The Emperor’s Pierce-Arrow
When American cars ruled the world
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
People have always known about particular individual American automobiles sold outside the United States, like the Duke of Windsor’s Buicks and a Middle Eastern potentate’s Cadillac, but almost no one remembers that American cars were the rule rather than the exception overseas between the two world wars. This was true in every price range: Ford was the best-selling car just about everywhere and Packard the leading luxury automobile, with a cachet similar to that of Mercedes-Benz today. Scores of other makes—whether from major corporations such as General Motors or cottage-industry firms like Cunningham—were sought throughout the world for their engineering, finish, and design.
In 1920s Australia—one of the biggest markets, American cars accounted for two-thirds of the fifty thousand or so automobiles registered annually. Packard sales in the state of New South Wales (which includes Sydney) in 1927 roughly equaled Packard sales in Colorado. The full range of American cars went on display each year at the Sydney and Melbourne automobile shows. But the collapse of wool prices at the beginning of 1929 brought the Depression to Australia early. In some months of 1932 not a single Packard was bought in New South Wales, but by the mid-1930s the economy had revived, as it did in the United States, and Packard, with a new, lower-price model, again sold cars in New South Wales at a mid-1920s pace.
Japan imported all its automobiles in the 1920s; in fact, it did not even begin to make its own passenger cars until the early 1930s. The country absorbed approximately eighteen thousand cars a year, about as many as Tennessee or what is now Indonesia. Some 90 percent of them were American-built, and they found more use as commercial vehicles such as taxis than in private hands. The emperor was reported to have a Cadillac town car in the late 1920s; in the early 1930s, a Pierce-Arrow. After World War II started, the Pierce-Arrow factory inventory was sold for scrap to make munitions. Knowing about the car, a Buffalo newspaper ran the headline PIERCE INVENTORY SOLD FOR MUNITIONS; HIROHITO TO GET PARTS BY AIR .
The Philippines, a United States possession, was a captive market. American luxury cars abounded in and around Manila. Much of the country was a series of plantations, and many cars never left them. In the 1920s automobile registrations made news: One Manila newspaper published new owners’ names, license plate numbers, and addresses. Despite the Depression, American military expenditures kept the nation’s small 1930s automobile market buoyant. In 1936, 755 Fords, 82 Chryslers, 6 Fierce-Arrows, and 1 Duesenberg came into the Philippines. With such makes as Graham, Chrysler, Reo, Auburn, and Cadillac also mixed in with older Elcars, Velies, and Gardners, the country was a living museum of the American automobile industry until World War II.