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Luscious Lamps: Pierce-Arrow’s hallmark was above the standard

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If you’re into antique cars, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to tell one car from another, especially if it was produced prior to the 1980s, or even the mid-1970s. Buick had its VentiPorts and waterfall grille, Cadillac had its Dagmars, and Studebaker had its bullet nose; and these are examples just from the 1950s. When you look further back, Packard had its uniquely shaped grille shell, and Pierce-Arrow–well, it isn’t hard to spot a Pierce-Arrow, even on today’s show field. The unique fender-mounted headlamps that add an air of elegance to the already opulent Pierce-Arrow first appeared on 1914 models–as an option, no less–and owe their existence to Herbert M. Dawley.

In 1906, the company held a body-design competition, which Dawley entered. The then 26-year-old lost; however, he was able to grab the attention of the company treasurer, Colonel Charles Clifton (later president and chairman of the board). Dawley was hired in 1907 with the understanding that he held no official title, office or duties. For the time being, his sole job was to familiarize himself with Pierce-Arrow as a whole.

Dawley eventually began to act as a liaison between buyers and Pierce-Arrow. He would meet with a buyer and assist him in personalizing his car, from body style and paint color to interiors and accessories. One of his contributions was the “electric chair.” Quite the opposite from that used in capital punishment, this chair was an adjustable seating buck that could be manipulated to a particular driver’s comfort, effectively creating a custom-made front seat.

Enter Jim Way, who at the time was the head of Pierce-Arrow’s styling department, an area that Dawley was stepping ever closer to. At times, the two gentlemen would clash over design elements–customer versus stylist. We mention Way because his personality would have likely prevented Dawley from designing the most recognizable piece in Pierce-Arrow’s history: the fender headlamp.


Dawley first introduced the idea around 1911, according to some sources. From the start, every automobile to leave the P-A assembly line was fitted with gas drum lamps, each mounted low and inside the front fenders. While these lamps illuminated the road immediately in front of the vehicle, distance vision was an issue. Dawley felt that by moving the lamps up high, the illumination would improve during evening excursions.

Clifton gave the nod to begin development, off-site. The initial design was nothing more than simple assemblies: metal fairings surrounding round lamps, which in turn were bolted to the top of the fenders. Once completed, the design was shown to executives and engineers alike and, interestingly, it was not well received. If there was any lighting advantage, it was minimal, at best, and the lamps could easily be knocked out of alignment by a minor collision. Replacing them would be another issue.

Yet, even with the negative feedback, Clifton approved the idea to be offered as an option, beginning with the 1914 model year. This was aided by the advent of electric lamps. The fender lamps quickly became the route almost every buyer took, further setting the Pierce-Arrow apart from the other luxury makes. Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the headlamp saga is that these molded lamps were not offered as standard equipment until 1932. Drum-style headlamps, at that point, were transferred over to the option list.

Our feature Pierce-Arrow is a 1933 Model 1242 . Featuring the immediately identifiable fender headlamps, the car was designed by yet another Dawley-inspired aid: the use of a clay model instead of wood.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2007 issue of Hemmings Motor News.