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P-A survival options in mid-30's


Mahoning63
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If interested, thoughts on how Pierce-Arrow might have saved themselves. Did some photo altering to help explain. Also attached original photos for comparison.

1933 Silver Arrow Sport Sedan

Always thought Silver Arrow was fabulous forward of B-piller. Sport Sedan might have cleaned up the rear though probably would not have been as dramatic. I don't think this was a viable product because Pierce had little tooling money available in 1933-36.

1936 Studebaker-based Torpedo Sedan

I don't think Pierce needed a medium priced car like Packard. Rather they needed to stay close to a medium priced car company like Studebaker so they could focus on modernizing and bringing down the cost of their luxury cars. It’s easy to see in hindsight where the luxury car market was headed in the late 30's, namely the Cadillac 60 Special with its all-steel body, torpedo sedan proportions, owner-driver dimensions and $2000 - $2500 price. Caddy sold quite a few in the downmarket of 1938.

For Pierce the easiest path to such a car was to stay close to Studebaker development, an arrangement that could have been worked out in 1933 when the company was sold. The literature says the Buffalo businessmen bought the company for $1M and undisclosed “other considerations”. My guess is that these included sharing certain body panels for the 1934-35 line and 1936 redesign. Please correct if wrong but it looks like Pierce did use modified Studebaker fenders for 36. What Pierce could have done for ‘36 was a line-up of cars much more closely aligned with Studebaker including the use of many body panels. Coupes and convertibles could have even shared the President’s 125″ wheelbase.

The volume car, the car that really could have saved the company, could have been a torpedo sedan on a 139″ wheelbase that cleverly adopted a reuse scheme similar to what Packard later used for the ‘41 LeBaron Sport Brougham. The Pierce could have used Stude’s sedan roof, coupe front doors, modified (lengthened) sedan rear doors and possibly a beefed up version of Stude’s independent planar front suspension. The only new tooled parts would have been the rear quarters and decklid. A 7 pass touring/limo body on the 139″ wheelbase could also have been developed with clever reuse and modification. The 139″ frame could have been either a modified version of Pierce’s 1933 frame of same wheelbase or a lengthened Studebaker frame.

Because Pierce would have been enjoying lower production costs and improved efficiencies they could have gone V12 across the board and still kept the product affordable (for a luxury car), priced in the $2500 - $3000 range.

1941 Pierce-Arrow V12

One last go around with Studebaker, this time modifying the Skyway to sit on a lengthened wheelbase (my image shows 138.5 inches vs. 124.5 for Studebaker). Again V12's across the board. By then Pierce might have had a bit more money to spend on unique panels such as fenders and hood. They might also have been able to develop their patented semi-automatic.

By the late 40's Pierce would have found themselves on their own, as Studebaker was no longer making cars big enough to serve as a basis. Perhaps Pierce might have saved enough money to go it alone or at least merge with another independent.

All thoughts welcome!

Paul

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Edited by Mahoning63 (see edit history)
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Wow, you've put a lot of thought into this presentation, very impressive.

I've always believed that there were two reasons Pierce didn't survive past 1938.

One, to some degree what you've stated, they manufactured only a high end, high quality car, in a period of history when to stay in business they should have been in a medium or even low priced car. That's what kept Packard in business, not the big 8's and 12's, but the little (in comparison) 6 and 8 cylinder cars.

The second reason is that the Pierce driver had to stare at the Archer's butt the whole time driving, but I digress.

I don't believe you're correct on the '36 fender statement, though. I believe that, in the later 30's, fenders became more bulbous and thus all started looking alike to some degree. The 36 Studebaker front fenders seem to have a peak ridge (which Pierce did not) and the Pierce fenders were extended at the back with a flat section to meet the running board (which Studebaker did not). All in all, I think it's just styling coincidence that the fenders look semi-alike.

Great stuff, thanks for posting!

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Thanks for the heads up on the fenders. All I can say is boy they do look awfully close in profile, both front and rears. And the hood length, cowl width and radiator shroud also look similar, as if Pierce bought the panels from Studebaker and trimmed them to fit or for a unique look. Maybe it was simply the result of a closely linked design staff up until the split in 1933. If Pierce did tool up their own, I wonder where they got the money.

A lot has been written about Packard's 120 and the broad lesson it taught. I don't dispute it for a minute but what hasn't been illuminated as brightly, perhaps, is the impact Harley Earl's design team had on the industry. With the 60 Special they blew away the traditional touring sedan look and got moneyed customers excited about spending up again. That's something Packard wasn't able to do. Nor was Pierce. What GM really showed was a second path to luxury car success, a breakthrough car between the 120 and Senior Packards with style and pizzazz and borrowed elements from lesser models to keep costs down. It was Packard that eventually had to adjust and I don't think they ever quite got it right.

Pierce was on their way to such a business model by 1933 with their 836/1236 and actually turned a small profit at midyear. Pretty impressive considering they only sold a little over 2000 cars for the full year and the fact that the Depression was at rock bottom. The industry only improved from that point forward so I absolutely think they had a chance but I think their problem was the same as almost everyone else trying to keep up with GM at that time, they didn't have a design staff as forward looking as Earl's or a brand manager as astute as Sloan.

Edited by Mahoning63 (see edit history)
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By the mid 30s mass produced cars like Chrysler Airflow, Cadillac V8 and Packard 120 had become so good it was hard to justify spending twice as much on a hand built car that was not a whole lot better.

Plus, the depression had made the old fashioned aristocratic car unfashionable.

Another factor was the new developments in chassis and body design. Independent suspension and all steel bodies were a lot more expensive to tool up for and the expense was prohibitive for low production cars like Pierce Arrow and Stutz.

The Roosevelt Recession of 1937-38 finished off a Pierce Arrow company that was already too far gone to save.

Maybe if they could have faced cheapening their cars and going in for a mass produced Studebaker based Pierce to compete with Packard 110 and 120, LaSalle, Lincoln Zephyr and Chrysler they might have lasted until the war. But cars of the Pierce type, like their customers and executives were a dying breed. Nothing could have saved them and perhaps it is better they died with dignity when they did. Their time was up.

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Points well taken. Must ask a question: in 1936 was a composite body a must-have for a luxury car of traditional Pierce caliber or could an all-steel body carry the banner with no taint of cheapness?

For those who believe all-steel was all-right (I am one) then Pierce may have had a chance. It all came down to the purchase terms in 1933. What the Buffalo businessmen needed to do was hang their million dollars over Studebaker’s head like a noose. They needed access – to Studebaker’s stamped steel body panels, independent suspension technology and anything else that could help Pierce put out a competitive luxury car. They also needed a 10-year deal to give themselves time to stabilize and retention of dueled dealers to maintain sales coverage. That was step one.

Step two was for Pierce to hire a design team responsible for the entire car rather than simply ornamentation. Body engineers of the day only understood knee room and bend radiuses and didn't care if bodies looked dumpy from 30 feet. Designers understood proportion and were in the best position to predict what turned out to be the future shape of the luxury automobile: the torpedo sedan.

As to whether there was a big enough market for expensive cars in 1936, Cord sold over 1700 810's despite a February intro and $2000 price. Who knows how many more they could have sold if not for the teething problems. My point is that by 1936 although the old fashioned aristocratic car was out, as you said, the luxury car itself was not. Style and technology were the new selling points. Had Pierce made that hard-nosed deal with Studebaker and hired a design team, by 1936 they would have had all-steel bodies paid for largely on Studebaker’s dime, possibly an IFS and definately better looking bodies. Their V12 would have sealed the deal in the luxury car market and 2000-3000 sales per year might have been enough to right the ship.

Edited by Mahoning63 (see edit history)
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All great points. The other thing to consider, other than the wood framed versus all metal body, is that the 1936-38 Pierce Arrows were also very complicated cars. As a fellow Pierce enthusiast once told me, "I'd never restore a late 30's Pierce without having a parts car to go with it."

Vacuum assist braking, automatic overdrive, new steering geometry, massive engines....all these, plus sheer metal size and weight (I briefly owned a 1936 Pierce convertible coupe, and even that "sporty" car was 5500 pounds or so) added to manufacturing cost.

Toward the end, the steamroller of cost and disappearing market for that type of car finally crushed an organization that had manufactured one of the finest American automobiles........

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Great point and it speaks to one of the unfortunate realities about how Pierce went independent on the terms that they did. Under Studebaker they were headed in the direction of simpler, lighter, lower, smaller, more steel, less wood, etc. Would have been a good strategy as the Thirties progressed if they could have kept it up. But in 1934 they reversed course with the passing of the 836/1236. Now they were 100% of the taller heavier variety. In 1936 they went even further in this retrograde direction. Their old-fashioned body proportions didn't do them any favors either.

My impression is that 1932-4 was an ugly mess economically and almost a depression within the broader Depression and there was no way for any luxury car maker to get through it other than to eat losses. But by 1935 there really were profits to be made again, however modest.

There's one other potentially successful strategy that I can think of that would not have involved Studebaker much at all. It was to bring the Silver Arrow Sport Sedan that I proposed above into production but using traditional composite body construction rather than all steel. Pierce had the 136 and 139 inch frames. The longer could have been used for the sedan and the shorter for a 2-door coupe and convertible. If you look at all the new composite body pieces that Pierce tooled during 1933-5 (production Silver Arrow coupe rear body section; 836A rear body section and rear doors; 1601/2/3 front body section, fenders and hood) it basically adds up to a whole new body. I think the Silver Arrow Sport Sedan (or perhaps even the show car's fastback style) had a better chance of attracting more customers than all those other models combined. It would have taken a bold move on Pierce's part to pin all hopes on such a newfangled car because apparently Pierce did a survey of the Silver Arrow show car back in 1933 and the public liked the fastback rear but not the wide front, which may explain at least in part why Pierce chose the '34 Silver Arrow coupe's fastback rear/conventional front design for production. Hindsight being what it is, we now know the public ultimately preferred the reverse of what the survey suggested but at the time Pierce would have needed to make a gut judgment call based on their own design sensibilities. They also would have had to pay patent fees for the teardrop design although that need not have been a show-stopper.

I have attached a 136" convertible image to help explain. Frankly, I think the rear decklid looks too long. Maybe Pierce could have gone back to the 1932 132" frame or tooled up a new frame in the 130-32" range to get the greenhouse further back and allow for a common decklid with the sedan.

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Edited by Mahoning63 (see edit history)
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Yes, the "wide front," as you mention, was so bizarre in the early 30's, I can see how the public woud vote no. It would be like showing a new 2011 Impala with pontoon fenders, the public would go "huh?" and reject the design.

I really like your renderings of the design, wow, I'd buy the Silver Arrow convertible in a heartbeat, a car that has a lot of class.

I've told my wife numerous times, if we won the lottery, first major purchase would be one of the original Silver Arrow cars, which have been on the market here and there (is the one still in the Blackhawk collection? I saw that car a couple years ago, that museum is like walking into a fine jewelry store) and kudos to Tom Derro for buying one, driving it, and displaying it.

The Silver Arrow styling was so far ahead of the prevailing styling that it was like a spaceship had landed, and on the heels of the depression, people didn't want that kind of change. Later in the decade, the Cord came along, a production car that was not only exotic, but absolutely gorgeous, and the public reacted positively. Form follows function, and some styling elements of the Cord were dependent on the troublesome (hey, I'm working on mine now, complicated) mechanical components. Without front drive, no flat floors, no unibody construction, and so forth. One further wonders if the basic styling of the Cord, combined with a more conventional drivetrain, would have resulted in a wildly successful automobile. Well, woulda coulda shoulda, the Cord is what it is, and a more pleasing car at which to stare I can't imagine.

Interestingly enough, on a personal note, I "traded" a V-12 production Silver Arrow for my Cord phaeton. I had a friend in the Pierce Arrow Society (and I still love that we're not a club, we're a Society!) who coveted the Silver Arrow, somewhat unrestored but able to tour and go down the road with no issues. Another friend decided to sell the Cord, and basically I worked out a trade, Cord for the Silver Arrow. The Pierce was driven from Dallas to Washington State, after the new owner bought new tires and I had mounted.

I traded mechanical excellence (man, what power that V-12 had) for aesthetic beauty.....occasionally I miss the Pierce, but then I look at the Cord and think, yep, made the right decision...and I have my dream Pierce in my garage, the '31 phaeton I've known since 1965, and owned since 1984.......

Edited by trimacar (see edit history)
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Thanks for your complimentary remarks and great analogy with the Impala!!! I am fascinated that you have owned and driven both classics. I have only experienced them at shows and museums. The front styling of the 34-35 Pierce is one of my all-time favorites. I dare say I like it better than my other all-timer, the 36 Packard seniors. (shhhh, I only said that to you!)

I saw a 1239 car for sale in California last year, sounded like it was in extremely rough shape with the body all but gone. I thought, boy if I had the money I would restore the chassis and put a Silver Arrow sport sedan body on it. Wonder if the Society would look upon that kindly.

One Cord I am particularly fond of is the green coupe in the ACD Museum in Indiana. It has freestanding headlights and a few other custom elements but the real key is the fixed leather-covered roof. The proportions are perfect. When I saw it a thought did run through my mind... what if they had built it with RWD and the Auburn V12? Hmmm. Hupmobile and Graham somehow modified the Cord body to accept RWD so it was possible but there would have been a hump. Perhaps not a bad trade-off.

I have heard more than a few P-A folk say they like the '32 and prior models, of which your '31 is a part. Why is that? Also, what do P-A folks think of the 836/1236 cars? Are they as good as the slightly more senior Pierce's? Did I just ask a loaded question?

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Well, as with any single marque, you'll find different opinions on what different people "like."

For some reason, it seems that 1930 and 1931 were cusp years, much nicer styling than the 1929 and previous cars, but not quite the real beauty of the 32/34 offereings. Even Model A was caught in this styling warp (and I purposely left off "the" before Model, if you read period literature, Ford's cars weren't refered to as "the Model T" or "the Model A," but rather just Model T.....again I digress).

I like the styling of the '31 Phaeton that I have, partly because I own it, and partly because I think the shorter wheelbase and close coupled phaeton just works.

But, the years of 32-34, a manufacturer of American cars had to really work at it to produce a car that wasn't pretty. Styling, instead of form following function, had finally come into fashion. Each manufacturer now had design teams that were working to not only have nice cars, but nice looking cars. Look at the big Chryslers, the Silver Arrow mentioned, the wonderful Packards.....all the last of true Classic styling, and cars that, even now, make one stop and marvel at what beautiful pieces of rolling art once came from American car makers.

Now, to the other question. No, Pierce guys don't frown at nor look down on the lower budget cars, they were still Pierce Arrows, just without some of the niceties and styling cues of the more senior cars; stamped grills rather than louvers, no hood side ventilation (which seems minor, but if you take four doors on each side of the hood, and add all the hinge and spring and latch mechanism, you've added 60 to 80 parts to the car), and other such cost savings measures. But, of course, like any senior or junior model, the junior models don't bring the same money as their bigger siblings.

To the driving point, nothing is as nice as being behind a V-12, even in a very heavy car, the power and torque are incredible. My Cord is unrestored and a little heavy to drive, but I've driven a correctly restored Cord, and when set up right, an incredibly nimble and fun car to drive. Shifting is not as fast as one would like, as it's a process, not an action, but nevertheless......and looking at that dashboard, I can only imagine in 1936-37 that one felt like one was in a spaceship..had they known what a spaceship was.....

whew, enough for now...

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The question is, could Pierce have made an up to date car with all steel body, independent suspension and possibly automatic transmission which was just coming in then. And sold enough to make a profit.

I have tried to figure out a way to exploit the Studebaker connection and came up with nothing that made sense. Could they have used Studebaker suspension or Studebaker body, suitably modified? Not if they kept their own engine and made a car of the size and quality they were used to. Could they have sold an improved Studebaker Land Cruiser with Studebaker straight eight as a Pierce? They could have but not without destroying the Pierce name.

Could they have stayed in business until WW2 came along? That is an interesting question. I can just about picture Pierce continuing to make their own cars with solid front axle and composite bodies, as Lincoln did with their senior line. But only if they had the support of some other business. The Pierce Travelodge trailers were a great idea but that was not enough to save them. Support from Studebaker fell through, in fact they were struggling themselves. Without a cheaper line, which all the surviving luxury cars had, they needed some contract work or some unrelated products that made money no matter how boring and dull. What this could have been I can't imagine. I can imagine them staying in business making a few thousand cars a year until the war, if they had the support of Studebaker and some unrelated products. Then, after the war, coming out with something spectacular using their wartime profits.

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I understand your points about Pierce needing other non-auto product to sell. Agree that it could have helped the bottom line if it gave a good return. What seemed to happen, and perhaps a counterargument to the strategy, is that it took Pierce's eye off the ball and diverted what little resources they had away from the main task at hand.

A couple points about the Studebaker deal and 139" sedan proposal I suggested:

* a pontoon fender was a pontoon fender in 1936. Studebaker's were just fine.

* doors were doors and Stude's looked fine, at least below the beltline. Studebaker's window frames were thick and mundane but passable and no better than what Pierce came up with.

* the steering wheel-to-front axle distance is all but identical between the 36 Stude and 36 Pierce and so is the hood length, so the V12 would have fit within Stude's IFS. If the IFS was determined to be inadaptable without major redesign, Pierce could have used the solid front axle and unique steering geometry that they ultimately developed, which also would have allowed the big inline eight to package. With profits from good sales, Pierce could have had an IFS by '38 or paid Packard for use of the Flex-T if East Grand was willing. Pierce still had market breathing room on the IFS in '36. Lincoln K and Zephyr didn't have one nor did the senior Packards.

* automatic wasn't needed until 1941 at earliest. If Pierce had gotten back on track in '36 with a more compelling and affordable car, they might have earned enough to develop their own, or develop & share with another company, or at least develop a semi-automatic as a holdover until the late 40's.

* the 139" wheelbase and torpedo sedan I suggested is but one example of a car that was big and stylish enough to be worthy of a Pierce name. At that time everyone was still selling a touring sedan so even the low priced cars had scads of rear legroom, including Studebaker. When the close-coupled 3-box sedan replaced the touring sedan, rear legroom suffered but trunk space and proportions improved. Had Pierce taken Studebaker's stamped - and generously long - touring sedan roof and coupe front doors, and hacked into Stude's rear door, they could have offered it all to the customer. And the sweet thing is that Studebaker would have paid for most of the tooling! Toggle between my two '36 Studebaker images to see the commonality, which was significant. This was the key for Pierce - don't micky mouse with things you couldn't improve, especially big ticket items like stampings. Let the big players carry those burdons.

* interiors would have been pure Pierce including reclining rear seats, I/P and anything else the customer could see, feel or smell.

* as for traditional Pierce quietness and serenity... line every square inch of the body with kapok and be done with it.

Edited by Mahoning63 (see edit history)
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  • 1 month later...

There were body suppliers like Briggs Hayes and Budd who could have made all steel bodies for Pierce. Their engines and power trains were second to none. A new IFS chassis in 1935 or 36 would have helped. They could have done without the V12 engine.

The question is could they have sold enough cars to make a profit through the thirties? Surprisingly, 1929 was their best sales year ever and sales did not taper off till after 1932. Then they declined steadily even though the economy was recovering.

So it seems Pierce Arrow customers retained their wealth well into the depression. But during the recovery somehow demand got lost. This suggests that the problem was changing fashions or the competition from cheaper more modern designs from Packard Chrysler Buick and Cadillac.

If that was the case they may have stood a chance if they had pursued different policies. It's hard to see what they could have done without cheapening the Pierce name though.

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