ON 8 FEBRUARY 1964, 92-year-old Finlay Robertson Porter died at his home in Bowden Square, Southampton, Long Island. He had spent just five years of that long life as chief engineer of the Mercer Automobile Company of Trenton, New Jersey, and in that short space of time, he created one of the legendary cars of motoring history: the Mercer Raceabout.
Porter was born in Lowell, Ohio, and left school at the age of 14. However, he had ambitions to become an engineer, and took a course in mechanical engineering which led to a succession of jobs. Eventually, he became general manager of the Empire Brass Works in East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania.
He began experiments with a steam car, which he had built in conjunction with a pump engineer Charles Worthington, but as the boiler was liable to blow up every time the engine stopped, Porter decided that petrol was safer! In 1910, he joined the Mercer company, which took its name from Mercer County in which the factory was located.
Owners of the works were the wealthy Roebling family, renowned engineers who had built the Brooklyn Bridge, and who had already dabbled in car manufacture with the Roehling-Planche, built in Trenton from 1906-1909 to the designs of Planche. It seems that this marque was sired by the Waiter, designed by a Swiss, and built in the American Chocolate slot-machine works between 1903 - 1905.
The T-head Beaver unit and Speedster
Biggest of the Roebling-Planches was a massive 120hp racer which cost a cool $12,000, and the Mercer carried on this sporting tradition. Like so many of its American contemporaries, the Mercer used a proprietary make of engine, in this case a T-head Beaver unit.
The fastest of the 1910 range was the Speedster, which had a two-seater racing body civilised only by mudguards and a scuttle cowl, plus lights for road use. And, unlike some cars of the day whose sporting look stopped short under the bonnet, the Mercer really could go.
The Type 35 Raceabout
However, the Speedster was nothing compared to Porter's masterpiece of 1911. This was the Type 35 Raceabout, a stark, sleek, no-nonsense machine of such utter red-blooded impracticability that it became the beau ideal of a generation of young Americans. You could hardly talk about the bodywork on a Raceabout, for it had just a bonnet, footboard, two floor-mounted bucket seats and a huge cylindrical 30-gallon fuel tank. Guaranteed to cover a mile in 51 seconds, the Type 35-R could be made ready for the racetrack simply by unbolting the handsome, raked mud wings and re- moving the lamps.
This was hardly surprising, for it was a road going adaptation of the Type 30-M racer with which Hughie Hughes (who was, apparently, an Englishman) had come second in the International Light-Car Race at Savannah in November 1910. The racer differed from the standard Type 30 in having the wheelbase shortened from 11 6 in to 108 in. 'The Type 35-R,' proclaimed the maker's catalogue, 'has been produced to meet the growing demand for a high-speed, high-grade, moderate-priced racing car, which a private individual may take out on the road and safely and consistently drive at a speed between 70 and 89 miles per hour.' The price was a mere $2250.
Hughie Hughes wins at Elgin, Illinois
Mechanically, the Mercer was quite a sophisticated design: the three-bearing crankshaft was pressure lubricated, a 44-plate clutch was fitted, and the rear axle was fully-floating, while wide use was made of ball bearings throughout the chassis. Oddly enough, while the more sedate Mercers had four-speed gearboxes, the early Raceabouts had only three-speed transmissions but, scaling a fraction over a ton in road-going order, the Type 35-R carried no surplus flesh to dull its performance. Consequently, sporting successes were legion: during the model's first year, Hughie Hughes won at Elgin, Illinois, and Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, while in the very first Indianapolis 500, the two Mercers entered came in 12th and 14th.
The following year, Hughes was to do even better in the 500: his Mercer was the smallest car in the entry list, but nevertheless finished third at an average speed of 76 mph -including a half-mile push when the fuel ran out. And in 1913, Spencer Wishart (who was killed at the wheel of a Mercer leading the 1914 Elgin Road Race) brought the marque's Indianapolis career to its zenith by finishing second in a Mercer Model-F, a special racer based closely on the Type 35. Meanwhile, a creditable list of victories had been piling up.
Mercer 35R Raceabout. It was basically a bare chassis with seats, hood and gas tank. It is regarded by many as the very first 'Cult Car', and was copied by many.
1917 Mercer 22/70.
First Montamara Fiesta Road Races
In 1912, Ralph De Palma took the Medium-Car Class at the Santa Monica meeting, while Ed Pullen achieved a similar result in the oddly named First Montamara Fiesta Road Races, at Tacoma, Washington. Hughie Hughes won the Aurora Trophy at Elgin, while in 1913 Ralph De Palma was victorious in the jcr-mile road race at Elgin. This led to a famous needle match between DePalma and his cigar- chomping rival Barney Oldfield, both Mercer-mounted, nine days and 2000 miles away, in the inaugural meeting on the Grand Circle Boulevard, at Corona, California, 'The World's Lemon Capital'.
To ensure success, De Palma hired a railway freight wagon as a mobile garage to rebuild the car after its Elgin success en route to California. In vain, for his Mercer lasted only a few laps before falling out to leave the lead to Old field and Earl Cooper's Stutz. But after 59 laps Oldfield swerved to avoid a small boy who had run onto the track and wrote off his car. Cooper stopped long enough to ascertain that his rival was all right, then roared off to win. De Palma had better fortune with the Type 45 Mercer, which was a very special 7.3-liter, 150 bhp racer, winning three races at San Antonio in 1913.
The American Grand Prize at Santa Monica
And it was a Type 45 driven by Eddie Pullen, formerly racing mechanic to Hughie Hughes, which pulled off the marque's greatest coup, in the 1914 American Grand Prize at Santa Monica, California, by securing the first all-American victory in this gruelling 403-mile race, which had in previous years been the province' of gigantic ·Benz and Fiat racers.
That year, too, Barney Oldfield's Mercer was second in the Vanderbilt Cup, behind DePalma in a Mercedes, while Pullen won the second Corona Road Race at the devastating average of 87.7mph. The latter driver came third in the 1915 Vanderbilt: but already the seeds of destruction had been sown for the Porter-designed Mercer.
In 1913 Erik H. Delling had designed a racing car, the Deltal, which finished second behind DePalma's Mercer in the 301-mile Chicago Automobile Club Trophy at Elgin, so impressing the Mercer directors that they bought the design. In 1914, Porter left Mercer, and founded the Finley-Robertson-Porter Company in Port Jefferson, Long Island to build the FRP car, a luxury four-cylinder model with a 170 bhp engine and a distinctive V-radiator.
Only a handful of these cars were built during the period 1914-1918, and Porter himself spent a fair proportion of the war years in charge of testing aeroengines in Dayton, Ohio. He sold his design to the American & British Manufacturing Corporation of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1919, and during the next three years they built 34 cars styled on Rolls-Royce lines, down to the Palladian radiator and the anachronistic right-hand steering position. It was a far cry from the stark Mercer Type 35. Porter was briefly chief engineer of the Curtiss Airplane Company, then moved to New York as a consulting engineer.
Mercer was the poorer for his leaving. The Deltal-inspired 22/70 was still a side-valve, but with an L-head instead of the T -head of the earlier model: the power unit was more efficient, developing up to 89 bhp against the Type 35's 55 bhp, but somehow it never matched the achievements of its illustrious forebear. The greatest success of the 22/70 was victory in the 1916 Giant's Despair Hillclimb. Also, the 22/70 Raceabout was hardly as exciting as the Type 35, it had a body with sides and a bench seat, as well as a windscreen. Further signs of degeneracy were left-hand steering and a central ball-change gearlever. Plus the option of a hood to keep out at least some of the weather.
Hare's Motors Group
By 1918 the Mercer company was struggling, and, with the remnants of two other once-great companies, Locomobile and Crane-Simplex, it became part of the Hare's Motors Group, a short-lived empire of quality car makers. Delling left, to emerge a few years later as the designer of the Delling Steamer, finally joining the pitiful remnants of the Stanley steam car company, and A. C. Schultz took over as chief designer at Mercer; his Series 4 and 5 sportsters went a further step down the primrose path with an electric starter as standard equipment. They were soon joined by a six-cylinder variant with an ohv Rochester engine of 5·5 liters, which model formed the company's sole output during the last two years of production, 1924-25.
Though these latter Mercers still fulfilled the company's proud slogan, 'The Car of Calibre', they were but a shadow of Porter's designs. There was an attempt to revive the Mercer name at the height of the Depression, when the Elcar Motor Company of Elkhart, Indiana, who had been dabbling with the curious Powell Lever engine, fitted a 140 bhp straight-eight Continental engine into an Elcar chassis, giving 100 mph performance; only two were built. And thus, not with a bang but a whimper, the Mercer saga ended.
Also see: Lost Marques- Mercer (AUS Edition)