1913 Mercer Raceabout
Chassis Number : 1434 Horsepower : 34 Displacement : 4-cylinder, 4.9 L Wheelbase : 108"
The first Mercer was made in Trenton, New Jersey in 1910, financed by the Roebling family who built the Brooklyn Bridge among other great construction efforts. It is surprising that in the days of the giant displacement engines, that a relatively small 4.9 liter engine could be such a world beater, particularly in comparison to the collection’s 7 liter National speed car or the Stutz Bearcat.
By 1913 they had acquired a four speed gearbox which made 80 miles an hour quite possible and apparently at the time it wasn’t hard to soup her up to 100. Because of their low center of gravity and wide track their maneuverability was unparalleled. During their first year they were engaged in six races of which they won five outright, and they finished twelfth and fifteenth in the 1911 Indianapolis 500. You may recall that Stutz bragged about being “the car that made good in a day”, as a result of finishing eleventh. It was maneuverability, advanced design, and clearly a car ahead of itself that made this a true performance giant.
Sporting cars were just coming into being. Perhaps the earliest was the American Underslung who, in 1907, were the first to produce exclusively sports cars. By 1911 others were appearing and by World War I many manufacturers had a legitimate sports car with performance options capable of competing credibly in road races.
The statistics do not reveal the magnificence of this car and its handling characteristics. The thing about the Mercer, besides its great looks, is appreciated when one is behind the wheel. Time in many ways sorts out history and the design history as well as the experiential history has catapulted the Mercer Raceabout above all of its contemporary road speedsters because in the hindsight of almost 100 years these gems on the road tell the story from the driver’s seat. Excellent balance, a rare 4-speed gearbox and lightweight are the timeless endearing charms.
The early history of this car is fascinating. It is a combination of what is known and what is assumed, the assumption being based on specific mechanical features of the car.
The previous owner, Mr. Gordon Barrett, studied the car extensively after he purchased it in 1995. The car was known to have spent most of its life in Ridgefield, Connecticut in the ownership of a John McCarthy. His daughter, now quite elderly, was able to confirm her father’s ownership before she was born, which was in 1919. The external appearance is such that the car was probably crudely repainted many, many years ago, and not been touched since. It has the appearance of being well worn, and not cosmetically restored.
A most distinguishing feature, and one which has fascinated all who observe it, are the Michelin racing wheels. These wheels take tires of metric size (815 X 105). At that time, Michelin tires were known to be superior to American made tires, which were still in their natural white to rubber and clearly incapable of handling rough roads, as the more developed French road racing Michelin type. Even more significant is the fact that they are of a quickly demountable type. Utilizing the square key that fits into a worm gear on the rim, this split rim was loosened to remove it from the banded wood felow. In other words, the split rim and tire would come off without removing the entire wheel. This was a huge saving in time.
This rim design is extremely rare and, to our knowledge, the only existing car which has a similar type of quick demountable racing wheel is the famed Locomobile “Old 16” currently in the Henry Ford Museum. Examination of contemporary photographs by Mr. Barrett and myself indicated that they appeared on early racing Mercer factory photographs in the 1911 Indianapolis 500, as well as a variety of other Mercers shot at the “weigh in” for the races up to 1913. There is no doubt that these expensive wheels and tires were added for the purpose of quick exchange and better tire wear. Remarkably, an extremely rare, early, smooth, white rubber tire, of the type which appeared routinely on American cars prior to World War I, remains as a spare on the back of this car. The earliest photographs we have of this car, some of them dating to the mid-1960s while it was in Mr. McCarthy’s possession, still have this white tire proudly displayed as a spare. Perhaps, this was Mr. McCarthy’s way of indicating that the foreign Michelin tires were superior to the American stuff. These early photographs of the car in McCarthy’s possession never showed fenders. The car has undergone a mechanical restoration, but its original finish has been preserved.
There are basically two suppositions as to the early history of the car. The chassis is stamped with a Raceabout number for 1911. Yet, the engine, and the four speed transmission came from a 1913 car (a four speed transmission was not available in 1911). Mercer historian Fred Hoch concludes that the lighter, nimbler 1911 chassis was mated with the later larger engine and, in particular, four speed transmission, to produce a more maneuverable race car. This would explain the combination as seen on this particular car, having the advantages, both of lightness as well as higher power and improved gear changing ability. Since the car has been in Mr. McCarthy’s possession since at least 1919, we can assume that these changes were made some time when the 1913 engine and transmission would have been readily available. The conclusion, therefore, is this was either a factory race car, or an update put together by someone who had sufficient resources to buy a 1913 engine, transmission, and particularly the expensive racing Michelin wheels and tires. This car may be the only existing Mercer Raceabout with a possibility of having racing history.