The Mercer Magic & the Rise of Car Racing

“Cars brought us out of the ‘tyranny of horses’,” said Clifford Zink, as he opened his presentation on his book Mercer Magic: Roeblings, Kusers, the Mercer Automobile Company, and America’s First Sports Car for his Jan. 10 author talk at the State Library. “Cars allowed people to be more independent, go places fast and not need to clean up the street.” Although driving those early cars was much more exciting, it was also vastly more dangerous, with nothing protecting riders in case of a crash.

Zink discussed the history of the Mercer automobile, which was built in Trenton at the beginning of the 20th century, with the overall history of the beginnings of car racing. With 500 start-up car companies vieing for the consumer dollar, manufacturers participated in races to show how much better, faster, durable their cars were compared to other models. The failures on the race course brought about better engineering, handling and durability. The cars raced on dirt roads, through streets and at horse tracks. The Vanderbilts build the Long Island Motor Parkway just for racing. 

The Mercer Magic was America’s first sports car. Designed in 1910 by Finley Porter, the  Monk, as it was called, won 47 races in 1911, going up against the biggest names in European manufacturers. It was raced across the country in the days when car design was at the center of American technological innovation. The Mercer was conceived by Washington A. Roebling II, heir to the bridge-building dynasty, who raced in the premier contests of early U.S. auto racing, including Indianapolis and the Grand Prize of America. Zink’s book covers the remarkable story from the founding of the company through the development of the Mercer Raceabout; Mercer’s multi-year racing campaign that achieved national success winning the American Grand Prize in 1914; and the surviving Mercers in notable private collections, like Jay Leno’s, and automobile museum.

In photo right, Gene Kelly drives a Mercer in the movie “Singing in the Rain.”

At its Annual Meeting in Hershey, in March 2017, the Society of Automotive Historians gave Mercer Magic: Roeblings, Kusers, the Mercer Automobile Company, and America’s First Sports Car its Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot Award for Outstanding Book of 2015. Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot is the maker of the world’s first true automobile.

Zink is an historic preservation consultant based in Princeton and an historian specializing in architectural, industrial, engineering and landscape history. He received an M.S. in historic preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He received the 2011 John A. Roebling Award from the Society for Industrial Archeology’s Roebling Chapter for an outstanding contribution to documenting or preserving the industrial heritage of the greater New York-New Jersey area, and has received several awards for his books, including the 2012 New Jersey Author’s Award in popular non-fiction from the N. J. Studies Academic Alliance for The Roebling Legacy. He has served as consulting curator at the Roebling Museum, and wrote and directed its orientation film, Roebling Stories. His latest book is entitled The Eating Clubs of Princeton about the row of privately maintained and operated undergraduate eating clubs and the history behind them.