In the Fifties and Sixties, American sports cars used the brute muscle of big displacement engines to combat the more nimble and sophisticated sports machinery of the Europeans, but there was a time when the situation was just reversed. And in that time -- 1910 to 1915 -- the Mercer Raceabout was America's pre-eminent sports car.
In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it seemed that just about anybody who could fog a mirror or raise a few thousand dollars was jumping into the automobile business. So it was that the Roebling family, which had become both rich and famous from building bridges, invested in an automotive manufacturing company called the Walter Automobile Company. This concern stumbled its way through the remainder of the decade trying, without much success to market a line of super-luxury cars, and then it was reorganized as the Mercer Automobile Company by the Roeblings and another prominent family, the Kusers. (Mercer was the name of the Trenton, New Jersey, county where the company was located.)
C.G. Roebling took a firmer hand in the operation of the plant, insisting that rigorous tests of quality be conducted before cars were sold to the public. He also had the good sense to listen to his chief engineer, Finley R. Porter, who wanted to build a sporting car powered by the T-head engine he had just designed.
His first effort was the Mercer Speedster Model 30C, which pioneered the "torpedo" style featuring a rounded dash cowl shaped to conform with the outline of the hood. Most previous designs had a vertical dash panel not unlike the bulkhead on a ship and about as aerodynamic. The Speedster featured a 34-horsepower version of Porter's four-cylinder T-head transmitting power through a three-speed gearbox. The direct drive third gear gave the Speedster a top speed of 60 miles per hour.
This speed tested the car's state-of-the-art braking system that consisted of rear expanding brakes activated by a hand lever, supplemented by a contracting brake on the driveshaft.
The Roeblings put their bridge-building experience to good use in specifying high-strength steel for the chassis, so the Speedster was both strong and rigid. Engine and transmission were carried in a sturdy sub-frame, and a 40-gallon gas tank, mounted obtrusively at the rear offered a 500-mile cruising range.
The Speedster didn't lack style, either. The huge Rushmore acetylene-fired headlights were accompanied by oil-burning running and taillights. The right-hand driver's seat was placed slightly ahead of the passenger seat to give the pilot of the car the proper elbow room. A bulb horn warned slower drivers to get out of the way. As a sports car, the only problems with the Speedster were its lengthy 116-inch wheelbase and 2,600 pound weight.
C.G. Roebling's son, Washington A Roebling II, advocated building an even more advanced version of the Speedster both for racing and pleasure driving. Porter accommodated him in 1910 with the first Raceabout model.
Essentially, the Raceabout was a shortened and lightened Speedster. It retained the T-head engine, which would eventually turn out as much as 58 horsepower, but the wheelbase was shortened by eight inches to 108 inches. At the same time, wheel diameter was decreased by two inches.
So confident was Mercer in its quality and testing procedures that it guaranteed every Raceabout could obtain a speed of 70 miles per hour.
Washington Roebling was so confident in the Raceabout that he entered it in a Long Island race in 1910. This served to whet the company's appetite for competition and in 1911 it embarked on a worldwide factory racing effort. The program got off to a sputtering start by finishing twelfth in the inaugural Indianapolis 500, but by August the car's teething problems were over, and it won the prestigious American stock car championship held at the Kane County (Illinois) fairgrounds and took third in the subsequent Elgin Trophy race, one of many in which it competed against cars with twice the engine displacement.
Early in 1912 disaster hit Mercer when Washington A Roebling died in the sinking of the Titanic. But the year would prove to be one of the Raceabout's most successful in racing. That May in the Indianapolis 500 Hughie Hughes, driving a nearly stock Raceabout with its 298 cubic inch engine, finished a remarkable third behind two behemoth racing machines: Joe "Boy Driver" Dawson's 490 cubic inch National and Charlie Tetzlaff's 590 cubic inch FIAT.
Later that same year Ralph de Palma scored another victory for Mercer by setting a speed record for cars with under 300 cubic inches of displacement on a Santa Monica, California race track. The following day in Los Angeles de Palma established eight separate world records with the car. In October Hughes, who prided himself as Mercer's number one team driver, finished an amazing second in the Vanderbilt Cup Race held in Milwaukee, out-distancing two 590 cubic inch Mercedes, and several more monster-motor racers.
One of the most amazing things about the Mercer Raceabout's success was that the car that did so well in competition was virtually the same car the off-the-street customer could buy from a Mercer "agency."
By all measures, it was a functional and rugged machine. Hugh headlamp were positioned low over the front elliptical springs from which was suspended the willowy but incredibly strong front axle. Its huge radiator core set the shape for the fairly short hood, which was secured against speed-induced flyaway by a leather belt. Its 32-inch wheels were covered by rakishly shaped fenders connected by a short running board.
Behind its angled dash were two low-mounted bucket seats, positioned so low, in fact, that t was quite a reach up to the steering wheel. Optional at extra cost was the steering-column-mounted bolt-on "monocle" windshield that offered scant protection to the driver and none at all to the passenger. Completing the Raceabout's rudimentary "bodywork" was a 25-gallon gas tank fitted with two filler caps and behind that the spare wheel and tire.
Though a win at Indianapolis was elusive, the Raceabout enjoyed excellent success on America's tracks in 1913 and 1914. With Barney Oldfield at the wheel, it finished second in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup race held in Santa Monica, and it would have won the race if the car hadn't blown a tire on the 32nd lap. The following day Mercer driver Eddie Pullen won the Grand Prize in a race over the same course, and that October Pullen was all-conquering in the annual Corona, California, race held on that town's unique circular road course.
In 1915 Porter's T-head engine gave way to an L-head engine designed by Erik Delling. An advanced powerplant, it could rev to 2800 rpm and was rumored to produce 90 horsepower.
Raceabout continued to compete successfully as America entered World War I, but in 1917 F.W. Roebling died and C.W. Roebling followed a year later. Mercer was left an orphan and the Raceabout began to die on the vine. An ill-advised attempt to expand the company on the eve of the 1921-22 recession finally sent it into receivership.
It was a sad end to the model that defined the American sports car.