Like so many other cities in the American North East, Buffalo’s days as a great manufacturing center appear to be over. With a few notable exceptions, industry has moved on and the result has been closed factories and hard times. Buffalo must change if it hopes to survive and, like so many other cities these days, it is working to redefine itself. That doesn’t mean that it will forget its roots, however, and well it shouldn’t. It is, after all, the town that gave birth to the legendary Pierce-Arrow and thanks to one local collector it even has a museum to celebrate that fact. Now that museum is set to be more impressive than ever.
At the turn of the last century, Buffalo was poised to take advantage of its position as the Eastern most city on the Great Lakes. Steamships brought the wealth of middle America to the city’s wharves and industry thrived here. One of the more successful operations was that of George N. Pierce and as far back as the 1870s his company had been turning those raw materials into household goods. When the bicycle craze hit, the Pierce company also began to manufacture those and by 1901 had built their first automobile as well. It was a modest one cylinder machine but it was a beginning and just 8 years later the company had risen to such prominence that President William Howard Taft ordered two of their Pierce-Arrows for official duty at the White House.
Throughout the first three decades of the 20th Century, the Pierce-Arrow was essentially an American Rolls Royce. These fine, distinguished automobiles served American Presidents from Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the diplomats and dignitaries of foreign countries, including the Shah of Persia, as well as the Tycoons and sports stars of the day. John D. Rockefeller owned a Pierce Arrow and so did Babe Ruth. Wherever the rich and famous needed to go, they were carried there by the Pierce-Arrow.
Times changed at the end of the 1920s, however, and with the sales of luxury cars way down the company was in trouble. It was purchased by Studebaker and under the control of that famous South Bend Indiana brand, Pierce-Arrow managed to soldier on for a few more lean years. When Studebaker went bankrupt in 1933 Pierce-Arrow was sold into receivership and to make end meet the company continued to produce much less extravagant vehicles, a line of gas stoves, ice chests and travel trailers, but as the effects of the Great Depression lingered the company finally faltered and went bankrupt in 1938.
Despite the company’s ignoble ending, the Pierce-Arrow has an enduring reputation of excellence and exclusivity and Buffalo celebrates its connection to this storied brand with its own museum. Located close to the waterfront in downtown Buffalo at 263 Michigan Avenue, the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum is open between 11AM and 4 PM Thursdays through Sundays. Adult admission is $10, $8 for seniors and $5 for children ages 6 to 17 years old. The facility is also available for banquets and special events and I noticed a nice, fully stocked bar that was, unfortunately, not open at the time of my visit.
The collection itself was not as large as I would have imagined it, but the cars that were there were all very fine examples. It came as a surprise to me that not everything in the museum was a Pierce-Arrow, there were many brands represented and the collection included some cars built as late as the mid 1960s. The bulk of the collection on display currently, however, is pre World War II. The museum is also in the process of an ongoing construction project that will make it two and a half times as large as it is now. The centerpiece for this new part of the facility is a life size version of a gasoline station designed by architect Frank Lloyd-Wright in 1927. Our tour guide took us into the sealed portion of the museum to show us the progress on this ongoing project and I must say it was quite amazing. Because Frank Lloyd-Wright and the gasoline company he contracted with had a dispute about the amount of royalties he wished to be paid on every copy of the station, the project was shelved and never actually constructed, but had it been it is certain that it would be a national land mark today. Other parts of this additional space will house more autos, bicycles and other displays related to the Pierce-Arrow Company.
The new facility is indeed an impressive sight and when the work is completed the museum will truly be a show piece that should attract many tourists to this beleaguered city, but as the work is not complete I came away from the museum a little disappointed. To be sure, the vehicles on display were all very fine but I had hoped that the museum would have more cars and memorabilia on display now. Another problem, as I see it, is the fact that the collection is not very cohesive and does not really tell a story as one walks through it. It wasn’t until well after the fact, when I came home and began looking at the museum’s website to put the final touches on this article, that I truly understood that the reason for this hodgepodge of material was because the museum honors other cars with a Buffalo connection as well. I missed that originally because of the focus on Pierce-Arrow and think I would have had an easier time understanding why there seemed to be so many unrelated displays if it was spelled out a little more clearly. Hopefully, these issues will be reconciled when the addition is completed.
As I said at the top of the article, Buffalo is working hard to recreate itself and the Pierce-Arrow Museum is a real step in the right direction. Without a doubt, the sneak peak at the new facility I was given tells me that this will soon be a national caliber museum. To be sure, it will never match the size and scale of some of the other, better endowed auto museums in the United States and abroad, but it doesn’t need to. It has a strictly defined mission, to honor the Pierce-Arrow and the city that gave birth to the brand. In that, I think it does a good job and is worth a visit. I look forward to the grand opening of the expanded facility and know that the museum will soon be one of the crown jewels of a resurgent Buffalo. Come and check it out.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.