– Pierce-Arrow, 1930
Many automobile companies used elegant or flashy ads to sell new cars, but there’s nothing quite so eloquent and persuasive as the “Pierce-Arrow Proclamation.”
While Packard said, “Ask the man who owns one,” and Cadillac claimed to be the “Standard of the World,” Pierce-Arrow skipped slogans and catchy gimmicks to promote its Classic hand-built automobiles. In selling its cars during 1930, Pierce-Arrow, of Buffalo, N.Y., chose advertising prose to be read as literature:
“In extending its Straight Eight line to meet every latest demand of the fine car market, Pierce-Arrow opens the 1930 season with an array of motor cars which again easily qualify as America’s finest,” boasted one of its ads following the stock market crash of 1929.
“There are four new wheelbases in the 1930 group… all cars of increased inner spaciousness… all slender, low-swung, graceful creations in the finest Pierce-Arrow tradition,” continued the ad.
“The 1930 colorings and upholsterings and appointments are new elements of beauty, freshly expressed….
“More important, there are elements of vital consideration… all present in every car of the 1930 line….
“Silent gearshifts… non-shatterable glass… super-safety brakes… low-swung gravity centers… hydraulic shock absorbers, etc., etc. All Pierce-Arrow features… each having been added as it proved itself… and without mention or especial acclaim.
“Nor is there any excess of modesty in this attitude. It is simply that no new feature, or any group of new features, could conceivably be so important as that which is Pierce-Arrow. Greater is that than the sum of all its parts.”
Pierce-Arrow claimed that reaching these Olympian standards was a burden borne under what it called the “tyranny of tradition.”
Fortunately, it was all true. The 1930 Pierce-Arrow remains a truly beautiful and technologically advanced automobile for its time. It debuted its most famous feature in 1914. That year, Pierce-Arrow adopted its enduring styling hallmark when its headlamps were moved from the traditional free-standing place flanking the radiator and into flared housings molded into the front fenders of the car. This gave the car an immediately visible distinction in front or side views. At night, the car appeared to have a wider stance due to the headlamp placement. Pierce patented this placement, which continued until the final model of 1938, although Pierce also offered customers the option of conventional freestanding headlamps. However, only a minority of Pierces were ordered with the option of conventional headlamps.
To see in-person a Pierce-Arrow’s design features, cutting-edge styling and technological advancements enlightens and delights. One opportunity for the public to experience a 1930 Pierce-Arrow phaeton in-person came during the annual Father’s Day Eyes on Design car show at the Edsel and Eleanor Manor (Ford House) in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., several years ago. Standing next to this Pierce-Arrow were its then-owners Terry and Rita Ernest, of Port Huron, Mich., who greeted onlookers in period-correct attire, making them look very much the part with the Classic American automobile. It was there that they shared this regal Pierce-Arrow’s story.
1930 Pierce-Arrow B Phaeton
The Ernests said the 1930 Pierce-Arrow Group B phaeton featured here survived the winter weather of the Upper Midwest and crossed the Atlantic twice, only to become neglected and fall into disrepair. It eventually came back to life through a meticulous world-class restoration that has received acclaim by winning the highest awards in the automobile motoring community. Today, the car is a centerpiece in any exceptional automobile collection.
“When my wife and I were married 36 years ago, we discussed hobbies we could mutually enjoy,” Terry recalled. “To my surprise and pleasure, she said she really liked antique cars! After many discussions of different types of antique cars we both liked, we decided we wanted an early Auburn boattail Speedster.”
Soon after the Ernests married, a 1930 Pierce-Arrow restoration was being completed in California, immediately winning top honors at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It then captured the highest award that the Pierce-Arrow Society bestows — the VanDerveer Trophy, which is now called the Weis Trophy. However, it would be many years before that Pierce-Arrow joined the Ernests’ budding collection, as the Auburn Speedster they initially hoped to land became their first collector car.
The Auburn Speedster was eventually joined by a 1934 Packard victoria, a 1936 Packard convertible coupe, a 1933 Cadillac town sedan and two pre-war fire trucks. The couple also added a 1912 Havers to fill their brass-era needs.
The car bug extends far beyond the Ernests’ garage. Terry also happens to be the director of the Wills Sainte Claire Automobile Museum in Marysville, Mich., and has a 1926 Wills Sainte Claire himself.
A Pierce-Arrow hits the bulls-eye
Terry had admired a friend’s 1932 Pierce-Arrow. and while searching for a ’32 for themselves, Rita discovered this 1930 dual-cowl sport phaeton. The ’32 was at the top of Terry’s list, and he had his heart set on owning one, but he decided to give the ’30 a look. He was immediately captivated by the car. A prior owner had gone to great lengths to restore the car to concours standards, and the finished product gushed absolute perfection.
The Ernests mainly used the Pierce-Arrow for concours-type car shows and touring with the Pierce-Arrow Society and, until they sold it a couple years ago, their excursions with it were the latest in the car’s long road of travels.
“This automobile was [originally] purchased by the Meyer family,” Terry said. “They owned and operated a mill in St. Paul, Minn. A younger Meyer family member took the car to England with him in 1938 where, sometime prior to World War II, it was converted to right-hand drive. After the war, an American G.I. purchased the ’30 Pierce-Arrow, returned it to the U.S. in 1947, and had it converted back to left-hand drive.”
The car needed a full restoration when Lee Garoyan bought it in 1970, but it was mechanically sound enough to make the 300-mile drive to his home in Davis, Calif.
Garoyan hand-fabricated new top bows and hardware and replaced the front seat and windshield pillars. Garoyan had to remove several non-factory items, such as vacuum brakes and a 1936 Buick trunk someone had integrated into the body using lead. A prior owner replaced the original Clark four-speed transmission with a Muncie three-speed. Garoyan installed a factory-correct Clark four-speed transmission.
The Pierce-Arrow came with artillery wheels, and Garoyan sought out and located a set of the originally optional chrome-plated wire wheels.
As with many premium automobiles of its time, the 1930 Pierce-Arrow was not restricted to a narrow set of factory colors. Buyers could order custom one-of-kind colors and combinations for their automobile. The idea of giving the customer an opportunity to personalize their automobile was an attractive feature to those with the means to afford such a luxury. The flexibility with paint color choices back in the ’30s allows today’s restorers of these works of automotive art the freedom to get creative with the final paint finish.
“The cutting-edge contours of the Pierce-Arrow suggest that two or three colors would enhance its appearance,” Ernest said. “We acquired old pictures of the car. It was painted yellow butterscotch, several shades of gray, combinations of greens, but nothing looked good or really stood out. Garoyan reached out to Ron Dreyer, a classic automobile and wood boat artist from northern California. After a couple days, Dreyer came up with three-color combinations and hand-painted images of the Pierce-Arrow, then hung them on a wall for Garoyan and his customers to review. Each visitor was asked to vote on their favorite, and the current color combination was the overwhelming choice.”
This Pierce-Arrow is the Group B mid-level entry from the 1930 factory lineup. This Group B cost about $3,300 new when the average American earned a yearly income of about $2,000, and a home cost $7,200. Even the lower-entry Group C cost $2,600, while the upper-line Group A models cost between $4,000 and $6,000 with factory bodies during 1930.
Group B was available in one of two wheelbases — a standard 134-inch platform and a 139-inch version seven-passenger model. The Group B has Pierce-Arrow’s mid-sized, 366-cid flathead straight-eight engine, and the features are quite advanced for the era: a crankshaft-driven fuel pump instead a vacuum tank, fully pressurized oiling, a factory oil filter and a Stromberg Duplex carburetor with each barrel feeding four cylinders.
The 366-cid engine is factory rated at 125 hp, but with their long strokes and lots of overlap, big straight-eights from the ’30s, such as the powerplant in this Pierce, achieve their power at very low revolutions, and it’s one of Terry’s favorite characteristics of big, prewar Classic automobiles, such as this Pierce.
“It’s not what you would classify or refer to as noisy, but you can hear it pull,” Terry says. “The drivetrain has a good, firm feel to it when you start off in first gear and go into second. It’s a car of substance. It sounds like a big car, and it’s powerful like the big Classics of that time. Our ’33 Cadillac feels heavier and doesn’t accelerate like the Pierce-Arrow. I also have a 12-cylinder Packard that is a heavier-steering car, but the Pierce-Arrow has a lighter body and engine, so it has a much smoother motion to it. It’s very comfortable to drive and easier than some of the big cars from those days,”
Terry says the car’s mechanical brakes are impressive compared to the economy-car mechanical brakes from the early ’30s. “We don’t need to reinvent what the engineers designed. We just need to make sure that what the engineers designed is working properly and to their maximum potential.”
A Pierce-Arrow in flight
Rarely, if ever, does one get the opportunity to photograph a Pierce-Arrow being driven on an airport runway by its owner. When Terry agreed to bring the car up to speed for motion shots, the entire photoshoot rose to another level. We made a few passes on the runway and the Pierce-Arrow performed flawlessly, and I could tell Terry was comfortable being behind the wheel, shifting the gears and quickly bringing the car up to a steady 45 mph. I’ve done many car-to-car motion-shot sessions over the years, and this was perfection. The owner, my camera-car driver and I were in sync. Images of Classic automobiles being driven are far and few between. In some ways, we really fortified the history of this automobile and its legacy of being driven. This Pierce-Arrow has traveled the world, but this documented trip up and down the airport runway was one to remember.
Words, however fine, and pictures, no matter how true in life, are incapable of conveying the rare charm that belongs to the 1930 Pierce-Arrow.
As for the flowery prose Pierce-Arrow expended to promote its product line, Terry and Rita Ernest agreed with the company when it claimed, “All are pardonable boasts.”
As much as they enjoyed the 1930 Pierce-Arrow, it wasn’t quite the 1932 model that Terry hoped to find. They sold the car a couple years ago to a lovely home in Arizona where it could be driven — and enjoyed — year-round.
SHOW US YOUR WHEELS!
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you like stories like these and other classic car features, check out Old Cars magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
Want a taste of Old Cars magazine first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter and get a FREE complimentary digital issue download of our print magazine.