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by Doug Carpenter

If you ever had a car that you loved… I mean really loved, you already understand Jim Sandoro. You and he — in fact most of us here in Western New York — share a very special bond. Cars.

Of the many positive distinctions to which our community can proudly lay claim, there’s no arguing with the fact that automobiles are a big part of our history and our identity. Just how big a part you might not fully appreciate until you’ve spent a few hours talking cars with Sandoro. The man definitely knows cars.

He should. He’s lived them.

“My first car memory was when I was three or four years old,” he says. “We lived on Lisbon Avenue between Eggert and Bailey. The grandfather of the family next door was a chauffeur for a wealthy family. But during World War II, they couldn’t get tires for their car — a Pierce-Arrow, so they gave it him. He put it up on blocks in his garage, and there it sat,” he adds, off the road but not off the radar of one very curious little boy.

“There was always this mystique about that car,” he recalls, the awe still detectable in his voice. “We were told ‘Do not play on the Pierce-Arrow.’” With its great sloping fenders, it was, of course, irresistible. So even though it was clearly “taboo,” up they’d climb and down they’d slide, experiencing thrills he could hardly have known would turn into a lifelong fascination.

“It just intrigued me. What was so important about this car that I couldn’t play on it?” Ultimately intrigued gave way to curious, which led to studied attention to a subject that wasn’t covered in the school books of the day. But it was, he learned, a major chapter in the story of Buffalo’s automotive heritage.

O.K. That was the late ’40s. Let’s fast forward 10 years or so and rejoin our budding car buff, now living only a few blocks from the North Buffalo site of the original Pierce-Arrow factory at Elmwood and Great Arrow… which was, he points out, actually named for the car, an indication of just how big a presence the company was in its heyday.

Growing up in shadow of automotive history had a very telling effect on him, Sandoro says. While his friends were drawn to the neglected Pierce-Arrow building for the rock-throwing target value of its windows, he was busy searching for automotive “artifacts” of its grander days. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, that when it came time for a now 18-year-old Sandoro to buy his first car in 1962, it was a Ford Model A coupe, circa 1930.

It cost him all of $100, but to a young man starting what would be a lifelong automotive affair of the heart, it was priceless. It was also a key intersection in the road trip of events that would eventually impact not just his future but, as you’ll see, Western New York’s as well. But let’s not put the cart before the horsepower. There’s still a car to get to know: the legendary Pierce-Arrow.

Having a passion for antique cars, Sandoro concedes, is a mixed blessing. Aside from the fact that his precious Model A clearly couldn’t have registered very high on the ’60s “Cool Meter,” there was also the matter of recapturing its former glory. Unable to find anyone else willing to tackle the restoration job, Sandoro had little choice but to dive in and do the work himself. And once he started, he never looked back.

Even with detours that took him through earning a law degree and working as a law clerk, all roads seemed to lead Sandoro to the same destination. Without really trying, he became the personification of the old adage that the secret to success is to do one thing and do it well. The realization that he loved automobiles, their culture and their history left very little doubt what that one thing would be.

At 60, Jim Sandoro is at a crossroad in what has become a remarkable journey. His early interest in vintage cars progressively picked up speed over the 40some intervening years, and today he is among the most sought-after experts in that field. It’s taken him quite literally across the country and around the world.

In his capacity as a consultant, he helped international car manufacturer Mitsubishi launch the first antique vehicle auction in Japan. And on the more colorful side of the profession, he’s provided similar services to some pretty well-known celebrities, counting stars like Jay Leno and Steve McQueen among his personal friends.

Stateside, as secretary of the National Association of Auto Museums, he’s visited nearly every one in America. And throughout these travels, he emphasizes, everything he’s learned has helped shape his vision and strengthen his commitment to what he sees as the culmination of his lifetime love affair with the legacy of the Pierce-Arrow and Western New York’s rich automotive history.

With the support of other local individuals and companies who share his passion, Sandoro founded the non-profit Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in 1997, which he now serves as Executive Director. When fully realized, the project promises to put Buffalo back on the map as a major transportation destination. It’s already off to a roaring start.

He started by purchasing a building in downtown Buffalo at Michigan Avenue and Seneca Street that appropriately enough housed Mack trucks from the late 1930s into the ’50s. He completely renovated it to create a 20,000 sq. ft. home for the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, which opened to the public in 2001 with an enormously successful celebration of the centennial of the Buffalo-built Pierce-Arrow automobile.

But that’s just the first of many new chapters Sandoro plans to add to the area’s vehicular history. And considering the rich tradition he aspires to continue, that’s no small ambition. Buffalo, after all, has quite an impressive automotive pedigree.

Without someone to keep the memory alive, think how easily it might be all but forgotten that, at the dawn of the 20th century when the automobile was in its infancy, Buffalo was a powerful player in that surging industry. Between 1901 and 1938, for example, we produced some 85,000 Pierce-Arrow luxury vehicles.

That included not only cars for every U.S. President from Roosevelt to Roosevelt as well as Princes and Shahs but more than 14,000 combat zone vehicles for the American military during the first World War… many of which can still be found in museums and barns across Europe. It’s no wonder that more than 75 years later, the name Pierce-Arrow still retains a world-class cachet.

At its peak, a drive down Main Street from Fillmore to the waterfront would’ve taken you past a bustling amalgam of thriving businesses all catering to the city’s substantial automotive clientele, drawn to Buffalo from throughout the northeastern U.S. and Canada. As home to dozens of auto market businesses, Western New York was a hot commodity.

Trico made the first windshield wipers here, which became standard equipment on virtually every vehicle by the 1920s. The first American-made Dunlop tire rolled off that company’s Tonawanda production line in 1923. Buffalo Wire Wheels were a must-have for the owners of the finest luxury cars, as were Fedders Radiators and Houdaille shock absorbers. And then there was the legendary Thomas Flyer.

Talk about making history. With Buffalonian George Schuster Sr. at the wheel, that Buffalo-made vehicle bested competitors from around the world to win the Great New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908, a grueling 22,000-mile competition that spanned more than three continents over 169 days.

Like the centennial of the Pierce-Arrow automobile that highlighted Sandoro’s museum opening in 2001, the Thomas Flyer victory and the approaching 100th anniversary of the Pierce-Arrow plant are kind of proud Buffalo accomplishments that call for celebration. And that’s exactly why he has even more ambitious plans warming up in his garage… events he’s confident will generate both excitement and tourism for Buffalo and return it to its rightful place of prominence in the transportation pantheon.

Sandoro has always believed that Western New York should have a transportation museum befitting its ample contributions to the field. And for all he has already accomplished in that regard, he’s far from finished. Like the automotive pioneers he seeks to honor, he has a larger vision… one that’s on the verge of being fulfilled on a grand scale.

When the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum hosts the planned Pierce-Arrow factory centennial July 10 through 15, 2007, Sandoro says it won’t be the same facility at Michigan and Seneca that you can visit today. Once work gets underway, hopefully by this Spring, it will be well on its way to becoming the world-class transportation celebration venue Buffalo deserves.

Sandoro says that even at its currently considerable capacity, the museum can only showcase a small portion of its vast collection. In addition to the dozens of cars and trucks he has personally acquired — ranging from Model A’s, Pierce-Arrows and Stutz Bearcats to vintage fire trucks, “muscle” cars and even the first motorized golf carts — museum supporters’ donations continue to expand its fascinating assortment of vehicles and transportation memorabilia.

But just as early 20th century Buffalo met the needs of the new automobile industry, Buffalo’s Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum is rising to meet this challenge as well, with an expansion of remarkable scale. Fueled by a $3 million grant from New York State supplemented by additional community and foundation funding, over the next two years the existing museum is scheduled to grow to more than three times its present size, adding not only more exhibit space and a 150-seat theater but some other unique and historic features.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the expansion project involves a very familiar name that you might not immediately associate with things automotive. internationally-respected architect Frank Lloyd Wright is highly esteemed locally for having designed both the University at Buffalo’s Darwin D. Martin House on Jewett Parkway and Graycliff, the Martin family’s equally impressive lakefront Summer estate in Derby.

What you might not have known is that back in the 1920s, Wright had also designed a filling station that was intended to be built in Buffalo at the corner of Michigan and Cherry but never was. It was yet another local architectural gem that might’ve been lost to us forever but which, thanks to the enthusiasm and initiative of Jim Sandoro, will soon live again.

Built to the designer’s original specifications, the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station, accompanied by a nearly-6,000 sq. ft. lube station, will be a prominent feature of the expanded Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. In its honor, adjacent Carroll Street has already been officially renamed “Frank Lloyd Wright Way.”

Sandoro believes that the project will perfectly compliment both Buffalo’s proud automotive past and the area’s desire to enhance its appeal as a travel destination. “Our location places us right at the gateway to Buffalo’s waterfront,” he notes, positioning the expanded complex to potentially attract 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a year to an area that, he points out, has so much more to offer that simply has gone undiscovered. With the arrival of new lures like the planned Bass Pro super store just up the street, he believes the time is ripe to cast a bigger net and reel in more tourist traffic.

“I think our future for Buffalo is celebrating our past,” he contends, emphasizing “Not living in it, but celebrating it.” He adds that it offers us the opportunity to enhance our area’s prospects for tomorrow while assuming our rightful responsibility for preserving and protecting prized possessions from yesterday. And not just the historic objects like classic cars and vintage buildings, but memories, as well.

One of the most unique services the museum offers Western New York is the way it has effectively fashioned itself into a memory bank for the Pierce-Arrow era. Sandoro says it maintains a growing database of information about the company’s activities and the lives of the people who worked there. He notes that the community is welcomed and encouraged to contact him to inquire about relatives and ancestors who were associated with the company and to contribute new information to the shared recollection of that important chapter in our history.

Seen through Sandoro’s eyes, all the vintage vehicles, and the stories of the people who owned and drove them, don’t really belong to us. History belongs to history. “We’re just caretakers,” he believes, looking after things for the generations still coming down the road. “That’s why we have to protect it and save it properly and tell the story now.” Do anything less, he says, and we risk losing something even more irreplaceable.

Our knowledge of who we were. Our understanding of who we are. And our appreciation of who we may yet become.


The Buffalo Transportation
Pierce-Arrow Museum

Corner Michigan Avenue
and Seneca Street
Buffalo, New York 14203
(716) 853-0084

Adults: $7 • Seniors: $6
Children 6-17: $3 • Under 6: Free

© 2005 Doug Carpenter