager, expressed his disapproval by resigning. In other areas also the new management did not do well. The 1920 model was unpopular, and many were returned for repairs. One year later Mr. Jay was replaced by George W. Mixter. In 1921, a year of severe economic depression, a loss of $8,000,000 led to the cancellation of the contract with Goethals & Co. In 1922 to salvage the company, Col. Clifton made Myron E. Forbes president.

For awhile the company righted itself, but formidable obstacles lay in its. path. The severe depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 reduced the income of a large percentage of the well-to-do. Also, the giant Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler corporations, as they became more powerful and efficient, were forcing most of the weaker companies out of business. The Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln cars were rivals of the Pierce-Arrow.

Moreover, the handcrafted product was becoming less and less able to compete with mass production. The complete Pierce- Arrow was still built in the one factory with many operations accurate to 2/10th of a 1,000th of an inch, which is the equivalent of 1/10th the thickness of a human hair. In the beginning such operations had been possible only by hand, but now large scale stamping machines and other devices enabled competing companies to turn out cheaper cars which gave satisfactory performance under normal conditions. The new smooth-surfaced roads made it unnecessary to have weight and length to insure a comfortable ride.

In 1928 the Studebaker Corporation purchased control of the company for $2,000,000 and tried to revive its business by introducing a smaller car, the Series 80. This relatively compact Pierce-Arrow had a 130 inch wheelbase and a six cylinder 70 horsepower engine. The five passenger sedan sold for $3,895.

Studebaker also employed an efficiency expert to put in a modified assembly line; but the plant, which had several floors, was not suitable for the type of assembly line developed by Ford and General Motors. The first two years, under Studebaker management were prosperous. But, in 1932, the Studebaker Corporation itself was placed in receivership.

A Buffalo group bought control of the company for $1,000,000 in 1933, intending to produce a smaller car, and almost saved the situation. A prospective bank loan, however, was held up by the declining stock market and never consummated. In 1938 the company went into bankruptcy, and its assets were sold at auction. This was the end of one of the greatest manufacturing companies ever developed in Buffalo.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2017
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... .|....E-Mail ...| .