#0009 - Pierce Great Arrow, 1906
Photographed: Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance, 2007
Owner: Bill Alley
Special thanks to David Donald, whose correspondence brought to life many colorful anecdotes of this car's past.
Family History: Sometime after I finished editing this photograph I was contacted by David, who recognized the car as a dear part of his childhood. His father, George G. Donald, had purchased the car in one of those rare, yet somewhat familiar stories of breaking down out on the highways of America, walking to the nearest home to ask for help, and discovering some relic of automotive history in the barn out back. If I remember correctly, his father came back to purchase this Great Arrow the very next day. That was in the late 1930s. The car remained in his family in largely unfettered-with condition until George's passing in 1976, when it was purchased by automotive designer Dick Teague.
David recounted tales of the automotive gatherings his family hosted in New England. "We used to have over one-hundred fifty cars in our large backyard and have a party. They would bring a huge teeter-totter and try to get the cars balanced with no side touching the ground—least angle from flat in shortest time wins. Model Ts were good at that." Of course, it was the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout that was famous for staging these sorts of exhibitions in period to advertise their maneuverability.
But back to the Pierce, David reports that his father took the car to a church fair every year and offered $1 rides to raise money. During one of these jaunts, they managed to set about eleven people on the Pierce and, in David's words, "We were heading on a run down across Sudbury River—a nice long hill down to the valley with only two rarely used roads toward the bottom. Dad opend up the hand throttle and a bit of spark advance, and we slid down the hill, only to hear a siren behind. We'd been doing 60 in a 45." David said the cop tried to be stern, until he got a handle on what he'd just pulled over. "Registration says 1906... Uh. What? Is that right?" What really blew him away was that the tyre tread actually spelled out 'Goodrich.' The officer finally relented when he heard the ride was church connected, but asked them to keep the speed down.
While the car was always in driving condition during its stay in David's family, it was not yet returned to a complete state. Dick Teague scraped together a suitable windscreen and tonneau, both of which the car did without for quite some time. The paint and pinstriping, however, were refreshed, and David recalls that the man who touched up the pinstripes must have been older than the car—his hand shook mightily until just before it hit the metal, then was smooth and straight as can be.
In David's own words: "As far as we knew at the time of my last phone call with Dick Teague, there was no other '06 to be found whole, not even a chassis to steal parts from. There were parts in boxes labeled '06. There was an '05 and I think two '07s. But '06, she is the only one. It never had the roof or windshield during my time. But I think there was a rotted out frame that Dick got from us and he had it recanvased, and then a wood windshield frame was done from '05 and '06 photos."
The Pierce was known early on for steering mounted controls for the transmission, (as on the 1903 Rear-Entrance Tonneau), and David remembered much of the Great Arrow's operation. We both commented to each other on the clap-trap noise the car makes, and he brought up the topic of the peculiar starter system.
"It had two ignition settings," he wrote. "If you put it to neutral you could crank it till one or two cylinders were primed with gas vapor, at just passed top of compression, then get in the cockpit and flip the lever. It would explode one then the other charge and have enough power to turn the motor over and keep it going. Never seen this done on another vehicle."
Finally, David did have a few recollections about Dick Teague. "I was in my early twenties then, driving a BMW 1600 with a 2002 engine. He thought that was a hoot." But Mr. Teague and David's family kept correspondence after the Great Arrow changed hands. "He sent me some of his design concepts," David adds. "He had a mini-van on a 4 wheel-drive Pacer-sized chassis—fat, low tires, under-flared wheel wells, with swivel bucket seats and great looks to it. If AMC had built it, they would have created the mini-van market and saved the brand. But the money guys said 'too radical.' Five years later it's mini-van city and AMC is history." David concludes, "He always stayed in touch with my mother, telling her how the car was every three months or so. He got the car because he clearly loved it."
The Great Arrow: Inextricably linked to the Glidden Tour—open any book on American automotive history and accounts of the Great Arrow winning the Glidden Tour are sure to be found. The Tour was an international event, with some formidable equipment on hand, and a difficult trial for these early motorcars to conquer. The Great Arrow's success promoted Pierce to the fore of American auto-makers, heading a consist of five consecutive outright wins for the marque. But it was not merely success at trials that made the Great Arrow special. Always the innovative company, the Great Arrow was featured extensive use of aluminum—a pioneering step for the entire fledgling industry—and was also among the first cars powered a six cylinder motor, which arrived in 1907.
The six-cylinder advantage over other manufacturers would last just a short time, but the application of aluminum would long remain a Pierce-Arrow bellwether. Of course, the use of aluminum also guaranteed top-shelf prices.
Major Progress: The Pierce Arrow that precedes this Great Arrow in our collection is much less of a proprietary design. Comparatively, the Arrow is an American take on the French automobile, albeit a very substantial piece of machinery. In particular, the bonnet of the Arrow is sculpted in a vogue shape established by the French in the early twentieth century, perhaps most notably by Renault. The Rear-Entrance plan is a continental touch. And, of course, the motor in the Arrow is sourced from De Dion. All told, the Arrow was a superlative American car, but—much like contemporary Cadillacs—was deeply indebted to French design.
The Great Arrow, however, was taken in all manner of new directions by Pierce, what with aluminum panels, a six-cylinder motor, steering mounted transmission controls, all of which we've glossed in this story. The big improvement, however, was in the size, including a proud standing height of around eight feet. In this sense, the Great Arrow was big, perhaps not before it was fashionable to be big, but certainly before the world was expecting big motorcars.
End of the Story: This Great Arrow, one of the last surviving examples, has returned to a fine home in New England. Dick Teague had taken it to Detroit for a spell, according to David Donald, but the car spent nearly all its life in New England and, as David figures, it's good to hear she's still there.
Mr. David Donald is a seasoned jazz musician based in Thailand.
The Pierce Arrow Society: Featuring The Glidden Tour Years.
The Automobile in America, by Stephen W. Sears, American Heritage Publishing Co, Inc. New York, NY, c. 1977, pages 73, 81
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