Buffalo's heritage in the auto industry on display at the Pierce Arrow Museum

Aug 12, 2015

Buffalo's rich heritage in the automobile industry has led to a growing collection of what we'll call "car-tifacts" at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum.  The museum's Founder and Executive Director, James Sandoro, is leading efforts to remember the city's past and make it larger part of our future.

The Pierce Arrow Museum showcases a variety of cars including the Pierce Arrow automobile made here in Buffalo
Credit Cheryl Hagen/WBFO News

James Sandoro used to slip into this neighbor's garage when he was just two-and-a-half years old to get a peek at his Pierce Arrow automobile. "I used to sneak in the garage and slide down the fenders and he'd have a fit about it." recalls Sandoro. "To keep me off of it, he'd give me buttons and pins."

Over the years, his fascination with cars grew and with it a collection of 350,000 automobile-related artifacts, many with roots here in Buffalo.

"Two of the greatest cars of the 20th century were made in Buffalo," says Sandoro. "The Pierce Arrow and the Thomas Flyer car. We have a number of Pierce Arrows and we have one Thomas, which we're lucky to have. There's only about 32 left in the world."

Wall featuring the infamous Thomas Flyer car at the Pierce Arrow Museum
Credit Cheryl Hagen/WBFO News

"There's an illustration on the wall of the car one of the most famous cars in the world it’s probably valued now at $75-million it’s the original car that went around the world made in buffalo the 1908 Thomas Flyer NY to Paris race won by the Thomas Buffalo crew and it’s a world champion we always cry we didn’t win the Super bowl and the Stanley Cup but we did win the greatest race ever held was around the world in 1908."

Sandoro’s passion has thrived.  He is now the Founder and Executive Director of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum on Michigan Avenue.  Sandoro says he's purchased more space on the block and is planning to transform it into the world's largest car museum focusing on Buffalo's significance in the history of the auto industry.

Pierce Arrow Museum showcases Buffalo's automobile history
Credit Cheryl Hagen/WBFO News

"Again I'm a little prejudice but I feel it (Buffalo) was bigger than any other city in the country at the time because we had all those German and English craftsman and mechanics that came up the Erie Canal from New York in the late 1890's and into the early 1900's and saw the water power, saw the electric power. They're machinists. so they started to make carriages and then bicycles and then automobiles."

"Henry Ford, one of his first agencies was here in Buffalo. Chevrolet was here almost form the start. On and on, the history is just unbelievable. That's why we can't wait to get into the new building because we've had these things in storage where we weren’t able to celebrate them. Now we'll have gallery after gallery devoted to Ford in Buffalo, Chevrolet in Buffalo, all the car racing that took place in Buffalo and Fort Erie. Just everyday that something new comes in, it's very exciting. It's like Christmas every day."

Sandoro’s museum occupies an area being eyed for a new downtown stadium. He’s convinced though, it’s good news.

"It’s going to be great for us. They talked about coming on our site which will never happen but it looks like there’s a good chance it’s going to go about 700 feet from us on Michigan across from the casino. If it does, that’s going to be gigantic for the museum for a lot of reasons. One is people are going to be able to come and visit… the other is the museum happens to, through us, own a lot of parking lots, so that could keep the museum in of the black for at least 40 or 50 years.”

Sandoro says there was a time when all the famous car racers came to Buffalo.  He adds that day will come again in 2018.

“The Great Race is patterned after the original but now they go from New York to San Francisco or Texas to different places and they have it every year and they have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of prizes and usually a hundred to a hundred fifty cars enter. If you google it, you’ll hear it’s called the Great Race and we had them come through in 2012 we had 15,000 people in front of the museum and this next time it’s going to be the starting line which means those folks will be here for 4 to 5 days. It’s a big thing for Buffalo.”

Filling station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, built at the the Pierce Arrow Museum
Credit Cheryl Hagen/WBFO News

Many people share Sandoro’s passion for automobiles, from everyday folks to celebrities. You just never know who you’ll find at the Pierce Arrow Museum.

“We had some of the crew from the Rolling Stones Just people want to see our Frank Lloyd Wright filling station, most unusual building he ever designed he designed it for Michigan and Cherry down the street from Buffalo, he never built it, we built it. ”

Sandoro’s favorite visitors though are those with personal ties to Buffalo’s rich automobile history…

“It’s the regular people that come here that I actually have more fun with because they come and say my dad worked at Pierce Arrow my cousin worked there and then we look them up in a data base and sometimes we can tell them about their family things that they didn’t know, that’s the real thrill for us.”