An admirable philosophy that ultimately proved to be unsustainable.
Unwillingness to compromise in any way on craftsmanship and quality may be a noble pursuit but, in a highly competitive business, it can ultimately prove to be one’s undoing. Founded in 1908, the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company produced automobiles that were unequivocally aimed at those of elevated social status and discriminating taste. Imposing in size and, in some cases, larger than life(1), they found favour amongst the chauffeur-driven elite to make a suitably impressive entrance at high society social functions.
When the highest authority in the United States commissioned the first official car for the White House in 1909, it seemed only natural that Pierce-Arrow should be chosen to provide it. Likewise, the firm’s publicity material reflected its lofty position amongst the cream of America’s high-end luxury automakers. The 1931 brochure shown here has a stylish and subdued cover. Upon opening, an art-deco rendering of the company’s mascot is revealed on the reverse, while the first page reads simply but assertively, ‘Pierce-Arrow, America’s finest motor car’.
In the era before the Second World War, a time when Cadillac did not yet rule the luxury car field, Pierce-Arrow was known as one of the illustrious ‘three Ps’, the other two being Peerless and Packard. In 1914, the Buffalo, New York-based manufacturer introduced a distinctive styling element that would be used continuously until the very last Pierce-Arrow was produced: headlights that were smoothly integrated into the front fenders. Unique to Pierce-Arrow and an effective marque identifier, it nevertheless could not prevent steadily diminishing orders as the years went by, a consequence of extremely conservative management and a resistance to technical innovation that caused the cars to become increasingly outdated.
By 1929, Pierce-Arrow was suffering serious financial losses and, after lengthy negotiations, it became part of Studebaker simply in order to survive. Studebaker’s president, Albert Erskine, had plans to create an automotive empire to rival GM, and Pierce-Arrow would do nicely as its crown jewel. Under the new management, Pierce-Arrow’s engineers quickly set to work on a new and properly up-to-date car, the Eight. This was well received and sales doubled over the previous year. However, the stock-market crash of October 1929 and the lengthy depression that followed would mean that Pierce-Arrow would never better that year’s sales.
Still, Pierce-Arrow would survive the depression, unlike some of its competitors such as Peerless and Marmon. Packard, now its main rival, enjoyed the advantage of being located in the automotive hub of Detroit as well as having a management that seemed to be more aware of upcoming challenges and how to meet them. Nevertheless, 1930 would turn out to be the second-best year in the Pierce-Arrow’s history, lulling its management into a false sense of security under the apparent safety of the Studebaker umbrella.
The 1931 Pierce-Arrow line was available in four series and the same number of wheelbase lengths. It was bodied by aristocratic coachbuilders such as LeBaron, Dietrich and Derham. Only 4,522 were ordered, however, compared to 6,795 the previous year, a worrying decline.
Unfortunately, things would only get worse, although quality standards both in engineering, design and execution remained as high as ever. The famous Silver Arrow designed by Philip Wright deservedly created a lot of what we would now call media buzz and at least partly helped 1933 to be the last good year the company would enjoy. The sales performance of the V12 models was over 50% better than the year before, famous racing driver Ab Jenkins broke 79 world land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Pierce-Arrow, while the pace car chosen for that year’s Indianapolis 500 was also supplied by the company.
A strike at a supplying tool and diemaker late that year stopped the modest recovery in its tracks, however, and threatened to drive the prestigious company into bankruptcy. Studebaker covered the losses but ended up in receivership itself not long afterwards. Tragically, Albert Erskine, Studebaker’s CEO, committed suicide as a result of the failure of the company.
The receivers forced Studebaker to sell Pierce-Arrow, and in August 1933, a consortium of New York businessmen bought the company for a relatively modest $ 1 million, making Pierce-Arrow independent once more. Under its new ownership the company would register a tiny profit at the end of the year, and in 1934 introduced the type 836A, a somewhat less pricy (but still too expensive) car in a futile effort to generate more sales volume.
This did not materialise and in August 1934 Pierce-Arrow filed for bankruptcy, but was saved by money raised within the Buffalo community and by a few New York bankers. The workforce suffered a hefty reduction in numbers from 2,300 to around 700 but at least the company could continue. Once again, sales initially improved, but this did not last. Eventually, suppliers refused to extend further credit, forcing Pierce-Arrow to halt production. A last-ditch plan to raise US $10 million in order to produce 25,000 medium-priced cars and 1,200 luxury cars found no backers and the company was again declared bankrupt for the final time and was liquidated in April 1938.
Another high-end luxury car manufacturer, Packard, ran into problems similar to those at Pierce-Arrow because of the depression, but its management was able, at least temporarily, to stave off the inevitable by introducing a cheaper Packard model, the 120. Pierce-Arrow simply waited too long to spring into action and even think about developing such a car.
The fact that its market share in the luxury car field actually increased between 1929 and 1932 had allowed a sense of arrogance and complacency to guide management’s decisions. Frustratingly, the company could definitely have produced a simpler and more affordable car in the mould of the Packard 120: Pierce-Arrow’s management boasted on more than one occasion that their factory’s floor area, if used for ordinary mass-production, would have a capacity four times that possible under traditional Pierce-Arrow methods and standards.
An excerpt from a 1930 Pierce-Arrow advertisement reads: ‘In every car of this patrician line is expressed a courage which scorns the accepted standards of excellence as commonplace, compared with Pierce-Arrow’s own. And there is ever present a pardonable disdain of any process less fine than the hand-craftmanship which has always distinguished Pierce-Arrow motor cars. It would be far easier to build Pierce-Arrows of average quality, and infinitely more profitable to produce them in greater numbers. But the tyranny of tradition forbids.’
An admirable philosophy, perhaps, but one that led to a degree of arrogance and complacency and was ultimately to prove unsustainable.
(1) The 1918 Vestibule Suburban Landaulet was over seven feet (2.1m) tall, was powered by a 13.5-litre six-cylinder engine and had tyres that were nearly four feet (1.2m) in diameter.