The classic look of a Mercer is still appreciated by car buffs today.
|When the automobile age was still in its infancy, a car conceived by Trenton men, made in Hamilton and driven by a Hamilton daredevil roared its way to the top of the racing world.
It had a snappy name, the Mercer Raceabout, and an even sharper look. The body was sleek and narrow, the engine was a muscular 58-horsepower design and the steering and gearshifting were a dream to behold.
Overall, the Raceabout was regarded — and still is — as a perfectly blended package of speed and finesse. Its crowning achievement came in 1914, when local racer Eddie Pullen drove it to victory in what was then America's most famous road race, the Grand Prize, and in the process set a course record of 77 mph.
But the Mercer Raceabout's reign as the premier sports car of its era was short-lived. Within little more than a decade, its manufacturing company was defunct, the victim of personal tragedies and bad business decisions.
Still, the Mercer lives on in the hearts and the garages of antique auto buffs. They will pay up to $350,000 for a 1910s Raceabout or one of its sister models, the Runabout, Sporting or Touring Car. They cherish the Mercer for its classic beauty, appropriate for a car that was never made on an assembly line but hand-crafted by workers who called themselves "artisans."
Even more, Mercer buffs appreciate its handling.
"When you drive the car, you wear the car," explained Fred Hoch, a car conoisseur in Pitman, Gloucester County. Hoch loves the Jersey product so much that he keeps a stable of four Mercers at his home and bought the rights to the name "Mercer Automobile Co.," just so no car lot could ever grab the distinction.
"Aesthetically, it's just right," Hoch said. "Its performance, if you ignore the brakes, is just about as good as any car on the road today. Remember, it was built in an era when automotive science had hardly been developed. You would just put together the parts. Yet they came up with something that could hardly be improved on with what they had."
The Mercer Automobile Co., incorporated in 1909, sprung from noble lineage.
The president was Ferdinand Roebling and the general manager was his nephew, Washington Roebling II. Both were members of Trenton's most prominent family, manufacturers of the wire rope used to build the world's skyscrapers and suspension bridges. The secretary-treasurer was John L. Kuser, who with his brothers Frederick and Anthony had amassed a fortune of his own from banking, bottling and brewing.
It was a good time to invest in the burgeoning automobile industry. Tinkerers like Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds were making cars with little capital and a lot of self-taught skills. The Roeblings, with their estimated $500 million fortune and a genius that seemed to run in the family tree, could surely brush aside such upstarts.
"Everything the Roeblings touched turned to gold," said Charles Webster, Trenton city historian. "It was only logical that they should have made a great car."
Washington, a playboy type who loved high society and fast cars, got involved in the industry long before his father. He made friends with a Swiss immigrant, William Walter, who had been making a small number of high-quality automobiles in New York City, and urged the carmaker to expand his work.
The Kusers happened to have a vacant brewery on Whitehead Road in Hamilton, and it was there that Walter brought his car factory in 1906. Encouraged to experiment, surrounded with several bright young car designers and racers, Walter went to work and produced several lines of cars with limited production runs.
However, Walter also found himself deeply in debt, so in 1909, the Roeblings and Kusers bought him out in a foreclosure sale and started over. They quickly moved to change the company name to Mercer, after Mercer County, and to plunge into an ambitious marketing effort.
"Mercer's owners decided that racing was the only valid way of showing off the car's strength, speed and value," said Tim Kuser of Bordentown, a historian of the Mercer and a grandson of John Kuser. "They had enough confidence to put their product through the ultimate test."
In the early 1910s, before Ford's Model T transformed the car industry, this strategy made sense. The first Mercers sold for $1,950, about the cost of a house. Wealthy sportsmen were the only ones willing or able to pay such a sum. And the lofty price reflected real work — 40 "artisans" who worked painstakingly on the Whitehead Road brewery floor, turning out only one or two every week.
Washington Roebling dreamed of a high-performance, thoroughbred auto. He and the other owners encouraged the company's new designer, Finley Robertson Porter, to be creative. The result was the finest model of Mercer and the one that many car buffs believe to be the best sports car of the 1910s — the Raceabout.
The Raceabout had a 300-cubic inch, "T-head" engine, just light enough to make for a smooth ride, powerful enough to go 80 mph on the notoriously poor roads of the time. It had no doors or windshield or any provision for safety. The brakes gripped the transmission, not the wheels, giving the driver almost no margin for error when slowing down.
Still, the Raceabout was designed for pure speed and driving pleasure, and it delivered. "Some sports cars from the era are like steeds that you have to hold tight," Hoch said. "The Mercer is a gelding. You don't push it hard. It just goes."
Entered in six races in 1911, the Raceabout won five. Then, tragedy intervened. In the spring of 1912, Washington Roebling went to Europe to test-drive Italy's new Fiat. He chose to come home on the Titanic, and died along with 1,500 other souls.
However, the Mercer continued its winning ways, and 1914 was its year of glory. The Raceabout engine was expanded and tuned up. Eddie Pullen, a baby-faced mechanic who had worked at the Mercer plant since 1910 and who lived on Norway Avenue in Hamilton, mastered the feel of the powerful machine and went to California to race it.
The series of races were held in Santa Monica, on a dangerously twisting, dirt road through country and city roads lined with tens of thousands of spectators. In the first race, on Feb. 26, for the Vanderbilt Cup, Pullen crashed headlong into a retaining wall and barely escaped injury.
But two days later, Pullen was ready for a second chance in a race with a far richer reputation and payoff, the 403-mile American Grand Prize. The winner would be considered the unofficial long-distance racing champ of the world. No American had ever won it.
Early in the contest, Pullen nearly met with disaster when a spectator described by newspapers as an "old soldier" wandered onto the course and the young Hamiltonian had to swerve out of the way to miss him. He fell miles behind, but the car in the lead, a British Sunbeam, flipped over six times and wrecked.
Pullen, whose Mercer held up with no mechanical problems at all, cruised to an easy win, 40 miles ahead of the second-place car. Among the also-rans was another Eddie named Rickenbacker, who went on to become a World War I flying ace and revolutionized the aircraft industry.
Trenton went wild for Eddie Pullen. On April 4, he and his car were welcomed home with a parade downtown and a medal from Mayor Frederick Donnelly. A song was even written in his honor:
Hurrah for Pullen, whoop 'er up!
For Eddie is a dandy.
Yes, he's the guy that won the cup —
Just have the Mercer handy.
The Mercer's glory didn't last the year. On Aug. 22, at the Elgin, Ill. road races, 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. Immediately afterward, Mercer Automobile Co. suspended its racing program.
The Mercer was in trouble anyway. Porter, the Raceabout's designer, left the company that year and no future designer came close to his brilliance.
A new Model 22-70 Raceabout came out, but had little of the earlier car's sporty flair. Meanwhile, competitors were improving by leaps and bounds. The remaining Roeblings died off, and the company was sold off to a Wall Street firm that tried to dramatically increase production in the middle of a recession. In 1925, the Mercer Automobile Co. manufactured its last car.
The Mercer existed for just 15 years. "But what a 15 years," Kuser said.
|1914: That marvelous
Mercer motor car
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|Racing hero Eddie Pullen.|