Saturday, 11 February 2012


From 1909 to 1925 the Mercer Automobile Company flourished and performed good works in Trenton, New Jersey. Mercer made two-seaters, four- and five-passenger touring cars and limousines of superior mechanical quality. From 1910 until 1915 the company made a two-seater, called a ‘Raceabout’, designed both for racing and ordinary road use and powered by a big four-cylinder T-head engine. Of the perhaps 800 specimens of this model produced – the company made only 150 a year – about 21 are known to survive today. There are American cars that rank higher in rarity than the Mercer Raceabout, but no car ever built in America is more sought after or more prized. There are two reasons: the sports cars of the years between 1900 and World War I were starkly functional, unburdened by frills or the weight of useless metal, a characteristic much to be desired; and of all the many contemporary two-seaters, the lean, high-striding Mercer is indisputably the best-looking. Second, most antique automobiles are not at all fast, and this one is. A good Mercer Raceabout will cruise all day at 60, show 70 or more on demand, and it has the steering and the road-holding to go with its speed.

This is the story of a car like that, a car which spent World War I blocked up in a garage, World War II hidden from metal salvagers in a grove of poplar trees in Canada.

In the October 1948 issue of True I had a piece on sports cars, and in it said: ‘…The hardest-to-get American car today is no streamlined Detroit wonder wagon; it’s the Mercer Raceabout made before World War I. Dumb luck may get you one of these New Jersey-built sports jobs, but mere money won’t….’

One Saturday night towards the end of that month a man named Don Brown walked into a drugstore in the tiny Canadian town of Delburne, in the province of Alberta. He picked up a copy of True, leafed through it and came upon the sports-car story. There was a picture of a Mercer, a 1919 model. Mr. Brown had a Mercer himself and had never seen a photograph of another. He bought the magazine. The next night he sat down and took pen in hand.

…You speak of the Mercer Raceabout of before World War I. I thought it might be of interest to you to know that there is at least one still undiscovered, so to speak. I have it stored away near here. I bought this car in 1932. It is a 1912 model. The party who sold me the car – one Joseph Steele – told me that the mileage showing was all the actual mileage it had done: 14.413.Really it is a wonderful car to drive. It has a terrific burst of power and handles far nicer that any 1948 car – you can really see what you’re doing and where you’re going. Mr. Steele had a certificate to the effect that the car made 90 m.p.h. on a dirt track in California in 1913 – I think it was near Santa Monica.1 I had it to about 70 on a gravel highway, but that was all I felt like taking, the road being what it was….

Ten days or so later Mr. Brown had an answer, and thus began a correspondence that lasted for five months. I told Brown what I knew bout Mercers and their value, and Brown on his part sent photographs of the car and described it exactly. A price was finally agreed upon, and Mr. Brown ordered a goods wagon reserved. The despatch of the car from Delburne was not without incident. Brown wrote:

…I got up at5 a.m., took the truck and my hired man and we went and towed her in. We had it in the car by 7.45. Well, we had breakfast and then went back and fastened it. You needn’t worry about that. It isn’t going to move an inch, and it wouldn’t if it went to California and back. I wrapped both axles with burlap and chained them bolts run through the freight car floor and double-locked underneath. Then we built a cribbing of 4 x 4 timber around the Mercer. The car was sealed and no other goods will be put into it along the way.

It was about 11.30 when I went to the station to fix up the shipping bills and the agent said that I would have to have those forms from the American Consul. I phoned them in Calgary and then the fun started. They said they had to know the date it came into Canada, who brought it in, the Port of Entry, size of shoe I wear, my grandmother’s birthstone, etc., etc. They said I would have to come to Calgary, they couldn’t do all this over the phone. We got there at 4 o’clock and I got home about 3 a.m.

Apart from being cut out of the train and stuck on a siding in the wilds of Quebec for several days, the Mercer had an uneventful ride, and in about three weeks the railway announced somewhat waspishly that the Mercer was in the yards and would somebody please come and get it, lest $18 a day demurrage be added to the $540 bill for carriage.

Fortunately, I didn’t go to pick up the car alone. If I had, I’d have cut my throat. For while Mr. Brown’s description of the car was entirely accurate, the appearance of a car that has not felt a paint brush for 37 years practically defies description. Mr. Conrad Lofink, who had undertaken to restore the car, went with me. Mr. Lofink is a man of maturity and wisdom who was working on automobiles when most people thought they’d never displace the horse. He has the sloped shoulders of the enormously strong and a mind crammed with such unlikely information as the bore and stroke of the 1908 Isotta-Franschini and the valve clearances of the 1916 Locomobile. Lofink restored a number of cars in the famous James Melton collection.

‘As of this minute,’ Mr. Lofink announced, happily surveying the grisly-looking automobile, ‘I think this is the best Mercer I ever saw. Take a pull on the handle.’

I did, and wonder of wonders the engine turned over easily and smoothly.

‘It’s beat up on the outside – though not half as bad as some I’ve seen – but as far as I can tell now it’s never been left ungreased, and that’s a miracle,’ he said. ‘Let’s get it on the truck and take it home.’

Someone had rigged up a home-made leather wind-breaker incorporating a Model T windscreen, and this we ripped off and left in the goods yard. The head-lamps, also Ford, were thrown away too, and so were the tyres. The upholstery was completely gone. Oddly enough the wood throughout the car was solid, including the artillery wheels. It was all discarded, nonetheless.

Lofink had been right about the internal workings of the car. There was not a spot of rust anywhere, and every working surface was covered with grease or oil. The two-ring pistons had been extensively drilled out for lightness, presumably at Barney Oldfield’s order, the connecting rods had been machined down and an enormous amount of metal had been turned off the flywheel. The Mercer Raceabout was guaranteed to do a mile in 51 seconds new, and there was every reason to believe that this one, restored to factory condition, would be even faster. Except for piston rings and the replacement of the second-speed gear which was missing, no new parts were needed.

An old car cannot be effectively restored if it isn’t taken apart practically to the last nut and bolt. The engine was taken out of the Mercer, the body removed, and the wheels – except for the hubs, of course – thrown away. The frame was then scraped to bare metal and repainted. New hickory wheels were made up, the wooden framework in the tail replaced with ash, a new dashboard and sills (they cover the main chassis members) made of mahogany. New seats were made and sent away to be upholstered in red morocco, and all the brass on the car, which is plenty, was laboriously polished.

There were bits and pieces missing, of course: a certain kind of brass bolt here, a fitting of another kind there. Usually Mr. Lofink solved these problems by climbing into the attic of his garage, where his friends suspect he keeps one of everything ever made for an automobile. Other components were dug up around the country by dint of diligent correspondence. A pair of brass headlamps came from Florida, a bulb-horn from Kingston, New York, a hood-strap from Washington, D.C. The engine, stripped, reassembled and steam-cleaned, was dropped into the chassis finally, bare of paint and upholstery. When the question of putting a starter on the car had come up, Mr. Lofink had said it was unnecessary, and he had promised that when he had finished setting up the engine it would start at one pull of the crank, stone cold or red hot. He was right. The car started at a touch and went like a bomb. It came out of the pain shop in September. It had been in work for six months and careful book-keeping showed that there was just under $4000 in it, purchase and transportation included. If this seems a lot, it must be recalled that even a firm ready and willing to make wood-spoked wheels (and you won’t find one in the phone book!) must spend several days setting up machinery to duplicate a wheel pattern exactly; if enamel is replaced in a hub-cap it must be done by a ceramist or it won’t last; a craftsman capable of first-grade upholstery work in fine leather cannot be expected to charge slip-cover prices. Old-fashioned 34 x 4 ‘Non Sid’ tyre are not expensive at $182.50 a set, considering what you’d have to pay to get some if Firestone didn’t carry them in stock!

Although driving a Mercer may have a high per-mile cost, nothing the writer has ever sat in offered half as much sheer enjoyment. The enormous attraction of the Mercer derives from its starkness. There are no useless gadgets. Everything on the car contributes something. Visibility? You can see the ground under the right front wheel! You can gauge a corner literally to one inch, and the merest twitch of the steering-wheel will pull you around the car ahead of you. You have to pay for this quickness, of course: it takes muscle to turn a wheel that goes only one and a quarter turns from full right to full left. The men who drove these cars in the great races of the years before World War I were men indeed: Pullen, Hughes, de Palma, Wishart, Barnes, Knipper, Bigelow. In May 1912 Ralph de Palma drove a Raceabout 150.506 miles in 130 minutes 43 seconds, an average of 69.54 miles per hour – on a road course. The next day he took the same car to Los Angeles and hung up track records for one mile, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 15 and 20. Averages in the high 60’s and 70’s over all kinds of courses at distances up to 500 miles were often made by the Mercer, averages that would not be easy to duplicate today despite all that has been learned about fast motoring in the almost 40 years that have passed.

To put the Mercer into its proper frame of reference, to understand its tremendous appeal for the motorists of its time, one must ponder for a moment the fact that strictly stock Mercers were often taken straight from the show-room to the track. In August of 1912, for example, a stock Type 35C Raceabout was taken from a Columbus, Ohio, showroom floor to a dirt track where it set up new records for distances from 75 to 200 miles. If you can imagine going into an Indianapolis sales-room today and buying a car to take out to the brickyard for an assault on the lap record you can imagine the kind of automobile the Mercer was.

The Mercer was not by any means alone in its field, of course. The stark two-seater was a recognized body type and many other manufacturers turned them out. The Lancia, designed by the great Italian driver, was one of them, and a lovely thing, too. The Lancia was rather small, and very pretty. The National, built in Indianapolis, was another ‘Raceabout’ type, a monster in size. There was the Simplex, too, one of the truly great American automobiles, and the Marion ‘bobcat’. And, of course, the Stutz, the ‘Bearcat’, ‘The Car that Made Good in a Day’.

The Stutz-Mercer rivalry was bitter in the years before World War I, and it still is. The Stutz was a wonderful car, and as a racer it may take pride of place by reason of he fact that Stutzes were still running in competition in 1929, by which time Mercer had given up the ghost. But in the years 1911 -1915, when a ding-dong battle between the two makes enlivened nearly every major American road and track event, the struggle was fairly even. Brutal objectivity might give the decision, by th width of o hair, to Stutz, on the ground of most races won. But the Mercer had the smaller engine of the two, and if the results were weighed on that basis, the Mercer would come out ahead.

The Stutz had a remarkable career. Harry C. Stutz built his first car in five weeks and it ran very well for him in the 1911 Indianapolis race, the first one. That was the year Ray Harroun won with a Marmon, another great U.S. car. Marmons were made until 1933, the big, turbine-smooth V-16 model being properly ranked among the finest automobiles we’ve ever had.

Stutz’s fine showing at the Indianapolis brickyard brought it the slogan, ‘The Car that Made Good in a Day’. An from then until 1935, when the last one came off the line, it was a much-admired carriage. Stutzes ran at Le Mans in 1928, 1929 and 1930. They came in every form, from fast two-seaters to great long-wheelbase town cars, but the best-known were the legendary ‘Bearcats’. There is one fast-growing notion about the Stutz ‘bearcat’ that should be quashed here. That is the belief that the open, bucket-seat racing ‘Bearcat’ was the favourite mount of young bloods in the raccoon coat and hip flash era. Nothing of the sort is true, since the bucket-seat car was not made after 1915 and the bathtub-gin-and-flapper phase of U.S. culture developed after the war. In those days another ‘Bearcat’ appeared – a true roadster, with a top, doors and other refinements. It did share one characteristic with its forebears: the brake and gear levers were out of doors. Even so knowledgeable a writer as John O’Hara has helped assign the earlier ‘bearcat’ to this place of dubious distinction. The Stutz can rightfully claim many an honour. Remember the Stutz DV 32, four valves to the cylinder? Stutz was an early user of safety glass, hydraulic brakes, overhead camshafts.

In my own view, the early ‘Bearcat’ is a gaunt and ugly piece of machinery when laid alongside a Mercer Raceabout for comparison. It has a high and heavy profile, badly misses the lithe look of the Mercer. Anyone who suggests that I am prejudiced is dead right. I am. I think the Mercer was the better car: better in design, better in basic material, and infinitely better in aesthetically. The designer of the T-head Mercers, Finley Robertson Porter, still lives, and if there was ever a man entitled to take pride in work well done, Porter is that man. Only Porter and Bugatti and Bentley of all designers and makers lived to see the fruits of their minds and hands reborn, as it were, and venerated decades later as they had been in their own time.

The Mercer renaissance began around 1935 and reached boom proportions in the middle 1940’s. It brought about an organization formed for the express purpose of idolizing this make of automobile: The Mercer Associates – ‘an order dedicated to the preservation of America’s most famous sports car’. The location, ownership and condition of every running Mercer extant – there are about 95 of all models – is known to members of this California-based club.

Of course there have been angry voices raised in dissent. One such, Theodore B. Brooks, issued public challenge not so long ago: ‘I say phooey!’ said Mr. Books. ‘I think there are many, many makes as good and lots better. In fact, I will be willing to wager one pair of new Haynes driving lamps, black enamel, value $10, against anything of like value that I can trim any stock Mercer built prior to 1915 in a one-mile run-up to a medium steep grade in third speed with my 1912 White seven-passenger touring car….’

It is not recorded that the wager was taken, but the reaction of one Mercer owner was probably typical: ‘Let him make it ten miles, and all gears, and I’ll spot him half a mile and beat him dragging a bobsled behind me.’

It is a misery and a sadness that no American firm is currently in heavy production with a two-seater quality automobile equally suited for high-speed touring and for racing. Weather protection aside, the Mercer offered the ideal combination in its day. A good Mercer is perfectly docile if set to puttering along in fourth, or high gear, and can in fact be throttled down on a hill in high until the driver can almost count the explosions; but you can also drop it into third, bear down on the out-door accelerator pedal and run away from the ordinary modern passenger car, given any kind of a winding road to allow the Raceabout’s cornering ability to make itself felt. This diversion is most fun with the cut-out opened simultaneously with the throttle, a gambit which jars most Sunday drivers to their shoes. My car had an exhaust of sewer-pipe dimensions, much thicker than standard, even for Mercers, and the bark of the four big cylinder could be heard a mile away with no difficulty at all. It is most effectively used on a nice wide highway with lots of traffic. Mr. and Mr. Herman Clot and their brood, sliding up behind, can almost be heard to say: ‘Oh, see the quaint old automobile! Say, it runs pretty good. Must be doing all of 40.’ As they pull alongside so that everybody, including the driver, can stare over for five minutes or so, the plug is pulled (the exhaust being conveniently placed on the left side so that they can get the full benefit of it), bang into third and the hell away from there. It may be five miles before they try to pass again.

Oddly enough this manoeuvre is not usually regarded as offensive, and I was once ill-advised enough to do it to a brace of highway patrolmen without ill-effect. On another occasion a patrol car chased my Mercer for about two miles because the pipe was open. The road was winding, he couldn’t get by, and no-one in the Mercer could hear hi siren over the exhaust. We thought the gendarme was merely a tourist in a black Ford too close tour rear end for comfort. The Mercer was doing a decorous 45 and went no faster until the road widened and the arm of the law, pretty red-faced by then, pulled alongside. The drill on such occasions is to stop promptly, get down quickly, and have the bonnet up, exposing the beauties of the engine, a symphony of brass, copper, grey and red paint, by the time the man gets to you. This offers something to talk about, and takes his mind off his work. Most officers seem to feel that they would look foolish flagging down a car older than they are for speeding, although they are eager to know about lights, insurance, and such details if they come upon you standing. It is a fact, too, that owners of the old cars usually drive very carefully, having due regard for the monetary cost of an accident, and they are apt to be better-than-average drivers, too, because the old ones demand to be driven, not just steered, and they wont tolerate much bone-headedness from the pilot.

Marvel though it be, a Mercer Raceabout is not without its little flaws. The brakes are pretty amusing, for example. Driving a Mercer requires that strict attention indeed be paid to the territory a long way ahead. The foot brake is a contracting type operating on the transmission. Vigorously applied it will slow the car down enough so that you can notice it if you pay attention. I used mine only for helpless old ladies with perambulators, stalled goods trains and similar imperative necessities. The hand brake, sited out of doors, retards through expanding shoes on the rear wheels only. This does a much better job of despeeding the car, although the driver is kept busy setting up a genuine hard stop, five controls being involved in getting a lower gear and applying both brakes – or seven if you want to be fancy and adjust the throttle and spark hand levers, too. The gear change is delightful, smooth and easy, although it has a long travel.

The Mercer’s frame is not as beefy as it might be, and many cars show the results of chassis strain in welds. My car bore two such wound-stripes, possibly due to being run with frozen shock absorbers. The aluminium bearers of engine and transmission are another weak point. Saddest flaw of all, from the passenger’s point of view, is the total omission of wind protection on his side. In addition to the front blast, he gets a sideways eddy from the driver’s windscreen, and the whistling blast up his left leg as he jams his foot against the brass stirrup can be very disconcerting on a cold day. Twenty-five miles at 22 degrees represents the farthest north in winter Mercerizing for me, and on that day neither of us, taking turns driving, had the guts to go faster than 40, despite visions of warming whisky poultices awaiting us at home.

Cart-sprung fore and aft, with Hartford shock absorbers that give ground bitterly and reluctantly, the Mercer puts up quite a hard ride. But while it’s tough on rough roads at low speeds, it levels out nicely when under way, and in any case what movement there is seems natural, like the movement of a horse under you. You sit in the seat, not just on it, both feet are solidly braced, and you feel very safe, no matter what. You couldn’t turn a Mercer over with a derrick.

You never need to worry about anyone’s stealing it, either. It would take a thief a week to figure out how to start it, the complete drill being: (I) Open cylinder primers and turn over engine a few times to put a little oil here and there; (2) Close primers; (3) Fill half-full of petrol, drain and close again; (4) Open cut-out; (5) Switch magneto to intake-side plugs; (6) Set spark and throttle levers; (7) Check fuel pressure; (8) Check gears for neutral; (9) Crank; (10) Switch magneto both sets of plugs; (11) Get in and go some place.

And remember those brakes, Jack.

1 Later investigation indicated that the car had been owned and raced by Barney Oldfield.

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