The sound of “Pierce-Arrow” still has a snobbish ring and haughty air even though a century has passed since the name entered the American vocabulary in 1909.
The car is named for its founder, George N. Pierce, who turned his talents for building bicycles in 1898 to making automobiles. In 1903 Pierce concentrated on larger, more luxurious cars for the upscale market at the factory built for him at Elmwood Avenue and Great Arrow Avenue in Buffalo, N.Y.
By 1915, Pierce-Arrow reigned supreme in the luxury car market, appealing to an older and wealthier clientele. Management believed the Pierce-Arrow’s meticulous craftsmanship and refined luxury to be so superior that they used series numbers instead of model years.
The cars quickly became known for their mechanical ingenuity and style. Pierce-Arrow was the first to make extensive use of aluminum, power braking, hydraulic tappets and fender-mounted headlights, while other automakers fixed their lights on a bar crossing the radiator. By special order the headlights could be placed on the bar. The six cylinder engine, known for quiet performance and reliability, was the largest in the industry, winning auto races through the end of World War I.
Pierce-Arrow management exuded confidence in the engine, so when Packard released its Twin Six and later Cadillac offered its famed V8, Pierce-Arrow’s leaders, certain their six cylinder would prevail, increased the number of valves per cylinder from two to four to boost power.
Pierce-Arrow had begun developing a new straight-eight engine for release in 1929 and replaced the T-head for the improved nine-main bearing, L-head eight cylinder that displaced 366-cid and developed 125 horsepower. In another innovation, the crankcase was made of a single iron alloy, lighter than aluminum.
The new straight-eight was superior to any other eight cylinder engine in the industry. Smoother and more powerful, it enjoyed a longer life than other eights on the market at the time.
To better compete with its competition, Pierce-Arrow in late 1931 developed a V12 engine, offering it in two sizes, 398- and 429cid, and the next year stepped up performance again with a 462cid engine.
The 1929 models, 133 and 143 (denoting the length of their wheelbases), enjoyed tremendous success, and Pierce-Arrow had its most successful production year with 9,840 cars sold. Pierce-Arrow greeted 1930 by expanding its line, introducing four other wheelbases: 132, 134, 139, 144 and by special order a 147” wheelbase for custom coaches.
For its 144” wheelbase model, Pierce-Arrow offered its first catalog custom body, with coaches styled by noted designers Brunn, Derham, Judkins, LeBaron, Dietrich and Willoughby. Custom designs for the more lavish cars — town landau, convertible sedans and convertible roadsters — were copies of competitors’ models.
The company’s ultimate, top-of-the-line luxury sedan was the Pierce-Arrow LeBaron sport sedan, offered at $5,375, the price of a decent home at the time.
Only five of those luxury sedans were built on the custom 147” wheelbase, and one of them, from the Tom Crook Collection, (Lot #5004.1) is featured at Barrett-Jackson’s 2012 auction in Scottsdale at No Reserve. It’s the third LeBaron coach to be built for this extended wheelbase, according to a tag on the passenger side undercarriage.
LeBaron finished its coaches in white primer, and customers visited the showroom to choose their color. This rare sport sedan is finished in a dark Royal Blue with a medium-blue broadcloth interior, accessorized handsomely with a dark wood trim — walnut was commonly used in the period — on the tops of doors and on the recessed dashboard. The rear seat has an armrest on both sides, and a passenger six-feet tall can stretch out and not touch the front seatback.
The 385cid eight cylinder engine developing 132 horsepower and massive torque is mated to a three-speed standard transmission. This car is also equipped with “freewheeling,” a mechanical feature that allows the car to coast when the throttle is lifted, reducing wear on the engine and modestly improving fuel mileage. A few other manufacturers also experimented with freewheeling but abandoned it because it wasn’t practical.
The sports sedan at auction, its odometer reading an unverified 65,000 miles, benefitted from an older restoration and remains in immaculate condition, down to the windshield that tilts outward for those drives on a warm, sunny day.
— By Richard Gray