Dave Uihlein’s 1912 Mercer 35-R raceabout stopped me in my tracks at the August Masterpiece of Style in Milwaukee.
I immediately thought back to a day in 1966, shortly after I had started attending classes at Staten Island Community College. An old office building, located not far from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, was part of the school’s campus and parked outside the building on that sunny fall afternoon was a flatbed truck with a school-bus yellow Mercer on it. My fellow students paid no attention to the ancient sports car, but I spent about a half an hour examining its under-slung chassis, big brass headlamps, age-crazed leather bucket seats and cylindrical fuel tank.
I have no idea where the car came from or where it was going, but I was in awe of the magnificent marigold-colored machine. When my next class started, I was forced to leave the car. By the time my lesson was over the car was gone, although it left a lasting impression on my old-car psyche.
In early October, at the Barrington Concours d’Elegance in Illinois, another yellow Mercer was entered in the Horseless Carriage class. This 1912 Model 35-J Raceabout belonged to Dr. Herbert Lederer of South Barrington. In addition to being a splendid beast of a car, it inspired me to break out some history books and delve into the virtues of the Trenton, N.J. built marque.
Automotive collector and author Ralph Stein once described the Mercer Raceabout as, “One of those rare, almost chance combinations of mechanism and bodywork that seem almost magically to turn out exactly right in performance, handling and looks.”
Washington Roebling II — a member of the family that put up the legendary Brooklyn Bridge — was the man who crafted the looks of the Mercer Raceabout. Finley Robertson Porter, the company’s chief engineer, told Stein that the car was made before automakers had styling departments, but that it was Roebling who insisted on the low center of gravity that dictated the Mercer’s appearance. He partnered with several members of the wealthy Kuser Family to finance Mercer production and then developed the car’s racy lines. The Mercer name came from New Jersey’s Mercer County, where Trenton is located.
As a point of history, Finley Robertson Porter left Mercer in 1914 to start his own company. He produced a handful of F.R.P. automobiles with 170-hp single-overhead-cam four-cylinder engines through 1918. An F.R.P. was the top car on William F. Harrah’s wanted-vehicles list for some time.
Mercer Type 35 Raceabouts began rolling out of the factory in 1911 and about 500 were built between then and 1914. Unfortunately, Washington Roebling was not around after 1912. He perished when the Titantic sank that year. His brothers F.W. Roebling and C.G. Roebling, remained involved with Mercer until 1918.
A 5-liter (298-cid) T-head engine with a 4 3/8 x 5-inch bore and stroke pushed the Type 35 down the road at a good clip. The 1911 sales catalog promised, “The Type 35-R has been produced to meet the growing demand for a high-speed, high-grade, moderate-priced racing car which a private individual may take out on the road and safely and consistently drive at a speed between 70 and 80 miles per hour.” The mighty Mercer’s muscular T-head engine was rated at 58 hp.
The Raceabout’s bodywork was constructed of aluminum to keep the weight down and increase highway speeds. There was actually little to the coachwork other than fenders, a hood with a big leather strap, a cowl, two individual bucket seats and a tank that held 25 gallons of fuel and 5 gallons of extra oil. All of this sold for $2,500 (35-R) or $2,600 (35-J), complete with the big, drum-style brass headlamps, a tombstone radiator (also brass), a cowl-mounted brass spotlight, a monacle windshield and a rear-mounted spare tire.
Mercer Raceabouts were piloted in competition by drivers such as Barney Oldfield, Eddie Pullen, Ralph DePalma, Spencer Wishart and Caleb Bragg. Hughie Hughes drove one in the first Indy 500, but could only manage a 12th place finish. A year later, he returned to take third place, though his car was one of the smallest in the event.
In 1912, DePalma took one of the cars to the Los Angeles Speedway and averaged 80.5 mph over 20 miles. The cars also won many races from coast to coast and did particularly well in the famed Elgin Road Races. A Mercer placed fourth at the Indy 500 in 1913. The next year, Pullen averaged 87.8 mph in the Corona Road Race in California.
In his 1973 book “Runabouts and Roadsters,” my good friend Bob Stubenrauch wrote of the smooth-shifting four-on-the-floor transmission, which enthusiasts often compared to the gearboxes in then-modern sports cars. “One car buff who has driven a restored 35-J at 80 mph confided that it was the first machine of that vintage in which he had ever felt reasonably secure,” said Stubenrauch. “The one exception to complete peace of mind would be brakes; one has to allow a large stretch of highway to slow down the brute with its internal expanding shoes on the rear wheels only.”
In 1915, Erik Delling took over as Mercer’s chief engineer and designed an L-head four-cylinder engine that was smoother than the T-head and had 15 additional horsepower. However, the new engine did not keep up with improvements made by competing makes of cars. Nevertheless, Mercers remained in the high-performance class, although they moved up to higher prices in the $3,500 range. The higher prices hurt sales, as did the outbreak of World War I. In 1918, the last of the Roebling Brothers died.
Mercer was reorganized in 1919 and continued building Series 4 and Series 5 Raceabouts, but output declined steadily over the next six years. Only 135 cars were built in 1925, Mercer’s final season. A revival was tried in 1931, but the Great Depression put a quick end to that final effort.