1913 Mercer Raceabout
1913 Mercer Raceabout. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Mercer was one of the most famous and romantic nameplates in early American automobile manufacturing. It was named after Mercer County, New Jersey, where its Trenton plant was located.

The Mercer Raceabout, and the Stutz Bearcat, epitomized the flamboyant, swashbuckling mood that prevailed before the United States entered the First World War. Cars like the Mercer and Stutz were called sports cars, and if a sports car is defined as one with little in the way of creature comforts, then they certainly qualified.

Along with their simple clamshell fenders, there was little more than a “doghouse” over the engine, two seats, a barrel of a fuel tank and a couple of spare tires strapped on the back. The Mercer’s accelerator pedal was even outside the body, and a round monocle “windshield” was usually clamped to the steering column.

The Mercer Automobile Company was formed in 1909 by two rich families, the Roeblings and the Krusers, names closely linked to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The first Mercer model, the 30-C Speedster offered in 1910, set the direction. It was a handsome, low-slung roaster designed by Mercer’s engineer, C.G. Roebling. As expected of a bridge designer, its chassis was sturdy and well tested.

Although a good car, the Speedster would soon fade under the glamour of its new sibling, the Mercer 35-R Raceabout introduced late in 1910. The Raceabout would become the most famous model to carry the Mercer name. It was powered by a 4.9 litre (300 cu in.) T-head (side valve, with inlets on one side of the cylinders and exhausts on the other) four-cylinder engine. This sent its power through a three-speed manual transmission.

The quick route to a reputation for reliability in those days was to go racing, so in 1911 a full-fledged competition program was launched. Raceabouts were entered in six important contests that year, winning five and garnering two second places and one third place. This was even more impressive than the first Stutz that was built, which finished 11th in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race held in 1911.

In those days cars were often raced in totally stock condition, and many buyers took their Mercers and Stutzes straight from the dealer’s showroom to the track. The two makes quickly built up a mighty rivalry.

Nineteen-twelve would see a continuation of the Raceabout’s racing exploits. There was a win in Santa Monica, California, in a 241 km (150 mile race, followed the next day by the establishment of eight international speed records by the same car. A few months later while winning a 322 km (200 mile) race in Columbus, Ohio, a Mercer broke four more world records.

Unfortunately, while Raceabouts were establishing the marque’s reputation on the track, tragedy struck in the boardroom. Washington Roebling II, a principal of the company and the man who had conceived the Raceabout, was lost when the “unsinkable” Titanic went down in 1912. Although it was a serious loss, the company was able to carry on.

The 1913 competition season was Mercer’s best. After this, interest in racing began to decline, although there would still be several successes. The Mercer’s three-speed transmission was replaced that year by a four-speed.

In 1915, under the direction of new German chief engineer Erik Delling, the Mercer’s characteristics began to change. The T-head engine was replaced by a new conventional side-valve four. Also, the Mercer got left-hand drive in place of the unusual right-hand drive that had been one of its distinctive features.

In addition to the mechanical changes, Delling began to emphasize creature comforts such as enclosed bodies and bench seats. Although it was undoubtedly right to move with the times, it somehow seemed a betrayal of the Raceabout’s rugged qualities.

Then in 1918, C.G. Roebling, the last of the Roebling brothers, died, and the company passed into the hands of a Wall Street syndicate.

A former Packard vice-president named Emlen Hare was placed in charge and the company was renamed Hare’s Motors. Hare had grandiose plans for expansion. In addition to continuing to build Mercers, he set about acquiring the Locomobile Co. of America and the Simplex Automobile Co., both producers of high-quality cars. By the early ’20s, the combination of these acquisitions and an economic recession were taking a financial toll on Hare’s Motors.

When the end came in 1925 and production ceased, Hare’s was offering both four-and six-cylinder Mercers. They were good cars, contemporary and well styled, but not significantly superior to the competition.

During its life the Mercer had never been a mass-produced car; probably no more than 500 were ever built in one year. Total production was in the order of 5,000, of which an estimated 100 have survived.

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