When you’re going to a car show featuring 80 and 90 year old pre-war classic American cars, you don’t expect to run across a half dozen exotic Italian sports cars. Earlier this year, the Gilmore Car Museum, near Hickory Corners, Michigan, just north of Kalamazoo, was hosting a meet of the Pierce-Arrow Society. In addition to their own collection, the Gilmore hosts a number of smaller museums devoted to particular marques. One of the museums on the Gilmore site is the Pierce-Arrow Museum, associated with the Pierce-Arrow Society, so the Gilmore is a natural location for a Pierce-Arrow meet. Joining the Pierce-Arrows were some cars from Peerless, another premium American motorcar from the first three decades of the 20th century. Surprisingly, the Gilmore didn’t put some of their Packards on display at the museum. Together with Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Peerless were known as the “Three-Ps of Motordom”, the three most prestigious automobile brands in the United States. Even without Packards on the show field there was a third P at the Gilmore, however, as apparently a Pantera club decided to drive over and visit the museum. There were a half dozen of the Italian-American sports cars parked side by side in the parking lot.
You’re probably familiar with the rough outlines of the De Tomaso Pantera’s history involving an Argentinian who wanted to build midengine Italian sports cars and a guy in Dearborn named Hank the Deuce who wanted to thumb his nose at Enzo Ferrari. Powered by a Ford 351 Cleveland V8 and sold at Lincoln-Mercury dealers from 1971 until the 1973 oil crisis cratered performance car sales, over 6,000 Panteras were sold through FoMoCo. After Henry Ford II lost interest, Alejandro deTomaso kept the Pantera in more limited production for the European market and it was actually built into the 1990s.
Less well known to today’s car enthusiasts are Peerless and Pierce-Arrow.
The Pierce-Arrow company had its origins in 1865 as a producer of fine household items, notably gilded birdcages. George N. Pierce bought out his partners and started producing bicycles in 1896 and motorcars in 1901. In 1903, the Pierce company produced a two-cylinder car, the Arrow and a year later it decided to make a larger, more luxurious car called the Great Arrow, targeted at an affluent clientele. The well built four cylinder car won the Glidden Trophy in 1905. The Glidden endurance runs were early on-the-road competitions. Percy Pierce, driving a Great Arrow beat out 32 other cars in the 1,100 mile race from New York City to Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Having achieved a reputation in the auto industry designing Packard’s innovative reinforced concrete factory on Detroit’s east side Albert Kahn was hired by the Pierce Motor Co. to design a new factory complex in Buffalo, New York in 1906. A year later George Pierce sold the company and in 1908 the company was renamed The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company. In 1910 Pierce decided to exclusively make 6-cylinder cars and in 1912 Herbert M. Dawley joined the company. Dawley would go on to design nearly all of the company’s cars until it went out of business and the thing that he’s most remembered for were Pierce-Arrow’s most distinctive feature, adopted in 1914. Rather than mount freestanding headlamps adjacent to the radiator shell, Dawley moved them outboard, mounting them in housings faired into the fenders. It would take the rest of the auto industry more than two decades to do likewise, perhaps due to the fact that Dawley patented the design.
The Dawley headlamps immediately gave Pierce Arrows what we would call brand identity today, though you could order Pierce-Arrows with conventional lights, for jurisdictions like New York State, that outlawed Dawley’s design.
Early on, Pierce-Arrows became status symbols. President Taft ordered two, a Brougham and a Landaulette, for the White House, establishing a tradition that would last until Franklin Roosevelt’s White House ordered two1935 models for official use. It’s said that the chief executives liked their official cars so much that some presidents bought theirs when they left office. Monarchs, millionaires and movie stars, including Fatty Arbuckle, also owned Pierce-Arrows.
The company’s advertisements were tasteful, understated and artistic, often putting the car in the background or only showing part of it, in elegant surroundings. Sometimes, though, advertisements would feature the Pierce-Arrow cars in unlikely locations, showing the car’s durability.
In 1928, the Studebaker Corporation gained control of Pierce-Arrow and with an injection of capital the company developed a L-head straight eight engine displacing 366 cubic inches. Within just a few years, for some reason, makers of American luxury cars decided that it was a good idea to get into a multi-cylinder war at the depths of the Great Depression. There were V12s from Cadillac and Packard and even V16s from Marmon and Cadillac. In 1932, Pierce-Arrow introduced two all-new 12 cylinder engines, a 398 cubic inch V12 making 140 hp at 3,200 rpm and an even larger 429 CI V12 capable of generating 150 horsepower. To promote the new engines, Pierce-Arrow hired famous race driver Ab Jenkins to set records on the Bonneville salt flats in a ’32 roadster with the fenders removed.
Struggling to stay in business, the company used the 1933 New York Auto Show to introduce the Silver Arrow, which featured a radically streamlined Art Deco body without running boards that was very well received by the public and press alike.
With a $10,000 price, though, it was a tough sell to even the wealthy and only five examples were made. Some of the original Silver Arrows’ styling features were shared with a production model of the same name in 1935, but by then the company was circling the drain.
Still, in 1936 Pierce-Arrow introduced a redesigned 12 cylinder sedan that many considered the most luxurious, safest car you could buy. I personally think it was one of the better looking cars on the mid 1930s. By then, though, the Depression had set in for years and it was hard to make money selling just luxury cars. Had Pierce-Arrow, like Packard, gone downmarket, they might not have shared the fate of Peerless. The company finally closed its doors in 1938, declared insolvent.
Pierce-Arrow did live on, in a manner of speaking. Pierce-Arrows were sturdy and dependable, which is why some fire departments had fire engines built from Pierce-Arrow chassis. With that reputation, it’s not surprising that Seagrave Fire Apparatus bought the tooling for Pierce-Arrow V12s and continued to make engines for decades based on the Pierce-arrow design.
If you’d like to find out more about Pierce-Arrow and the cars they made, you should check out the Pierce-Arrow Society website.
Peerless also didn’t survive the Great Depression, lasting only until 1931. Like Pierce-Arrow, the Cleveland based company had its origins in household goods, in Peerless’ case, washing machine wringers. Also, like Pierce-Arrow, they moved into bicycles and then motorcars, producing the Motorette under license from France’s DeDion in 1900. The company became known for engineering, with many firsts: including the first conventional layout with a front mounted engine, a drive shaft and a floating rear axle; a stamped steel frame; a tilting steering wheel; the first enclosed body; the first electric lights; and even the first accelerator pedal. The company also was a pioneer in using aluminum to save weight.
The first true Peerless, designed and built by the company was introduced in 1902. It had a two cylinder engine, a sliding gear transmission and one of the earliest mufflers. The company then started designing an all new four cylinder engine to be used to power both racing cars and a 60 horsepower limousine. In 1904 Peerless hired famed racer Barney Oldfield (who’d earlier raced Henry Ford’s 999 racecar) to pilot the Peerless Green Dragon, in which he spent the next two years barnstorming across the United States, braking track speed records wherever he went. Switching to reliability runs, Peerless then had success in the Glidden Tours, with the three cars entered earning perfect scores.
It’s reputation firmly established, catering to the luxury market with cars that cost as much as $11,000, a huge sum then, Peerless brought out their first six cylinder model in 1908. Unfortunately, and ironically, Peerless had problems because it was profitable and a publicly traded company. With substantial assets and profits to fund expansion without debt, it became a takeover target and the company underwent management changes in 1913 and again in 1915, causing the company to not keep pace with the rapidly changing automobile industry.
By 1915, Peerless was still making T-head 4 and 6 cylinder cars while the luxury market was moving to V8 and V12 engines. They also only offered two body styles, a roadster and a limousine. In 1915 they started to develop a V8, but it was poorly designed and unbalanced, requiring a 1916 redesign that was much more successful, counterbalanced and timed just like the V8s that Charles Kettering was developing for Cadillac. The Peerless V8 became a popular engine with racers in the late teens and early 1920s.
Peerless was a bit more aggressive than Pierce-Arrow with their advertising, literally spotlighting their cars, and using the slogan, “All That The Name Implies”.
With a properly designed V8 and a full line of bodies offered in 1917, Peerless began to reclaim market share and introduced a four barrel two stage carburetor with an early version of the accelerator pump. “Purr like a kitten or Punch like a race car” is how it was advertised. Peerless started using aluminum for the engine crank block, the oil pan and the transmission case.
Again on footing with Pierce-Arrow and Packard, in the early 1920s Peerless pursued a strategy based on their legendary reliability. It was not uncommon for a Peerless to be driven 200,000 miles without major mechanical problems. The company decided to come out with a full line of luxury bodies and keep them in production for years. The idea was to sell people on the idea that when they bought a Peerless, it would last for years and not go out of style.
In a more conservative era that might have worked but it was the start of the Roaring Twenties, with changing styles of dress and automobiles. Custom body builders like Murphy, LeBaron and Harley Earl’s father’s Los Angeles shop catered to the luxury market by keeping up with the latest styles. Earl himself was hired by Alfred Sloan at GM who understood the business value of “model changeover” and the importance of style.
Another management change took place in 1923, this time by former Cadillac executives. Realizing the error of being too staid, even in the relatively conservative luxury market, new management had Peerless cars restyled and by the late 1920s the company was making some of the most stylish cars in America. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade the stock market had crashed, with the Great Depression to follow.
As a last gasp effort, Peerless engineers designed three all new engines, two all aluminum V12s and a V16 with overhead valves, intended to be used in an all new lineup of luxury cars for the 1933 model year. The cars were going to be mostly aluminum, including frames, axles and wheels. Murphy was contracted to build aluminum bodies. Then, in 1931, the Peerless board of directors met and decided to get out of the car business, ending production in November of that year. Nobody knows what happened to the V12s but the V16 prototype was finished by Murphy and used as a personal car by the president of Peerless, as the company shifted to making beer, having bought the U.S. rights to the Carling brand. In 1933 it became the American Brewing Company. The Murphy bodied V16 Peerless prototype survives, on display at Cleveland’s Crawford Auto Aviation Museum.
If you’d like to find out more about Peerless and the cars they made, you should check out the Peerless Motor Car Club website.
While Pierce-Arrows are not uncommon at classic car shows, Peerless automobiles are very rare. To begin with, they were luxury goods, some of the most expensive cars sold at the time, so they were never made in great abundance. Also, as mentioned, Peerless used a lot of aluminum in their cars, and few survived the scrap drives of World War Two.
Obviously, from the photos here, some indeed have survived. In fact there was at least one barn-findish 1909 Peerless that has survived in original condition at the Pierce-Arrow meet. Peerless cars weren’t built to last 10 years, they were obviously built to last almost a century, as were the Pierce-Arrows.
I’m pretty sure that the Gilmore will still be around when those Panteras are themselves 80 and 90 years old. I wonder what will be in the parking lot at a Pierce-Arrow show then.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading. RJS
Photo Credit: Richard Spiegelman for the photos of Ron Fawcett and his re-bodied 48.