The Mercer

Time was when I tended to overlook American sports-cars as not exactly in keeping with the British vintage scene. The USA seemed a long way away and isolated from happenings here. Since then, perhaps strengthened by Baroness Thatcher's friendship with President Ronald Reagan, the two Powers have come closer and at the same time the vintage-car movement has become more wide-ranging and tolerant.

So I feel that it is perfectly permissible to discuss the Mercer, which as the Type 35 Raceabout, along with the Stutz Bearcat, we know, anyway, to have been attractive sporting propositions for the pre-World War One playboys in the better-off American and Californian cities. Later the great Model-SJ Duesenberg was a further insight into the sporting American firmament, and in due course the Stutz Black Hawk gave the Invincible Bentleys quite a fright at Le Mans, the British car's premier stamping ground. Anyway, let's look at the Mercer...

It began in 1910, the name derived from Mercer County, New Jersey, where the Mercer Autocar Company built them at 500 Whitehead Road, Trenton. The engineer responsible was C G Roebling and Mercer never built more than about 500 cars a year. The make made its name largely through the sporting nature of the Type 35 Raceabout, designed by Finlay R Porter, which made its debut in 1911, and of which only about 150 were made in any one year. Both this and the more soberly bodied Runabout had T-head four-cylinder engines of 111 x 127 mm (4950 cc), rated at 30.6 hp in the USA. The grey iron cylinders were cast in pairs, with integral water jackets. Cast-iron pistons, originally with two rings each but later provided with four rings, were used and the two-inch-diameter crankshaft of heat-treated nickel steel ran in three bearings, having outer bronze shells lined with Parson's white brass.

The valves at each side of the cylinder-block had low-carbon steel stems to which nickel steel heads were die-rivetted; they measured 2¼in in diameter, with a lift of 7/16th. Pivotted arms were imposed between the valve cams and the tappets; valve timing was: inlet opens 7° atdc, closes 600 abdc, exhaust opens 70° before bbdc, closes 40 atdc. Each 1¼" diameter carbon-steel camshaft was driven from the crankshaft by manganese-bronze spiral gears. At first they had a ball bearing at the front and two other plain bearings, but from 1911 three plain bearings were used. The crank-case was of aluminium. Cooling was by a large centrifugal water pump which fed coolant to the underside of the exhaust valves; it was gear-driven and ran on two ball bearings, augmented by a fan also running on ball bearing and driven from the pump shaft by a flat belt.

Ignition was by a Bosch ZR4 twin-spark magneto, driven from the inlet camshaft, it fed two sparking plugs per cylinder, one above the inlet valve, the other over the exhaust valve. A dashboard switch enabled one or both sets of plugs to be selected. Lubrication was by a gear-driven rotary pump in the sump feeding the three main bearings via a sight-feed on the cashboard, after which it was splash-fed to the other bearings. The sump held seven quarts of lubricant. A Flechter double-jet carburettor with an auxiliary air valve fed via an external large-bore manifold on the inlet or off-side of the power unit. Fuel feed was by air pressure from the rear-mounted petrol tank, maintained by a gear-driven pump, a gauge on the dashboard indicating the pressure and a magnetic recorder in the tank the quantity of fuel.

In the first Mercer 35s a cone clutch in the flywheel took the drive to the separate three-speed gearbox, but from 1912 a 44plate oil-filled disc clutch was used. All the shafts ran on ball bearings. The suspension consisted of half-elliptic springs front and rear, shackled at both ends, torque taken by radius rods and a spring-loaded torque arm, and damped by Hartford friction shockabsorbers. There was a transmission brake behind the gearbox and internal-expanding rear wheel brakes. The transmission brake had two contracting cast-iron shoes measuring 9½in x 3¾in lined with asbestos fabric, applied by easily adjustable lh and rh worm gears, while the road wheel brakes had shoes with 19in x 2in asbestos linings. The chassis frame was of channel section„ with a sub-frame on the later cars, and the radiator was insulated from chassis deflections by two ball-and-socket mounts. Tyre size was 34 x 3½ in 1911, 32 x 4 thereafter, and the wheelbase was 9ft 0in. Top gear was 5.25 to 1.

Along the years from 1911 to 1914 the Mercer 35 Raceabout was made in series R, C and J, the gaps filled by other Mercer models. The price ran from $2250 in 1911 to $2600 by 1914.

The sporting aspect of the Mercer 35 was apparent from its raked steering column, two bucket seats, outside gear and brake levers, bolster petrol tank with spare tyres behind, and canary-yellow paintwork. But perhaps this racy appearance with "monacle" windscreen on the steering wheel — which, when you think about it, gives protection with a minimum of wind resistance — was not entirely acceptable to European eyes, in Edwardian times and even in the vintage period. In its country of origin, though, the Type 35 Mercer was seen as a very desirable automobile by keen drivers and young playboys. Like European fast cars it even had an exhaust cut-out…

It was certainly a very high-grade motorcar, almost hand-made, and fewer were made than of our 30/98 Vauxhalls — around 600 at most. The cylinder blocks were annealed, the bores ground to within 0.001in and care was taken to produce smooth castings with even cores. Each piston and con-rod had to weigh the same as its fellows and the crankshaft was balanced at 1800 rpm on a test-rig prior to assembly in the engine. Fuel lines were of annealed copper tubing, the joints silversoldered. The fuel-pressure gauge was so well made that some were still functioning properly well into the post WW2 years. The engines were dynamometer-tested and had to show 58 bhp at 1700 rpm, and 60 bhp at 2000 rpm was claimed. The back-axle shafts were of heat-treated alloy steel and the gearbox gears were checked for correct pitch-diameter and ground internally, and they ran, not on the usual squared shafts but had keyways conforming to four integral splines on the shafts. The road springs were of the finest vanadium alloy steel.

The Type 35 Mercer Raceabout had a smooth clutch and nice gear shift, and could be run up to 15 mph in bottom gear, 25 mph in second, and 35 mph in third gear of the later four-speed gearbox, with a top pace of 75 mph. I have heard that a ss mile in 51 seconds was guaranteed. The hand ling was described as good but apparently the chassis frame was the weak point, as it was apt to break.

This Mercer Raceabout was the fast car of the Type 35 range and its reputation was enhanced, if that were necessary, by its racing achievements. Some of these were with the T-head engine with aluminium pistons, but later Mercer experimented with overhead-valve racing engines: in 1916 Joe Thomas had a four-cylinder 16-valve single-overhead-camshaft engine in a series 22-70 chassis in the Santa Monica race. But the great Tommy Milton started on the dirt tracks with his standard Type 35 Mercer until he grew tired of being paid $35 a week to lose, after travelling 3000 miles and running in five races. So in 1915 he reduced the wheelbase by 12in, put in a Wisconsin T-head engine and won at Shreveport, Louisiana — only to be fired by the owner of the barnstorming circus, who used to pack nine racing cars into a cattle truck and rail them to the point nearest the track...

Perhaps the most impressive wins for Mercer were at Tacoma in 1915, where Eddie Pullen was first in the 200-mile race at 85.2 mph, Ruckstell taking the 250-mile event at 84.5 mph. They ran at Indianapolis, a much-undersized lone Mercer finishing third in 1912, and in 1913 a Mercer shared by Spencer Wishart and Ralph de Palma was second behind Goux's victorious Peugeot. Hughes scored a third place at the 305-mile Elgin Trophy race the previous year, which Wishart repeated in the 1913 race, as did Schillo in 1919, with the later-type Mercers, and at the same Elgin event Pullen was second to Ralph de Palma's Mercedes in 1914. Sadly, at this race two Mercers collided momentarily and both Wishart and his mechanic Jenter died. A Raceabout driven by Don Moore won a five-mile contest at Benning's track in 1914, that year another Raceabout driven by Stanwood Murphy won the Prescott AC race at Prescott Loop (nothing to do with the Bugatti OC!), and a driver named Laviolette broke the record at Springfield's Imperial Track in winning a short race in his Raceabout.

Mercer had a good day at St Louis track in 1914, with wins for Raceabouts run by Tucker and Keene, only a GP Mercedes defeated Morton's Mercer Special at Brighton Beach, and there in another race the same combination gained a second and a third place two days later, then a win in the free-for-all event at Trenton half-mile Speedway, and two seconds and two thirds at the 1914 Brighton Beach November races, the last shortened because of darkness. Pullen rounded off the 1914 season for Mercer by winning the annual Corona road race in California at the remarkable average speed of 87.89 mph, said to be a world record... The Mercer Monk was seventh. These successes also included, among many others, a good day's results at the Atlantic-Pablo Beach track and what were published as world dirt-track records at Columbus, Ohio, by Wishart. And while Europe was at war, an amateur competitor B Busten, with his 1911 Raceabout, won a prize of a thousand dollars for coming home fourth in the very tough Los Angeles-Phoenix desert race.

The Mercer Type 35 design was not confined to the Raceabout. The same engine was employed for other models, including the Runabout, which had a comfortable four-seater body and was offered in colour schemes apart from canary yellow (as, in fact, was the Raceabout if the customer did not like yellow). From 1912 onwards there was a roomy touring car on this chassis, but with a 2.82:1 top-gear ratio, whereas the Runabout had the same high ratio as the Raceabout. There was even a limousine, to be seen in use as a taxicab in some American cities.

The price of the Runabout was the same as that for the Raceabout in 1911 but thereafter it became $100 dearer and 200lb heavier, and in 1914 adopted the 9ft 6in wheelbase of the 4-seater touring cars, while the 5-seater tourers had a 10ft 4in wheelbase. Later in 1910 the Company name had changed to the Mercer Automobile Company, and around the year 1912 the Type 35 was joined by the Series 22-70 Mercer. This was the work of Eric H Delling. With a college friend, a Mr Hackethal, he had built the Deltal racing car. He was promoted to Mercer's Chief Engineer and developed the new L-head monobloc 22-70 Mercer of 95 x 171 mm (4900 cc), which developed over 70 bhp at 2700 rpm and was a free-revver, alleged to be capable of 3,800 rpm. On test 104 bhp was seen from the 22-72 engine – very powerful and fast for a 1912 side-valve power unit! The cylinder head was integral with the block, and the gearbox had four forward speeds, with direct drive in fourth. A Mercer feature was that the clutch pedal had to be fully depressed before the gears would disengage and conversely a gear could not be meshed until the clutch was fully home — which must have concentrated the driver's mind effectively! USL electric lighting and starting were an advanced convenience in 1912. (A Rushmore set had been available for the Type 35). In 1918 this was changed for a 6-volt Westinghouse set, which saved $100. Ignition was by a Bosch DU-4 singlespark magneto. Various wheelbase lengths and gear-ratios were used for the different 22-70 and 22-72 Mercers, the latter being 2.7 to 1 for the Raceabout (which was said to do the ss mile in 47 seconds), 3.1 to 1 for the Runabout, and 3.5 to 1 for the touring cars.

The 22-72 model was announced in 1915, as a refined version of the 22-70. Some of the modifications were as expected, such as a change to vacuum from pressure fuel-feed. A Zenith updraught carburettor was used for both models but an unusual item was the standardisation of Red Head "Big Boy" sparking plugs guaranteed for the life of the car — and one set remained in use for at least 40 years or more! Oil capacity was increased to one gallon and the Raceabout had a 25-gallon fuel tank with a 4-gallon oil reserve. Clincher tyres were fitted, instead of Goodrich as on the other models. Sadly, the end of the road was in sight, Finlay Porter left to make his own FRP and Porter cars. A C Schulz came from Locomobile to take over as Chief Engineer late in 1916 and John Roebling, head of the Company, died in 1917. His wife died in the following year and the family had no wish to continue making cars. The Mercer concern was an enticing proposition to Wall Street speculators, having had a turnover of more than $230,000 in 1916, from a capital of $550.000. The highest bid came from the Emlen S Hare syndicate; Hare had been New York manager for Packard. His plans for Mercer were too ambitious, however, especially in the climate of the financial depression. He bought Locomobile, and then Crane-Simplex, in 1920/21. Mercer went into receivership in July 1923. Production ceased finally by 1925, under the receiver, William Smith, who had been Mercer's former Vice-President.

Even before this the factors that made the Mercer Raceabout so appealing were being eroded. The rh steering was changed to the normal USA lh location and in 1922 the staggered seating was changed to a bench seat, and a conventional windscreen had been fitted from 1919.

The Series-4 Mercer of 1919 was similar to the 22-72 but cost-saving had begun to creep in. Apart from the aforesaid cheaper electrics, a Ball & Ball carburettor, now exhaust-heated, replaced the Zenith, and a Berling magneto, and later an Eisemann, the Bosch unit, The Runabout had a 10' wheelbase. The Series-5 model was introduced in 1920 and continued for 3½ years with only minor modifications. Cast-iron pistons gave way to Lynite; incidentally, the side valves were slightly inclined. A few cars were turned out to 1925 and a spares service was maintained to 1929. An attempt at revival was made with a six-cylinder car powered by a Rochester ohv engine, but to no avail. In 1931 the Elcar Motor Car Company in Elkhart, Indiana, adopted the Mercer name on a Continental-engined straight-eight, but rumour has it that two only were built... The Roeblings were wire manufacturers; they had been singularly unlucky, their youngest son drowned in the Titanic disaster, and by 1918 all three of these who had founded the Mercer Company, and were on its Board, were dead. As the Mercer Raceabout also died, the Stutz Bearcat took over.

However, the famous sporting Mercers are not mercifully (dare I say mercer-fully?) entirely forgotten. Indeed, back in 1954 Ralph Bailey's 1914 Raceabout came here as part of the American team in the VSCC's Anglo-American Rally.