Pierce-Arrow Society Feature Article
A Century of Fender Lamps
by Roger Sherman
Reprinted from the Pierce-Arrow Society quarterly magazineThe Arrow
In the popular mind, no attribute of the Pierce-Arrow Car matched the impact of the headlamps perched on its front fenders. Few cars had such a recognizable silhouette, obvious even at a considerable distance. The design patent taken out for them was defended almost to the company’s last breath. They allowed newsreels of the passage by the Chief Executive’s limousine or touring car to serve as sales publicity. Modern day collectors pay a premium to make sure their Pierce-Arrows sport them.
Some time in the late spring a hundred years ago in 1913 the first production cars with these soon-to-be–iconic constructions were shipped from Buffalo on, apparently, late Series I cars. Years ago, the late Frank Merrill, long the PAS mechanical guru, asked a correspondent headed for Minneapolis, Merrill’s hometown, to “keep your ears open for any stories of a late 1913 38hp 4-pass. Pierce touring converted to a pickup—car #33920. It was my father’s first car and, incidentally, the first fender headlight equipped Pierce in Minneapolis and possibly the first 38hp in the nation so equipped.”
Merrill noted that this car had internal windshield bracing, unlike the usual Series I cars. Such windshield support was among the changes listed when the new Series II  cars debuted around the first of June 1913.
Prominent in the introductory articles, based no doubt on company press releases, was the new placement of the electric head lights. “PIERCE-ARROW LAMPS PLACED ON MUD GUARDS” headlined the article in the Omaha Daily News on June first. Publicity photos attached to the accounts in various papers demonstrated the altered appearance. No one was quite sure how the public would take to the unusual new contours. As W.F. Culbertson the bearded manager of the Pierce-Arrow Sales Company in San Francisco put it for the local reporter, “The appearance at first will seem odd to many people simply because the idea of lamps being part of the guards has never occurred to them. There is no question,” he asserted, “about their accepting the lines once they have been convinced of the logic of the change and have had a demonstration of the resulting increased efficiency.”
It was night vision for the driver that spurred the concept of the fender headlamps, but they stunningly fulfilled another company goal as well. To understand how it all happened, we need to renew our acquaintance with one of the influential figures in the design and sales of Pierce-Arrows during their early development. Herbert M. Dawley was selected among the contestants for a prize of $250 offered by the George N. Pierce Company in the spring of 1905 “for the best design of an open body for a motor car,” not as a winner but as an employee. The name of the actual winner of the prize money is lost to history. In 1906, after the winner had been announced, Col. Charles Clifton the Treasurer and Sales Manager at the factory wrote to Dawley “suggesting a conference,” Dawley recalled years later, “which I eagerly accepted.” He was not yet 25 years old. Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, Dawley had earned a degree in mechanical engineering, so design was part of his training.
Offering Dawley a position with the company when its new factory was completed some time in the spring of 1907, Clifton said,” You will be in the sales department under my jurisdiction. Mr. Birge [who controlled the finances of the Pierce Company, and would soon be its president] and I were impressed with your design and feel that you have a talent which can, in time, be a valuable asset to the company.”
In PAS Arrow Series 68, Model 4, Dawley recounted some of his experiences as an employee at Pierce for the next decade, including the difficulties getting his idea of fender headlamps across to the company.
“Col. Clifton suggested several times that I try to devise something that would be a distinctive feature of the Pierce-Arrow,” he wrote. “The fender headlamps did it, but that they fulfilled this suggestion was an accident…Their real and original purpose was a practical one. The drum lamps then in use were placed so low that every bump in the road was exaggerated. Also, being near the axis of the car, they were late in responding to a turn. Furthermore, the illumination was ineffectual due to the fact that the beams were nearly parallel to the road. The most effective illumination is when the beam hits the surface at ninety degrees. In order to approximate this angle, the lamps were placed atop the fenders. It is a well-known mathematical truth that the width of one degree measured on the circumference of a circle of short radius will be increased in ratio when measured on the circumference of a circle of longer radius. Ergo: the longer the distance from the axis to the center of each lamp, the more sensitive will be the light rays in responding to a turn, and the wider the area of illumination.
“When the idea was presented to the Engineering Department, it was snorted at as being impractical—‘And who the hell would want a pair of frog’s eyes sticking up in front of them?’ My dander was up, so I decided to prove my contentions. There followed working drawings, photographs and analyses, plus an argument that there would be fewer fender accidents because the lamps would serve the same purpose as gun sights. Still, thumbs were down.”
Frog Eyes on the Road
But, Herbert Dawley had an ace up his sleeve in this confrontation. He enjoyed support at the highest levels of the Pierce-Arrow management, namely Charles Clifton himself. By 1912, when these events took place, Dawley had been guided in his occupations at Pierce-Arrow for five years by the Colonel and already had been taught several useful lessons about how to work inside the bureaucracy at the Pierce plant. Building up an exhaustive case for a proposal the way he had done for the fender lamps was one of the lessons Clifton had taught him. So, he took his materials direct to the Treasurer’s office and sought an interview with his patron. He found the Colonel deeply engaged reading The Wall Street Journal. “He was forever reading it,” Dawley noted.
“He peered over the top and said, ‘Yes, son,’ then disappeared again. I stood still and said nothing. After quite a pause, he reappeared and said, ‘Have you something to say to me, son?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, but I wish to talk to you, not The Wall Street Journal.’ He looked coldly at me for a moment, but I detected crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He meticulously folded the paper and placed it to one side, removed his glasses and put them on top of it, folded his hands, leaned forward on his elbows and said, ‘Now will you condescend to tell me your story?’
“When I finished, his response was enthusiastic. He suggested we have a conference with Mr. Birge [now company president] and my superior, Mr. Carl Blakener. They were both emphatically in favor of the idea, but realizing that nothing could be accomplished in the face of the factory’s opposition, it was decided that they [Clifton and Birge] personally would finance the making of a set of experimental fenders outside the factory and mount them on one or Mr. Birge’s cars, and I was instructed to follow it through. When that car appeared at the factory, equipped with the fender lights, there was much wagging of heads and ill-concealed smiles! Mr. Sheppy drove it one night and reported the next day that some guy had tried to ride his bike between the lights. However, the fender lights were adopted, but “optional”. It was but a comparatively short time before they were considered ‘standard’ and drum type lamps became optional. Almost everyone wanted the fender lights because they became a status symbol and told everyone you were driving a Pierce-Arrow.
“So there, amigos, is the natal story of the fender headlamps. We had no idea then that they were going to be what they were! The rest is history!”
The original configuration of the fender lamps followed the drawings attached to the application for a patent on their design, filed on the first of February 1913. The patent itself (Number 1,096, 802) was granted on May 12, 1914. This date is found on the patent plates attached to many older Pierce-Arrows.
For the next quarter of a century the fender headlamps became more and more an integral part of the Pierce-Arrow persona, so much so that the company gave up providing the option of separate headlamps on brackets after 1932. Over those years the fender headlamps were reconfigured in various ways as the company continuously sought to find profitable product offerings for their evolving market and changing period fashion.
The shape of the headlamp housings, in fact, was changed for the very next 1915 Series III models Instead of a convex curve from the fender the slope was made concave. The fenders were more integrated into the lamp housings, as well, with a more sweeping shape and without moldings. This more unified fender design was used for the next nine years, with few changes. The Series 80 cars introduced in 1924 had fenders of “double crown panel type” with pressed in contours, but the lamp housings and proportions were very similar to those of the larger Series 33 model. The 1928 Series 81 shrank the size of the fender lamp housing, and the housing itself was raised to the very top of the fender, the concave sweep a continuation of the fender line itself.
For 1929, the shape of the fender lamp housing was changed again, enlarged somewhat, attached lower and more toward the inside of the fender. This was the style produced until the “streamlined era” in 1933, when the housings were made straight-sided and molded directly into the fender at its crest. These “Slipstream Lines,” in the company’s memorable phrase, were the final remodeling of the Pierce-Arrow hallmark.
Almost immediately after the company’s demise in 1938 headlights began to be placed on the front fenders of almost all cars. Imitation indeed!
As for Herbert Dawley, the man who conceived the idea at Pierce-Arrow, he left the firm in 1917, on the advice of Col. Clifton. At length, after serving in the First World War, he entered the acting profession. He became a sculptor, painter and film maker, producing and directing plays as well. “I got tired of two and two always making four,” he said in explanation of his career changes.
On July 7, 1969, Dawley wrote to another ex-Pierce-Arrow engineer, Francis W. Davis, who invented modern power steering, about his experiences. “I was compelled by law to assign the patent for the fender lamps to the company. The ink was hardly dry when offers came in. Some firm in Detroit offered to send fifty thousand for an option. However, the board gave me a raise and a car. Col. Clifton was furious at them. Such is life.” Herbert Dawley passed away in 1970 at the age of 90, having led a life of continual creative efforts. The lamps on our Pierce-Arrows resulted from just one of them.