Pierce-Arrow Society Feature Article
By 1933 Pierce-Arrow was once again an independent carmaker. They were bought from Studebaker by a group of prominent Buffalo area businessmen for $1 million cash. The parting of the two companies was particularly hard on Pierce-Arrow because it meant they could no longer sell their cars through Studebaker's large dealer network. Sales plummeted from 2,152 cars in 1933 to less than 900 in 1935. It was becoming clear that something had to be done and quick! While the factory was busy building the 1935 models, engineers were working feverously on redesigning their entire line for 1936. Instead of producing a less expensive model as other luxury carmakers were, Pierce-Arrow was preparing to announce new models that were even larger and more luxurious than the year before! A great deal of promotional literature was produced in anticipation of the new models. It outlined the many new features of the 1936 models and how Pierce-Arrow had all the ingredients for success - a good reputation, a large modern factory and the best-built cars in America.
The 1936 models were presented to the public and press on October 19, 1935. Billed as the "world's safest car", customers could choose from more than six different body styles on either a standard 139" or 144" wheelbase. Customers could also choose between an eight and twelve-cylinder engine. For those customers needing an even larger car, Pierce-Arrow offered four body styles on a special 147" chassis, again with an eight or twelve-cylinder engine. Pierce-Arrow's catalog even included a 7-passenger Formal Town Brougham with body by Brunn. If all of these choices were still not enough, customers could buy a bare chassis and have a custom body built by someone else. More often than not, customers were so impressed by the quality and styling of Pierce-Arrow's bodies that few felt it necessary to take the custom body route.
At first glance the new 1936 models looked similar to the 1935 models, but under the surface the new models featured 36 major improvements and many more minor ones. According to Pierce-Arrow's literature, the new models "set new standards of what a fine car should look like, how it should drive, perform and ride."
All body styles were redesigned to be more aerodynamic and modern looking than ever before. One of the most noticeable changes in styling was around the front of the car. Promotional literature stated "the radiator lines are narrower and more rakish while the new stream treatment of fenders and front end adds a pleasing note to the appearance of the new models." Sedans were easily recognized by the "exceptionally roomy trunks built into the body". Other noticeable exterior changes included an improved front lighting system, a redesigned bumper and repositioned wipers. Since Pierce-Arrow lacked the capital to buy the equipment necessary to manufacture all-metal cars, they were forced to continue to produce composite bodies framed with straight-grained Northern White Ash. This framework was then covered with 19 gauge steel panels to give the car the "strength of a battleship". While this process did produce a very solid car, it was also a very expensive process when compared to the cost to make an all-metal car.
Claims by Pierce-Arrow that the 1936 models were the safest cars in the world had a lot to do with the new and improved frame. The massive frame was comprised of two box girders along each side, and five rigid cross-members welded to these girders at the front and rear of the car. In the center of the frame was a huge x-brace that was welded and riveted to the side girders. The new super frame was needed to support the other enormous components such as the engine and body.
A large number of the improvements related to the drive train itself. Lacking the resources to add hydraulic brakes to their new models, Pierce-Arrow decided to revert back to a vacuum power brake system similar to what they had used more than a decade ago in their Series 36 cars. Two vacuum tanks were mounted on the frame, the second being a reserve tank to equalize the pressure in the system regardless of what the car was doing. The effective braking area was also increased which gave the new models one of the most effective brake systems in the industry.
With all models weighing about 3-tons or heavier it was important that the springs be strong enough to support that weight while providing better ride and cornering capabilities. The new springs were longer and wider than before and semi-elliptical in design. They were made from a special silico-manganese alloy and covered in a fabric and metal sheath to keep them permanently lubricated. A stabilizer was added to the rear to eliminate side-sway and roll. The steering box was moved ahead of the front axle giving the driver "finger touch ease of control" and "steadiness at highway speeds."
All 1936 models came with a three-speed syncro-mesh transmission, automatic overdrive and freewheeling. Freewheeling was a popular feature during the thirties that allowed cars to coast whenever the foot was lifted from the accelerator. The problem was that when the freewheeling feature was engaged, the engine could not be used to help slow the car. While considered a popular fuel saving feature at the time, manufacturers eventually abandoned its use because it was also unsafe.
Pierce-Arrow offered buyers two different engines in 1936. If cost was a consideration you might order their 385 cu. in. 8-cyclinder engine. For $500 more, you could have their silky smooth 462 cu. in. 12-cyclinder engine. In either case, these engines were actually one of the few components that were not significantly redesigned from the year before. They managed to increase the horsepower of both engines to 150 hp and 185 hp respectively by changing the heads from cast-iron to aluminum. Many other minor modifications were introduced this year, all of which made these mighty engines even better.
The interiors were redesigned to be more luxurious and larger than the year before. Pierce-Arrow's craftsmen used lots of insulation to make their cars soundproof. Interior upholstery was a very expensive Laidlaw cloth with ample seat padding for added comfort. Other luxury appointments included the use of real mahogany accents, tinted glass, tilt steering wheel and an improved dash layout. The rear compartment included quite a few luxury appointments including windows shades for privacy, foot rests, lighters, ashtrays, reading lights and a fold-down center armrest. An optional radio made by Philco was also available.
All of the improvements found in the 1936 models came at a cost. The base model and most popular of the body styles was the 5-passenger sedan. It cost $3,195 F.O.B. Buffalo and weighed 5860 pounds. Despite the enormous size of these cars, Pierce-Arrow engineers did an amazing job in producing a car that was powerful, agile and a real pleasure to drive. It could propel a driver and a full load of passengers down the highway at 60 mph without working up a sweat.
When compared to the competition the 1936 Pierce-Arrow models did very well. If buyers took the time to compare the 1936 Pierce-Arrow 5-passenger sedan to similar models from Cadillac, Packard and Lincoln, they might have concluded that Pierce-Arrow offered better value than the competition. But better quality and performance was not enough to bring buyers back into their showrooms. Sales of the 1936 models remained about the same as the 1935 models at an estimated 882, which was far below what was needed to realize a profit for the company. By the fall of 1936 working capital was non-existent and no one appeared willing to provide them with further loans.
Despite these setbacks, Pierce-Arrow continued to soldier on. The 1937 models were very similar to the 1936 models with the biggest changes taking place in the interior. The dashboard layout was modified somewhat and there were a few minor changes in engine and chassis components. Some of these changes were necessary because Pierce-Arrow could no longer get replacement parts from their suppliers. Total production of all body styles in 1937 was 166 cars.
1938 was relatively quiet for the factory as management tried to find ways to save the company. Only about eighteen 1938 models were produced - most of these being made from parts left in stock. With no money for engineering, the 1938 models were similar to the 1936 models with very minor changes to the interior and exterior of the car. The handbrake was moved from the floor to underneath the dashboard. The steering wheel was changed from a solid spoked rubber type, to a banjo-spoked type. Closed cars saw the license plate bracket move to the center of the trunk, and the three black bands on the hubcaps changed to a black-red-black combination.
The final straw came in March 1938 when the trustees of the struggling company finally admitted that the company was insolvent. Two weeks later the courts issued an order to liquidate Pierce-Arrow's few remaining assets.
The depression is filled with examples of car companies that produced some of their finest cars in their darkest hours. Few would argue that Pierce-Arrow's 1936 - 1938 models were among the finest they ever produced.
To learn more about these and other models of Pierce-Arrows, we invite you to join the Pierce-Arrow Society!