The front-fender headlights and a kneeling archer-hood ornament on Pierce-Arrow’s automobiles symbolized wealth and power throughout early 20th-century America.
They were known as “cars to presidents.” President William Howard Taft ordered a pair of the luxury vehicles in 1909 for use on official state occasions. A Pierce-Arrow carried both Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding to Harding’s 1921 inauguration.
And they were made in Buffalo.
Dozens of the luxurious cars returned to Western New York this week for the 58th annual meeting of the Pierce-Arrow Society, a club made up of Pierce-Arrow car owners and enthusiasts. It’s the group’s first visit to Buffalo since 2001.
Friday morning, dozens of group members gathered for a tour of Buffalo’s historic Forest Lawn Cemetery. The caravan of cars – including a few working Pierce Arrow models – slowly made their way through the twisting roads of the cemetery, stopping occasionally for presentations on some notable names.
They heard about E.R. Thomas, the founder of the Thomas Motor company, J.R. Oshei, a windshield-wiper mogul, and the founder of Pierce-Arrow himself: George Norman Pierce.
Peter Williams, a psychologist from Newburyport, Mass., was on hand with his 1925 series 80 Pierce-Arrow.
“At the time of its manufacturing, it was one of the finest automobiles in the United States,” he said, pointing to the hand-stitched interior, mahogany trim and walnut steering wheel. “It was not manufactured, it was crafted. They were outrageously sophisticated craftsmen to do all this interior work.”
On the rear of Williams’ forest-green Pierce-Arrow was a faux license plate reading “Repeal the 18th Amendment,” a reference to Prohibition. That, too, was from the 1920s, Williams said.
His uncle’s uncle had bought the car, used, in 1928 while working as a factory foreman for Pierce-Arrow.
The car passed to Williams’ uncle and Williams bought it from the family’s estate after his uncle’s death in 2005. That sort of connection is typical of Pierce-Arrow owners, society meeting chairman Kevin Curtin said.
“A lot of these people buy them because there is some connection to the brand,” he said. “A lot of it is passion for the Pierce-Arrow name. They’re passionate about the car and they’re custodians of the car.”
The group is made up of about 1,000 members who collectively own about 1,200 of the luxury vehicles.
Stu Blair, of Cincinnati, had been in the Pierce-Arrow Society for decades before he had a chance to purchase one for himself.
“I’ve always had an interest in classic cars,” he said. “I’ve had a Packard since I was in high school.” In 2010, he bought a 1936 eight-cylinder Pierce-Arrow in an estate sale.
Not all of the group’s members own an automobile.
Henry May, the vice president of the Pierce-Arrow Society and a Buffalo native, has a Pierce-Arrow bicycle from 1897.
The George N. Pierce Company was founded in Buffalo in 1878 by the company’s namesake. It was mostly known for high-end versions of household items, including gilded birdcages, bathtubs and ice boxes.
The company began to enter the transportation market in 1896 by producing bicycles, and manufactured its first automobile in 1901: The Motorette, a single-cylinder, two-speed and no-reverse car.
That same year, Pierce changed the company’s name to the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company.
In 1904, Pierce decided to focus his company’s efforts on creating high-end luxury vehicles. Later that year, Pierce rolled out an early version of what would become its most iconic automobile: The Great Arrow.
Featuring a four-cylinder Pierce engine and cast aluminum body panels, the Great Arrow cost about $4,000 in 1904. That’s about $104,000 in 2015 dollars.
In 1914, Pierce-Arrow developed its trademark look: It perched the car’s headlights on top of its front fender. The front-fender headlights were illegal for a time in New York State – it was out of fear that oncoming traffic might mistake the lights for two motorcycles at night.
From there, the company continued to market and hand-craft its vehicles for the highest echelons of society, from sitting presidents to famous actors.
Pierce-Arrow dominated the luxury car market alongside Packard and Peerless until the Great Depression forced the company to shut down in 1938.
Although Pierce-Arrow existed for less than four decades, its impact is still felt throughout the city.
Buffalo served as the company’s headquarters and manufacturing hub. Its main administrative and manufacturing plant, the Pierce Arrow Factory Complex, still stands at its original Elmwood Avenue location and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Beyond the physical remnants of the company, Pierce-Arrow’s memory remains a source of pride for the community.
“It’s heritage,” Curtin, a Buffalo native, said. “It’s something every Buffalonian is proud of. Even though they finished in 1938, they built heritage. For the area, for the city, for us.”