Pierce Company / Pierce-Arrow Company - Table of Contents   ...............................   Automobile Industry in Buffalo

The Pierce Companies
TEXT Beneath Illustrations

On this page below:

Bicycles
Autos
First showroom
Second showroom
Pierce Mausoleum
Scot Fisher editorial - Vernor Building
Roger Sherman,
Early Pierce-Arrow Cast Aluminum Body Technology


Click on photos for larger size and further information

Pierce bicycle company

Pierce bicycle company

Pierce bicycle company

Pierce bicycle company

George N. Pierce
(1846-1910)

1898 advertising poster.

1899 Pierce Double Men's Track Tandem.

C. 1900. 3-man racer.

C. 1900 Pierce chainless bicycle

C. 1900 Pierce chainless bicycle nameplate

1901 Pierce men's Cushion Frame Chainless Bicycle


       

Pierce auto company

Pierce auto company

Pierce auto company

Pierce auto company

1901 Pierce Motorette.

Front view of 1901 Pierce Motorette

Elmwood Avenue Administration Building and Factory.

Elmwood Avenue Administration Building

Entrance to administration building on Elmwood

One of the many arrows (representing Arrow autos) on Elmwood Avenue administration building

Arrow design: one section of railing in the Elmwood Avenue administration building

Left: Administration Building. Right: Factory on Great Arrow Road

 

See also: Postcard - Pierce Arrow Motor Car Works

 

Factory on Great Arrow Road

 

 


 

 

 

 

First showroom

First showroom

First showroom

First showroom


First Pierce auto showroom at 752-758 Main Street - perhaps the first building in the U.S. for such a purpose. This is commonly referred to as the Vernor Building now.
(See editorial below on the Vernor Building)

Auto showroom detail - 752-758 Main Street

Auto showroom detail - 752-758 Main Street


       

Second showroom

Second showroom

Second showroom



Second Pierce-Auto auto showroom, 2421 Main at Jewett - an Art Deco gem. Now the Greater Buffalo Savings Bank

Detail - 2421 Main St.

Detail - 2421 Main St.


       

Pierce Mausoleum

Pierce Mausoleum

Pierce Mausoleum

Pierce Mausoleum

The Pierce Mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo

 

 




In 1863 George N. Pierce (1846-1910) came to Buffalo from Friendsville, Pennsylvania at the age of seventeen. Several jobs later, he partnered with two other local men and formed a company known as Heinz, Pierce and Munshauer for the manufacture of refrigerators, bird cages, ice boxes and bathtubs.

Pierce was a partner until 1878 when he left the firm to establish a rival concern under the name of George N. Pierce & Company, and in 1888 added a line of children's tricycles, a product that was becoming very popular at the time. In an 1895 catalog, five models of "Queen" tricycles were offered for sale. The smallest, with a 16-inch wheel, for girls 3-5 years old, sold for $5.00, or $8.50 with rubber tires; the largest, with a 32-inch wheel, for girls 8-15 years old, sold for $12.00 or $18.00 with rubber tires.

Shortly after 1889, Pierce started building a full line of adult hard-tired and cushion-tired "safety" bicycles. By 1892 Pierce had dropped all of his other products except birdcages and iceboxes and in 1895 he stopped manufacturing these, too. He then continued as just a bicycle company.

The earliest Pierce bicycles' nameplates used an arrow which was to become the familiar hallmark of all of Pierce's advertising and nameplates for decades to come.

Pierce made what was probably the best bicycle of this era. It had a shaft drive, which was considered preferable to the chain at this time. State-of-the-art suspension came from a front fork of spring leaves and a telescopic shock absorber on the drop bar. It was called the Pierce hygienic Cushion Frame with an eye toward its healthful anti-vibration qualities. The company's 1897 model sold for $75.

By 1901 the Pierce Cycle Company had grown tremendously and was located in a five-story 75,000-square-foot factory at 6-22 Hanover Street in Buffalo. The site was near where the new hockey arena now (2001) stands on lower main Street only a block from the old Commercial Slip at the western terminus of the Erie Canal.

Autos

In 1891 Pierce moved into bicycles and then cars.

At this point George K. Birge and some friends bought into Pierce's business, which in 1899 Birge reorganized and brought in Scottish engineer David Fergusson. Reliance on steam power was abandoned, and in 1900 a gas-powered Motorette was placed on the market. Two years later the company was making its own engines and a year after that was selling the fifteen horsepower Arrow and the twenty-four horsepower Great Arrow.

Pan-American Exposition

George N. Pierce & Company built two cars early in 1901, and they exhibited them to the public at the Pan-American Exposition along with their bicycle line when the exposition opened in May.

Pierce introduced his "Motorette" at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 in a novel way:

"On May 1, George Pierce had an especially bright idea. The Buffalo inventor cranked up up his Pierce Motorette -- powered, as it were, by a one-cylinder de Dion engine -- and putt-putted to the grand opening of the Pan-American Exposition. Crowds parted, eyes popped and jaws dropped as the contraption clattered past the Machinery Building, in which several experimental automobiles produced by Pierce's rivals were on display, all shiny-new but still." - Source: "Pierce Arrows Join Pan-Am Centennial Fest," by Tom Buckam, in the March 8, 2001 Buffalo News

Also at the pan-Am, the Exposition's bicycle policeman rode and showcased Buffalo-made Pierce bicycles.

The Motorette sold for $950. In both 1901 and 1902, the company sold about two dozen autos. In 1903, Pierce replaced the de Dion engine in the Motorette with one of his own design and manufacture. The Pierce Arrow, which featured a four-cylinder Pierce engine, debuted in 1904, selling for $4,000. By 1905, Pierce was producing some of the biggest and most expensive automobiles on the U.S. market.

A new auto factory

The Arrow automobile continued to be made in the same bicycle plant on Hanover Street until 1907, when the company split into two companies and the auto production was moved to a new plant that was built next to the New York Central Belt Line Railroad on Elmwood Avenue at Great Arrow - land once occupied by a portion of the Midway of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition - covering fifteen acres of land. The complex had one million, sixteen thousand four hundred square feet of floor space for over 10,000 workers.

The architect for the administration building on Elmwood was George Cary. It seems fitting that Cary was the architect because he was one of the three local architects on the Pan-Am Board of Architects. Cary's masterpiece was the New York State Building - now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum - which is located several blocks south of the administration building on Elmwood Avenue at Nottingham Terrace.

The adjoining factory was constructed of reinforced concrete and was absolutely fireproof. Albert Kahn, the architect of the factory, achieved a breakthrough with his single story, top-lit modular design. With its uniform lighting and physical flexibility, it rapidly became the prototype for American factory design, particularly in the emerging motor industry. By the late 1930s Kahn employed over 600 people and was responsible for nearly a fifth of the industrial buildings within the U.S.

The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. was officially launched in 1907. In a fit of pique, Pierce withdrew from management in 1908 and the Pierce family sold its interest and left the company. Birge was president of the auto company from 1908-1916.

Carl F. Burgwardt, author of "Buffalo's Bicycles" and proprietor of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum (perhaps the the largest bicycle museum in the world - and located in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo) sums up Pierce's career:

"Actually, George Pierce was probably more of a a bicycle person than an automobile person. While he was the founder and principal officer in his bicycle business for more than twenty years, he was only in the automobile business for eight. Most of the greatest Pierce automobiles were actually made by the company bearing his mark and name after he had retired and died [1911]. By the time the automobiles were being produced in his bicycle plant, although he was still president of the company, other major stockholders [like George Birge] were those most involved with the automobile. Pierce's principals of quality, however, were not compromised and obviously transferred to the renowned automobile" -- Excerpt from a media release advertising the 2001 National Meet of the Wheelman in Buffalo, August 8-12, 2001

Pierce died from a heart attack in 1910 at his home at the Lenox residence hotel.. He was interred in a family mausoleum, built by his wife, Louisa, in the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, adjacent to Mirror Lake in Section 23.

The Post-Pierce Era

Pierce had taken on George Birge as a partner in 1899, and Birge was president of the newly named auto company from 1908-1916.

Publicity after victory in a 1908 cross-country race caused sales to climb, and in 1909 the company was renamed Pierce-Arrow, with Birge and associates as chief officers. The company's prestige continued to grow in 1909 when President Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrows.

The first Pierce-Arrow showroom was the present Vernor Building at 752-758 Main Street next to the now razed Teck Theater.

Pierce-Arrow affiliated with the Studebaker Corporation in 1928 and a new Art Deco showroom, designed by H.E. Plumer & Associates with Harold F. Kellogg, was built in 1929-30 at the corner of Main Street and Jewett Avenue.

Although the Studebaker Corporation failed in 1933, a group of Buffalo businessmen led by George F. Rand Jr., bought control of the Pierce-Arrow operation and kept it open under the presidency of Arthur J. Chanter until 1938 when Pierce-Arrow also went bankrupt.

Sources:


The Fate of the Vernor Building
August 25, 2005

What is disturbing is the potential loss of yet another important building in the Main Street Historic Preservation district for the sake new construction. Developer Ben Oblitz from First Amherst Development has an "idea" for a new residential complex on the site of the Pierce Arrow / Vernor Building at 752 Main Street.

Last Thursday, First Amherst (who has an offer to purchase the site) went to the Buffalo Preservation Board to request permission to demolish the building (an "eyesore" as they put it) to create a "shovel ready" site for their admittedly unfinished concept.

I gave a presentation to the Board refuting the allegation that the building was structurally unsound (I had interior photos on hand taken earlier that week). The roof is 90% intact; all but one of the dozens of interior columns are in excellent condition; all four of the exterior walls are plumb and straight, and the lack of weatherproofing, while weakening the plaster in places, has only helped to expose the underlying structure of massive I-beams that hold the building together.

As the original showroom for the Pierce-Arrow motorcar company, it's historical pedigree is unchallenged. It is also no less historically significant than it was 7 years ago when I brought suit, along with the Preservation Coalition, against the city for a proposed illegal "emergency" demolition.

There is the possibility that a more creative developer may come forward in the future to develop the site using the existing structure, and all we have to do is to help keep the building mothballed until that time. Any phone calls or letters to the Preservation Board (who will decide the fate of this building on August 4) would be enormously helpful.  And hopefully in a few months we won't be having a conversation about whether we like the design for the new building where the Pierce-Arrow used to be.

-- Scot Fisher





The completed cast aluminum body on a World War I era 38-C-4 (U. of Michigan's Libraries)

For sixteen of its thirty-seven years (1901-1938), Pierce-Arrow used cast aluminum for the entire structure of their automobile bodies. It was a process unique to the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. The necessity for this innovation was the same as that which forced the simultaneous development of the conventional automobile body technology of the time: stresses brought on by the ope
ration of a powered car on the roads of the early twentieth century damaged the structure of the carriage-derived bodies on early cars. Even the vibrations of the automobile's machinery strained body joints and caused unexpected distortions in the wood, accompanied by alarming squeaks and shudders.

The Composite Body

The conventional solution to these problems was to build up a sturdy framework of hardwood, to which metal outer panels were attached. The completed body was then mounted on the chassis of the car. This so-called "composite" body was the standard method used to construct car bodies for the next thirty years. Pierce rejected this solution for more than a decade.

Although this onetime bicycle manufacturer had no experience in carriage construction, and in contrast with most automobile manufacturers of the time, Pierce resolutely undertook to develop their own body building capability, and set out in a whole new direction.

Ten years later, while speaking to a dealer conference at the factory, Herbert M. Dawley, one of the important influences on the Pierce-Arrow cast aluminum body, remarked that "The cast aluminum body is a thing that is distinct and unique in the Pierce-Arrow factory. It is the one thing that has been developed that you will not find in other cars."  At the time he spoke these words Dawley knew the Pierce-Arrow car occupied the very summit of prestige in the luxury car market, seen in enclaves of social prominence and the loci of great financial and governmental power that included the White House itself. The company�s earlier decision seemed quite justified.

The Concept

The man who developed the cast aluminum body at Pierce came to the firm in 1904 from Brewster & Co., Manhattan's most renowned carriage and automobile body builder. His name was James R. Way, and his idea was to use cold rivets to unite cast aluminum panels together to make a complete body structure. While the concept was simple enough, it took years to actually perfect the technology.

As was true for most automobile firms in those early days, Pierce-Arrow had no foundry of any kind. They machined the cast parts received from vendors to their specifications. The vendor for body panels was the Elmwood plant of the Aluminum Castings Co. in Buffalo who then shipped them down the street to Pierce-Arrow for final finish and assembly. Factory records indicate that the time it took to "order, make and deliver alum. castings" [sic] for a body took three or four days.
- Roger Sherman, Early Pierce-Arrow Cast Aluminum Body Technology, pub. by The Pierce-Arrow Society (online September 2017)




Color photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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