Depending upon definition, the Bu-Merc was America’s only sports car in 1939. Certainly it was one of the best known.
By the late thirties it had scarcely escaped the attention of Automobile Racing Club of America members that − save for a few hopped-up Ford V-8s, Willys 77s and the like − the cars fielded in club events were European. That few American-built sports cars were available for competition distressed one ARCA member especially. So Briggs Cunningham decided to give it a try.
The chassis of the Bu-Merc was a 1939 Buick Century, one of the hottest American stock cars on the road at the time. With the help of Phil Shafer, whose Buick 8 Specials had performed well in the Indianapolis 500, the Cunningham car was made hotter yet. Compression was raised from the usual 6.35:1 to 9.5. The engine was pulled down 2½ inches and moved back 6½ inches in the chassis. That took care of the “Bu” − next came the “Merc” part. Over the chassis was placed the body of an SSK Mercedes, conveniently fresh from an accident and modified to fit by Byron Jersey of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Testing showed a zero to fifty time of seven seconds for the Bu-Merc, and the car was ready for the final event of the 1940 ARCA season on October 6th at the New York World’s Fairgrounds. Briggs entrusted the Bu-Merc to his good friend Miles Collier, who coursed the round-the-pavilions circuit handsomely until the car’s brakes faded and its race ended against a lamppost. Unknown to the contestants at the time, the World’s Fair Grand Prix was to be the ARCA’s last race.
With the resumption of competition following World War II, Briggs drove the Bu-Merc himself in the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix in 1948, finishing second to Frank Griswold’s 2.9 Alfa coupe. The Bu- Merc finished 3rd there the following year. By now its engine was a 1949 Century straight eight with modifications as suggested by Charles Chayne, vice-president of engineering for Buick.
The Bu-Merc’s career was brief but portentous. Just as the ARCA led inexorably to the SCCA, Briggs Cunningham’s Bu-Merc adventure led to the Cunningham sports car which so enriched American motor sport history of the fifties.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Most race cars were non-competitive after their first campaign — the 1927 Vauxhall was competitive for 23 years (1927–1950) and you can see it in person. Learn more