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SNAPSHOT 216: 1929 Pierce-Arrow Model 143

Contemporary colour photographs of pre-war cars are relatively rare, so it was pleasant surprise to find this one.  The caption to the photograph, discovered in a printing industry annual, includes the technical information that it was created from ‘colour separation negatives made on the scene’ and that the creators of the printing blocks, and the printers, were located in Buffalo, New York – not a surprise, since this was the location of the Pierce-Arrow factory.

A picture caption intended to display excellence in colour printing techniques sadly does not worry itself with describing the year or model.  But here the bonnet louvres and the six-light body give some clues.  The louvres seem to be limited to 1929, and the length of the body indicates that this was the longer-wheelbase model, the 143.  The 133 and 143 referred to the wheelbase in inches.

Pierce-Arrow could trace its history back to 1865 when the Heinz, Pierce and Munschauer company was founded to make the highest quality of household items, especially its delicate, gilded birdcages.  Pierce bought out the two other principals in 1872, and in 1896 started to manufacture bicycles. The first car dates from 1901, and the two-cylinder Arrow was launched in 1903.

In 1904, Pierce moved upmarket with the Great Arrow, a well-constructed four-cylinder car that won the 1905 Glidden Tour.  U.S. President Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrows in 1909 to be used for state occasions.  In 1912, Herbert M. Dawley (later a Broadway actor-director) joined Pierce-Arrow, and he designed almost every model until 1938.

In 1914, Pierce-Arrow adopted the now famous feature that set it apart from all other cars of that era: the placement of its headlamps on the front wings.  Some U.S. states, however, including the company’s home state of New York, prohibited such lamps, so all New York-delivered cars retained the conventional free-standing headlamps.

In 1928, the Studebaker Corporation gained control of the Buffalo firm, giving Pierce-Arrow some much-needed additional capital.  The two companies still operated as separate entities, with some sharing of production facilities (engine blocks were cast at Studebaker’s South Bend facility) and, perhaps most importantly, the selling of the Pierce-Arrow car through the Studebaker dealer network.

The 1929 car illustrated here was the first model to introduce the straight-eight engine that replaced the long-lasting six-cylinder power plant.  In that year, Pierce-Arrow sales were a record figure of 9,840, and even as the Great Depression took hold in 1930 the company managed to deliver 6,916 cars – but sales declined in every year from then on until the closure of the company in 1938.

Probably the most famous Pierce-Arrow was the dramatically-styled 1933 Silver Arrow.  Introduced at the New York Auto Show on Jan. 1 of that year, its futuristic appearance (promoted in Pierce-Arrow literature with the words “It gives you in 1933 the car of 1940″) and its V-12 engine failed to save the company.  Only five examples were ever made, and the company, the only luxury brand with no lower-priced car in its range, declared insolvency in 1938 and closed its doors.

Picture courtesy of the Richard Roberts Archive

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