“… gives a thrill of pleasure to the man or woman who drives it, because it is willing, eager and gentle…”
The voice over from a recent luxury-car TV ad? No, not quite. Would you believe it’s 99-year-old ad copy from a 1919 issue of Vanity Fair, describing a locally made sports car?
The names of Roebling and Kuser are well known in and around Trenton for a variety of historic accomplishments, but not widely known to be associated with race cars and automobile manufacturing.
And yet to those familiar with the early history of racing cars in America, the names of Roebling, Kuser and the Mercer Automobile Company are synonymous with success.
This fascinating story of the Mercer Automobile Company will be the focus of a program at the monthly meeting of the Ewing Historic Society on Sunday, April 8, at 2 p.m. at the Benjamin Temple House on Federal City Road.
Society members attend for free; the fee for non-members is only $5, to cover refreshments and other related expenses. There is limited seating at the Temple House, so interested parties are encouraged to arrive early.
Historian and author Clifford Zink will present background information on the entrepreneurial successes of the Kuser and Roebling families, and then delve into this relatively lesser-known story of the Mercer Automobile Company, as described in his book on the same topic, “Mercer Magic: Roeblings, Kusers, The Mercer Automobile Company, and America’s First Sports Car.”
In the early years of the automobile (circa 1900), and much before Ford’s mass-produced assembly-line products, cars were essentially handmade by relatively small start-up businesses comprised of inspired innovators with venture capitalist backing, much like the IT start-ups of the early 21st century.
Those with excess amounts of both capital and fearlessness were creating, building and testing these “locomobiles.” It was an exciting time, with great possibilities.
The most effective and efficient way to test, improve and sell these cars was to race them. High speeds and high-mileage runs revealed any defects, and the thrill of racing captured the fascination of the public. Auto race tracks began appearing all over the countryside.
Into this atmosphere Anthony and John Kuser, the twin sons of Rudolph Kuser (engineer, machinist and inhabitant of Kuser Farm in Hamilton), Roebling brothers Charles and Ferdinand (sons of John A. Roebling, producer of wire rope and cable), Charles Roebling’s son Washington A. Roebling II, and a few others sought to combine their entrepreneurial chops, innovative zeal and daring courage to build, race and sell a reasonably priced, easy to maintain, strong, lightweight, well-built car.
After some trial runs, the Mercer Automobile Company was founded in 1909, and occupied a manufacturing plant on Whitehead Road in Hamilton, a site formerly associated with the Kuser family brewery.
Within a short time, the company was successfully producing the “Mercer Speedster,” described by the Trenton Evening Times in April, 1910 as “… one of the classiest and snappiest cars in the world.”
The cars easily transformed from touring to racing car, and comfortably handled high speeds of the day (60-70 mph) thanks to a low center of gravity. The Mercer Raceabout soon debuted, and earned both public accolades and winning prizes in races around the country over the next several years. Many believe the Mercer Raceabout to be one of the finest sportscars ever built.
The road to first place in the 1914 International Grand Prix I in Santa Monica for Mercer is a fascinating and winding one, with stops in Europe and even aboard the Titanic.
The company continued successfully until 1919, when a variety of factors led to its eventual demise. And yet, the prestige remains.
A quick search online for remaining Mercer cars reveals a current sales price of anywhere between $1.5 to $3 million.
If you can’t afford the car, come enjoy a fascinating talk about its history on April 8 for the bargain price of $5.
P.S. Sincere thanks to all who sent family stories of the 1918 Pandemic to firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep ‘em coming!