Mercer was an American automobile manufacturer from 1909 until 1925. It was notable for its high-performance cars, especially the Type 35 Raceabout.
|Headquarters||New Britain, Connecticut, United States|
There was considerable talent and backing for the Mercer Automobile Company; Ferdinand Roebling, son of John A. Roebling, was the president, and his nephew Washington A. Roebling II was the general manager. The Roeblings had extensive success with wire rope manufacturing and suspension bridge design; engineering was not a recent concept for them. The secretary-treasurer was John L. Kuser, who, with his brothers Frederick and Anthony, had amassed a fortune from banking, bottling and brewing.
Washington A. Roebling II was friends with William Walter, who had been making a small number of high-quality automobiles in New York City. The Kusers owned a vacant brewery in Hamilton, New Jersey, and brought Walter and his car factory there in 1906. However, Walter found himself deeply in debt by 1909, so the Roeblings and Kusers bought him out in a foreclosure sale. They changed the company name to Mercer, named after Mercer County, New Jersey. Talented designers and race drivers contributed to the new effort, and the focus became proving their product in competition.
The Mercer Automobile Company was established in 1909 by the Roebling family, creators of tensioned wire rope suspension bridges, embodied by the Roebling-built Brooklyn Bridge. The company was crippled early on by the deaths of its Roebling family leaders, but it survived until 1925, when it was renamed the Mercer Motors Company, signaling its acquisition by Hare’s Motors, a joint venture with Simplex and Locomobile. During that short early period, however, it was responsible for one supremely important, successful, and significant automobile.
The Mercer Type 35R Raceabout defined the concept of “sports car” long before it became a common description. The T-head-powered Type 35R was recognized from its introduction for elemental appearance, ample power, and, most importantly, the hard to define but easy to recognize attribute of “balance.” It won races and the hearts and admiration of sporting drivers from its inception.
Few automobiles can claim the distinction of having remained valuable throughout their histories. The Mercer Type 35R is one of them, as they have always had appreciative long-term owners, in whose hands their combination of style and performance have been carefully preserved and they have been frequently and enthusiastically exercised.
Owning a Mercer Type 35R has rarely been about starched shirts, manicured lawns, champagne receptions, perfect paint, and brilliant brass. These superlative machines are more likely to see gravel roads, dirt ovals, road circuits, and high-speed tours. But the highest-profile collections of the most serious, informed, and discerning automobile enthusiasts contain, or aspire to contain, an example, as a Mercer is an essential element in the automobile's history and a source of a limitless supply of driving endorphins.
MERCER TYPE 35R EVOLUTION
The Roeblings were always looking for new technical and commercial opportunities, as the wire rope business was starting to become more competitive and less profitable, and they approached the automobile as an engineering puzzle. Determined to build a quality, high-performance automobile, they proceeded carefully and empirically.
At the instigation of Washington A. Roebling II, the grandson of company patriarch John A. Roebling, the family's budding enterprise learned by association with like-minded pioneers, eventually assimilating the best ideas of the Étienne Planche-designed Roebling-Planche, William Walter’s Walter automobile, and the short-lived but promising Sharp-Arrow of William and Fred Sharp to form the basis of the first Mercer automobile, which was introduced in 1910 and powered by a four-cylinder L-head Beaver engine.
That same year, the Roeblings and their commercial partners from the Kuser family added the final element required to complete the Model 35R when they hired self-taught designer Finley Robertson Porter. Both Washington Roebling and Finley Porter espoused racing as a way to demonstrate their automobile’s capability and cement the Mercer’s identity into the public's consciousness.
In the Roebling-Planche and Sharp-Arrow Runabouts, Mercer had the basis for the lightweight live axle, leaf-spring, shaft-drive chassis it needed, but they were powered by purchased engines. The remaining element was its own better engine, which would complement the chassis and give Roebling and Porter the high-performance, competitive automobile they both wanted. The Mercer Type 35R was the result, and it more than met its constructors’ goals.
THE MERCER TYPE 35R
With the Mercer Type 35R, Porter took a substantially different approach from competitors who resorted to larger and larger displacement engines, relying on brute force to achieve the power to be competitive. Porter relied on the superior breathing of cross-flow porting to squeeze power from a smaller engine. According to noted Mercer authority Fred Hoch, Porter’s T-head combustion chamber ran reliably and produced unprecedented power, with a compression ratio of 6.5:1, while most contemporary engines were 4.5:1 or less.
This is the simplest of automobiles, as it had just four cylinders with a 4?-inch bore and 5-inch stroke, for a total displacement of just 301 cubic inches, or five liters. Blocks were cast in pairs and mounted on an aluminum crankcase, in T-head configuration, with intake valves on the right and exhaust valves on the left. In 1911, ignition was supplied by a Bosch high-tension magneto, with fuel supplied by a single Fletcher updraft carburetor. The engine was mated to a three-speed selective transmission with a multi-disc clutch, and the whole setup was mounted on a chassis with live axles and a mere 108-inch wheelbase. Stopping this machine was accomplished with a mechanical driveshaft foot brake and hand-operated mechanical rear-wheel brakes.
Although the Mercer sales catalogue acknowledged the rating at just 30.6 ALAM horsepower, it also stated that the actual output of the Type 35R was a minimum of 58 brake horsepower at 1,700 rpm. When analyzing the performance of the Raceabout, correspondence between Bill Harrah and Austie Clark in 1958 substantiates that there was no specialized Raceabout engine block, although experts acknowledge that the bore for the 35R is a slightly smaller 4? inch, compared to the 4½ inch used on other models later on.
Simple is frequently very good, and the Mercer T-head Type 35R is very good indeed. It could be driven from a dealer's showroom straight to the starting line of any race of its day, commit itself with honor, frequently with laurels, and then be driven home for a leisurely Sunday tour. The Mercer Type 35R’s concept is best described by Finley Porter’s observation years later in an interview with Henry Austin Clark Jr., which was published in the program of the 1952 New York Motor Sports Show, where he stated, “We sold racing cars to the public.”
Mercer entered two Type 35Rs in the first 500-mile race at Indianapolis. Aside from three 284-cubic inch Cases, none of which finished the race, the Mercers were the smallest engines in the field, barely half the size of the 597-cubic inch Simplexes. Yet, both Mercers finished, with Hughie Hughes covering all 200 laps in 12th place and Charles Bigelow, who had brought Mercer its first win in the Panama Pacific Light Car race in San Francisco in February, flagged home in 15th.
It is said that Hughes and Bigelow then remounted the Mercers’ lights and fenders and drove them back to Trenton—a feat that took place on the rudimentary tracks that passed for roads between cities of the time and may be as formidable as beating Howdy Wilcox's 589-cubic inch National or the 520-cubic inch Benz of Bob Burman.
Famed drivers of the day flocked to Mercer, endorsing its qualities with their illustrious names, such as Caleb Bragg, Barney Oldfield, and Ralph DePalma, and filling record books with wins. Austie Clark in one of his “Young Nuts and Old Bolts” columns in Old Cars Weekly recounts some of the Mercer Type 35R’s other important triumphs: 1st and 2nd in the 1911 Light Car Race at Elgin, backed up by a 3rd place in the later Big Car Race; 1st and 2nd at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia; a highly publicized winner of the Savannah Challenge Trophy; Ralph DePalma’s 300-inch class win at Santa Monica on May 4, 1912, backed up by eight new speedway records the following day; and Spencer Wishart’s 200-mile victory at Columbus, reportedly in a Mercer fresh off a dealer’s showroom floor. Although, there was no Mercer dealer in Columbus, and the car was probably fresh off of a railroad flatcar from Trenton, not that it made much difference.
As noted by respected collector George Wingard in his Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing, “Many of the Mercer wins during 1911 and 1912 were, however, documented ‘stock Raceabouts’ by the AAA Contest Board. It would seem that 1911 would probably have been the most likely year for ‘stock car’ wins, and in that year, Mercer Raceabouts captured an unprecedented number of first-place wins.” If anything, the racing accomplishments of the Mercer were understated, as there were many events held on dirt tracks that were not AAA-sanctioned; therefore, the surviving record of results is incomplete.
As strong as their performances were, it was ordinary, if wealthy, buyers to whom the Mercer Type 35R appealed, as it was a car that could be bought, driven straight to a race track, and, with or without its road equipment, driven to a strong placing, if not outright victory. It was this ability to be a winner in the hands of top drivers and competitive even in the hands of amateurs that made the Mercer Type 35R a legend.
Finley Porter left Mercer at the end of the Roebling family's management in 1914. Production through that year and the end of Finley Robertson's T-head engine is approximated by the Mercer Associates at around 1,830 cars. Of those, they believe that fewer than a quarter of these were Raceabout models, with only eight 1911 Mercers known to exist. This survival rate over the intervening century is nothing short of amazing, especially in light of in-period racing, road accidents, and wartime scrap drives.
According to the 1913 New England Auto List, chassis 354 was owned by Frank L. Coes, of Worcester, Massachusetts, with an address at 2 Coes Square. The Coes family owned a prominent and successful company that made hand tools, and it was successful enough that Coes owned both the Mercer, likely from new, and an American touring car. That Frank Coes was a man of diverse interests is evident from a newspaper report in the Daily Boston Globe on June 7, 1930, which reports “the discovery of a $35,000 beer brewing plant in the basement of the Coes Wrench Company plant at Coes sq [sic].” Charges against Coes were dismissed three weeks later, “on a technicality,” according to another Daily Boston Globe article on June 27, which featured the U.S. Commissioner's observation “that he saw no other way than to discharge Mr. Coes, but morally he could not see why Mr. Coes did not know what was going on in the basement of his factory and his office only 10 feet away from the place.”
The Mercer eventually found its way into the hands of another New Englander, William C. Spear Jr., the scion of a prominent Manchester, New Hampshire, family. Spear owned an estimable collection of quality antique automobiles in the late ’30s and early ’50s, including a Curved Dash Olds, a 1904 Mercedes, a 1907 Packard, a 1910 Simplex, a 1913 Silver Ghost, both a 1917 and 1918 Pierce-Arrow, and a 1930 Bentley. He acquired the Mercer Type 35R sometime during the war years and commissioned Hyde Ballard to convert it from Runabout to Raceabout form, which he undertook from 1945 to 1946. Both body styles had the same wheelbase, running gear, brakes, and driveline, making the conversion a relatively simple task of removing the wraparound cowl and lowering the seats and, consequently, the steering wheel rake. The completed car was debuted by Spear at the Spring AACA Meet held at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, in May 1947.
Bill Spear contracted the sports car racing bug in the late ’40s, quickly becoming a Ferrari owner and driver of note, despite the disadvantage of his 6'4", 240-pound frame. He finished 3rd in the first Sebring race in his Ferrari 166MM (s/n 0054M), driving with George Roberts, and he became a SCCA C Modified National Champion in 1953.
His Ferraris, all six of them, along with Aston Martins, Maseratis, and other marques, were maintained in Alfred Momo's shop in Queens, New York, alongside Briggs Cunningham's equipe, and a congenial relationship among Spear, Cunningham, John Fitch, Walt Hansgen, Phil Walters, Jim Kimberley, and other leaders in early post-war American sports car racing ensued. Spear managed the Cunningham team at Le Mans in 1950 and then drove for Cunningham at La Sarthe three times, finishing 3rd overall in 1954, when he drove the Cunningham C-4R with Sherwood Johnson.
Spear joined the Antique Automobile Club of America in 1944, and in 1947, the club published a roster of members and their cars, which included 24 Mercers. Seventeen of them were the pre-1915 Finley Robertson Porter T-heads, and of those, 15 were Raceabouts or Runabouts. Among them, some owners should need no introduction. In addition to Bill Spear, they included Hyde Ballard, David Uihlein, Alec Ulmann, and tenor James Melton. Interestingly, it would not be until years later that the rosters, assembled by the enthusiast club known as the Mercer Associates, would identify this car as the earliest known 1911 T-head Mercer in existence.
As this chapter in Spear's life began to unfold, his Mercer suffered rear axle maladies and was sent to legendary New York City mechanic Charles Stich for repairs. Time went on, Spear's interests were gravitating towards post-war sports cars, and eventually the opportunity arose for the Mercer's penultimate owner, Henry Austin Clark Jr., to enter its history.
Type 35R Raceabout
|Mercer 35 Raceabout|
A fenderless 1912 Mercer 35R Raceabout at the 2007 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Most racing Mercers would have looked like this in period
|Assembly||Trenton, New Jersey|
|Designer||Finley Robertson Porter|
|Body and chassis|
|Engine||293 cu in (4,800 cc) T-head inline-four engine,
55 horsepower (41 kW)
|Transmission||3-speed manual (1911-1913)
4-speed manual (1913-1914)
transmission separate from engine and from final drive
|Wheelbase||108 in (2,700 mm)|
|Curb weight||2,850 lb (1,290 kg)|
|Successor||1915 Mercer Raceabout|
The result was one of the most admired sports cars of the decade; the 1910 Type-35R Raceabout, a stripped-down, two-seat speedster, designed to be "safely and consistently" driven at over 70 mph (110 km/h). It was capable of over 90 mph (140 km/h). The Raceabout's inline 4-cylinder T-head engine displaced 293 cubic inches (4,800 cc) and developed 55 horsepower (41 kW) at 1,650 revolutions per minute. It won five of the six 1911 races it was entered in, losing only the first Indianapolis 500. Hundreds of racing victories followed. The Raceabout became one of the premier racing thoroughbreds of the era- highly coveted for its quality construction and exceptional handling.
In the 1914 road races in Elgin, Illinois, two Raceabouts collided and wrecked. Spencer Wishart, a champion racer who always wore shirt and tie under his overalls, was killed along with the car's mechanic, John Jenter. This prompted the company to cancel its racing program. The Raceabout's designer left the company that year, and subsequent designs did not live up to the glory and appeal the Type-35R had earned.
Harold Higgins (far left) and workers, including driver Eddie Pullen - tool room at Mercer Automobile Co., c. 1910. Photo donated by Janelle Higgins Jones
Earlier in February 1914, Eddie Pullen, who worked at the factory from 1910, won the American Grand Prize held at Santa Monica, California, by racing for 403 mi (649 km) in a Raceabout. Later that same year, Eddie also won The Corona Road Race held in Corona, California, on November 26. For winning the 300-mile (480 km) big car event, Pullen won $4,000 and an additional $2,000 for setting a new world road race record. His average speed of 86.5 mph (139.21 km/h) broke the record of 78.72 mph (126.69 km/h) set by Teddy Tetzlaff at Santa Monica in 1912.
A similar model 1913 Mercer Raceabout, known as a Model 35J, is on permanent display at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, PA, USA.
In October, 1919, after the last involved Roebling brother died (Washington A. Roebling II perished in the 1912 Titanic disaster), the company was obtained by a Wall Street firm that placed ex-Packard vice-president Emlem Hare in charge, organizing Mercer under the Hare's Motors corporate banner. Hare looked to expand, increasing Mercer's models and production, and also purchasing the Locomobile & Crane-Simplex marques. Within a few years, the cost of these acquisitions and the economic recession took a financial toll on Hare's Motors. Locomobile was liquidated and purchased by Durant Motors in 1922, and Mercer produced its last vehicles in 1925, after some 5,000 had been built.
An independent effort to revive the marque in 1931 resulted in only 3 vehicles being constructed and displayed.
The company is currently owned by Fred Hoch of Schaeffer & Long.