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Merwin's Motorcar (1908)

Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. This week’s history takes us near the intersection of Elm Street and Bugg Hill Road, which if you were unaware, is the theoretical center of our town. It was here in 1908 that Merwin W. Johnson first unveiled his new automobile, a Compound Car, manufactured in Middletown, Connecticut. 1908 was a banner year for the automobile. It was the year the Model T Ford was introduced, a universal affordable car for the great masses, a car for the common man. But a simple “Tin Lizzie” wouldn’t suffice for Merwin’s taste. He had a far greater means of conveyance in mind.

The Compound Car was extremely advanced for its day, having features that surpassed many of its competitive rivals. Merwin’s touring car was a convertible - and in more ways than one. Of course, there was a metal framed canvas top that could be installed or removed as required, but it was also a convertible in the sense that the rear seats could be completely removed from the chassis, transforming the car from a family tourer into a sporty 2-seat roadster. It was two cars in one! These varied configurations were certainly nice options to have, but what really set this car apart was its “Compound” engine design.

The compound engine is unique in that it had two primary cylinders powered by internal combustion, and located between them was a much larger single “low-pressure” cylinder that was powered exclusively by the exhaust gasses from the two smaller internal combustion cylinders. The result was a very quiet-running and clean-burning engine. Compared to its competitors, the Compound Car had practically no indication of noxious exhaust fumes. It was arguably the most environmentally conscious automobile of the era. This compound technology was first used in steam powered engines to take advantage of the remaining power in the steam exhausted from the primary cylinder. It’s a very clever design.

Our first image shows Merwin with his son Herbert in the front seat and Merwin’s wife Martha and their daughter Marion in the rear seat. The other mustachioed gentleman’s name is lost to time. Notice the white rubber tires on the car. This was before black carbon was added to the tire manufacturing process to prolong tread life. Also notice the single acetylene fueled headlamp and the steering wheel located on the right-hand side. It was the Model T Ford that located the steering wheel to the left and eventually made it the standard in America for all cars that followed. My favorite detail in the photo is the occupants’ purposeful attire. Long coats known as dusters and specialized hats, goggles and veils were necessary “motoring” accessories of the day. They were your only defense against the inevitable dust and mud kicked up from the unpaved dirt roads of the time.

The Compound Car enjoyed a relatively short span of production and it’s as rare a car as you’re likely to find today. There is only one surviving, running, and driving example in existence. Is it stored under an old tarp in a barn over on Elm Street? No, unfortunately not. Not even close I’m afraid. It’s part of the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum’s collection located in Fairbanks, Alaska. Today is our lucky day though, for there’s a video of their 1906 Compound Car on YouTube and I’ve provided the link down below. Here you’ll see all the details of the engine and learn the engine starting procedure that Merwin went though himself. It will certainly give you an appreciation for how simple it is to start our cars today.

I hope you enjoy this week’s spotlight on Merwin Johnson’s very unique and environmentally aware Compound Car. Please share this post with your family, friends, and any car enthusiast you may know. They love this stuff! Help keep them all up to date on Monroe’s rich history and thank you for your continued interest. One final word. There were no stop signs in Monroe when this photo of the Johnson family was taken, but we’ve certainly got plenty of them today. Remember to STOP at our stop signs! Until next time. Happy Motoring.


Kevin Daly
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present 

1 - Merwin and Family.jpg
2 - Compound Ad.jpg
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