Three Marvelous Marques: Mercury, Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow
Gone but not forgotten. Here’s a quick look at why these three famous names in American automobiles continue to endure in the minds historic vehicle lovers everywhere.
Origins: According to American Cars 1805-1942, 3rd Edition, between 1903 and 1923 at least seven startup car manufacturers named their companies Mercury, after the famous mythological messenger to the Roman gods. None lasted longer than a year or two, which is why the only Mercury we remember today is the brand launched as a division of the Ford Motor Company in 1939.
Market Beginnings: Inspired by Edsel Ford, Mercury automobiles were originally designed to be a mid-priced competitor to Dodge and Pontiac thatcould bridge the price gap between the high end of the Ford Motor Company’s offerings (Lincoln and Lincoln-Zephyr) and baseline Ford V-8. Powered by a flathead V-8 and offering styling inspired by Zephyr, the company’s first offering — the Mercury Eight — was priced at under $1,000. In an attempt to solidify the up-market status of the new marque, the V in reference to the engine configuration was omitted based on the economy connotation of the period that was brought about by the overwhelming success of the low priced Ford V-8.
Best of Times: Car historians remember Mercury as a division of Ford that suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. In the North American marketplace, the brand was something of an automotive shape-shifter: at one time sold as a competitively priced alternative to Ford rivals Oldsmobile, Buick and Chrysler; the next, billed as upmarket, performance alternatives to Ford’s more pedestrian models.
Mercury was its own division at Ford until 1945 when it was combined with Lincoln and then again in 1957 when the new brand (Lincoln-Mercury) was further merged with Edsel. All this brand reshuffling came with new and even more determined design and engineering teams that, instead of further diluting what the Mercury name stood for, wound up providing the brand with the first of many memorable cars; among them, the Mercury Monterey; the Montclair; Park Lane Convertible; and the eye-catching 1957 Turnpike Cruiser convertible that served as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 that year.
Pop Culture Fact: In the 1950’s Mercury customs and hot rods were considered some of the most intriguing/sinister/stylish/popular on the road. That wicked reputation was permanently cemented in history when James Dean appeared driving a customized 1949 Mercury coupe in the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Origins: Following the bankruptcy of his Iowa bicycle business in 1903, Fred Duesenberg decided to start designing and racing sports cars. He formed a partnership with his brother, August, in 1913, and together the two self-taught engineers relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Duesenberg Motor Company was formed.
Market Beginnings: One year after founding the company, the Duesenberg brothers became almost instantly famous when one of their cars finished 10th at the Indianapolis 500. That fame went international in 1921 when a Duesenberg brought America its first win ever at the French Grand Prix. Duesenberg would continue its winning streak here at home with wins at the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927.
As evidence by the brothers’ first solo-attempt to break into the world of passenger cars in 1922 with the Duesenberg Model A, racetrack success didn't initially translate into consumer sales. It did, however, attract investors like E.L. Cord who took over the business side of the operation. Under Cord, Duesenberg began hitting its now legendary stride with the Model J, which debuted at the New York City Car Show in 1928.
Best of Times: When it came to power, speed and opulence, nothing could top Duesenberg in 1930s. Gary Cooper, western movie star Tom Mix and Rudolph Valentino are just a few of the first, old Hollywood celebrities who began gravitating toward Duesenberg automobiles. This trend continued and helped establish the automobile as the ultimate status symbol of America’s socially elite. The list of famous Duesenberg owners would eventually include infamous American gangsters (Al Capone), A-List celebrities (Clark Gable), European kings, and many other personalities of note during the years of The Great Depression.
Pop Culture Fact: To this day, Duesenbergs are the pinnacle of opulence and luxury in the history of American automobiles. In 2011, a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Whittell Coupe sold for 10.3 million dollars, making it one of the most expensive American auction vehicles of all time.
Origins: Like many turn-of-the-century automakers, George Pierce was a bicycle builder before he began making cars. After an early foray into steam-powered vehicles proved unsuccessful, Pierce followed the trend to good old gasoline and produced a two-cylinder car he called “the Arrow” in 1903.
Market Beginnings: With his eyes set on making a fortune selling large, reliable cars to an upscale market, Pierce entered his next car — a four-cylinder automobile he called the Great Arrow — into the Glidden Trophy race, an 1,100-mile endurance run from New York to New Hampshire. Out of a field of 33 competitors, the car won the race in 1905. Pierce automobiles went on to dominate the Glidden tours, proving so successful that the company withdrew participation in the competition after 1909.
Best of Times: George Pierce sold the rights to his car-building operation in 1907, three years before his death. The new company was named the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company. Advertising its vehicles with an image of refinement and luxury, the company continued to set its marketing sights on a wealthy, powerful and influential clientele. And the strategy worked, at least for awhile. In 1909, under the direction of U.S. President William Taft, two Pierce-Arrow Touring cars in addition to a pair of White Model M Tourers, became the first official cars of the White House.
The 1920s proved to be record-breaking years for Pierce-Arrow with a series of straight-eight models that set record sales for the company in 1929. The ’20s also proved that Pierce-Arrow automobiles were not only for show. The cars had serious power and speed, too, as proven a few years later (1932) when Ab Jenkins used a Pierce-Arrow 452 V-12 roadster prototype to shatter existing speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
Pop Culture Fact: As valuable as Pierce-Arrow touring cars are today, the most coveted single part of the vehicle is arguably the hood ornament depicting its iconic “helmeted archer.” The first Pierce-Arrow archers were slight in frame, partly clothed, and helmeted. Later versions depict a helmet-less archer with no clothes and a little more muscle. Both versions are graceful and elegant, which is funny when you consider that a fellow sweeping the floor of the Pierce-Arrow factory was asked to be the model. After attending archery classes to add realism to the pose, Albert Gonas used his broom for the arrow.