Category Archives: Pierce-Arrow

Modelling a Silent Movie Star’s car

By Richard Nosker

Text and photographs by, and copyright of, the Author except where otherwise acknowledged.

Copyright acknowledged
The model with modelled Fatty on running board

The 1:1 car

A young Harley Earl (1893-1969, and later the head of GM’s Design Division for over 30 years) worked for his father’s company, Earl Automobile Works, in Hollywood, California, designing automobiles.  Young Harley showed good aptitude for this work.  He also mastered the art of presentation and the selling of a design early on. He produced not only full-sized drawings of the proposal for a client, but also built clay models of them, a skill he first learned as a child. The utilisation of both enabled him to promote his concept to a prospect wanting something exclusive and who could well afford the luxury.

Earl was able to get established with the Hollywood crowd by re-modelling a car for the cowboy movie star Tom Mix, but his ‘piece de resistance’ was the next car that he designed and built for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle (1887-1933) was one of the most popular silent stars of the 1910s, and soon became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, signing a contract in 1920 with Paramount Pictures for $1 million US Dollars. His career was derailed after he was accused (and eventually acquitted) of the rape and manslaughter of a young, aspiring actress in 1921. Was Hollywood ever thus? Talking films, by the way, didn’t take over until the early 1930s. Colour photography was about 1935.

And here is a picture of Fatty’s house in 1919, in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.  The 1:43 scale model and Fatty have been “placed” in the picture.

But back to the important part. Earl used what was perhaps the largest automobile chassis in production at the time, a 1918 Pierce-Arrow Model 66 with a 147.5-inch wheelbase that was powered by an enormous 855 T-head six cylinder engine.

With this impressive platform Harley first started out by designing special hubs and sharply-dished wooden-spoked wheels constructed of Burmese teak that were fitted with nickel-plated rims and light grey tires. For the coachwork, he started with a clean slate and designed a magnificent and totally custom built touring car body, radiator, hood, and fenders. The bright blue creation was trimmed with nickel-plated accents. The interior was finished in fine leather with a spectacular curved wooden vanity on the back of the front seats.

The creation and its design was started at the Earl Automobile Works in 1918 or 1919, but it was finished and delivered to Arbuckle by the Don Lee Coach and Body Works (who had bought Earl’s company). The May 2, 1920 Los Angeles Times reported on the just finished car: “Arbuckle’s Car Is A Genuine Knockout”, and went on to state that “ten-thousand people had filed through the Don Lee showroom in a few days just to see the car that cost $25,000”.

Restored by Lon Kruger of Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2007, this Pierce-Arrow has taken best-in-class awards at Pebble Beach (in 2007) and Amelia Island (in 2009), and in 2015 captured Best in Show at the Pinehurst, and in 2016 in Boca Raton. Once part of the Blackhawk Collection, the seven-foot-tall, 7000 pound touring car (built without windshield wipers or even side curtains, a nod to its Southern California roots) was purchased in 2014 by Robert S. Jepson, Jr. of Savannah, Georgia.

The 1:43 scale car.

There are very few 1:43 cars to choose from when selecting starting points to build a car like this.  A 1926 Solido Hispano Suiza gave its body & chassis to the cause, but those parts had to be sectioned in multiple ways to get the right proportions.  Such an “oversized” car was able to use parts from 1:32 scale models too!

This is a famous, and historically significant, car, and would be worthy of some manufacturer’s effort to make a model of such a spectacular vehicle for model collectors.

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