Lifestyle

1911 Mercer 35R Raceabout


Mercers command much higher prices than a comparable Stutz, proving that a Raceabout is the most desirable pre-WWI car built in America

Restored from a highly original and complete car, this is one of very few authentic Mercer Raceabouts. Like the 1911 Simplex in the Chandler Collection, it was once owned by Rhode Island collector Webster Knight III, then acquired by Ed Saczawa in Connecticut, who planned to restore it.

But this never took place, and Massachusetts collector Charles LeMaitre bought it from Saczawa's widow in the 1970s. It was then sold to George Wingard in Oregon, a historian, racer, and collector of early sports and racing cars. Wingard restored it, retaining as many original parts as possible.

The Mercer won Best of Show at Forest Grove Concours in 1988, the Briggs Cunningham award for the most exciting car at Pebble Beach and, also in 1988, First in Class at the AACA National Meet at Hershey, and the AACA Best Restored Mercer award. At a Mercer Associates gathering in Trenton, New Jersey, it was named Best Mercer in Attendance.

In addition to its rare 100 mph speedometer, this car carries a rare, period Warner tachometer. During the restoration, front spindles were reproduced in 4140 steel for high-speed safety and aluminum pistons installed to relieve strain on the crankshaft. It comes equipped with its original and very rare Stewart carburetor and Bosch magneto.

The thorough restoration makes this the best Mercer Gooding & Company has ever driven. It is extremely taut, and one feels completely secure pitching it into a corner at high speed. Every drive was memorable for the first owner 95 years ago, and will be for the new one. (Courtesy of Gooding & Company)

The SCM Analysis

This Mercer sold for $1,595,000 at Gooding & Company's Otis Chandler auction on October 21, 2006.

Think that's a great deal of money? We don't. Here's why.

In 1999, Christies offered a 1913 Mercer Model 35J Raceabout, #1285, with a four-speed Brown & Lipe gearbox, and documented engine and crankcase modifications by Harry A. Miller. A three-owner car with known history, repainted the correct yellow in the 1940s, it was presented in unrestored, well-preserved, good running condition.

As Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, I suggested to Robert E. Petersen that he buy the car, since a great Mercer would probably be the first American Brass Era car to top $1 million. "Pete" was the successful bidder at $926,500, but questioned if he'd paid too much. Noting that the under-bidders were a "Who's Who" of top collectors, I told him he'd done just fine.

Seven years later, the late Otis Chandler's superb 1911 Mercer Type 35R brought $1.5 million, making Petersen's purchase look very good indeed.

Say what you will about Stutz Bearcats, but the pre-WWI Mercer Raceabout is the premier American sports roadster. Ninety-five years on, I had the pleasure of driving Petersen's 35J. It was nimble, surprisingly quick, and aside from its feeble, two-wheel mechanical brakes, it possessed the agility and grunt of a more modern machine. After a driving lesson from David Gooding, whose dad, Ken Gooding, owns a superb Raceabout, I could toss the Mercer into a four-wheel drift, steer with the throttle, and blow bystanders away.

In 1911, Mercer designer Finley Robinson Porter received carte blanche from Washington A. Roebling II, scion of the Roebling family (builders of the Brooklyn Bridge) and the Kusers, another prominent New Jersey clan, to create a thinly-disguised racing car for the street. Built in Trenton, in Mercer County, the Raceabout sported a high-strength steel (the Roeblings were bridge builders, remember?), ladder-type frame, with just a hood, vestigial fenders, a pair of bucket seats, and a crossways-mounted 25-gallon gas tank. There was no starter, no body, no windscreen, not even a top. Some owners retro-fitted a natty monocle windshield.

Sparse instrumentation, a pedal exhaust cutout and an outside-mounted gear lever (in 1911–12, Mercers had three speeds; by 1913–14, there were four), and flickering Rushmore acetylene lighting were all a sporting blood needed. The footbrake operated (feebly) via a contracting brake shoe on the transmission. A pull on the tall e-brake lever operated the rear wheel drum brakes much more effectively.

The Mercer's engine was a 300-ci, T-head four, with cylinder pairs cast en bloc, an updraft Stewart or Fletcher carburetor, and dual ignition via magneto. It developed 60 hp at 2,000 rpm, which doesn't sound like much, but those big cylinders propelled that 2,300-pound speedster with alacrity. Raceabouts were guaranteed to do a mile in 51 seconds; top speed was about 80 mph. With lightweight racing pistons and fine-tuning, 100 mph was attainable.

Mercer used tough clutches with 44 steel-to-steel plates running in oil, a superior mechanical solution to the era's fragile leather cone clutches. The lusty, 4.9-liter four was mounted in its own sub-frame. Unlike most period competitors who relied on chain drive, Mercers were shaft-driven. The Raceabout's semi-elliptic springs were made of chrome vanadium steel.

"The Mercer Raceabout was one of the most advanced cars of its time," says Jay Leno, himself a Raceabout owner. "In the era where most sports cars needed huge engines, Mercer used a relatively small engine in a light chassis. Like Bugatti, Mercer's high power-to-weight ratios, well-selected gear ratios, and great handling helped it win races."

Some of the best pre-WWI drivers--men like Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma, Eddie Pullen, and Spencer Wishart--all competed in Mercers, along with talented amateur sportsmen who knew they could drive from the showroom floor to the track and win. And win they did: Raceabouts swept five of six major contests in 1911. In Los Angeles in May, 1912, Ralph DePalma set eight new class world records in a Mercer, including 150 miles in 130 minutes on a road course. In August, Spencer Wishart snatched a stock Mercer out of an Ohio dealership and won a 200-mile dirt track event.

Over the years, perhaps inspired by Ken W. Purdy's "The Mighty Mercer," (a chapter about his own Raceabout from his definitive book, The Kings of The Road), top collectors like James Melton, Briggs Cunningham, Phil Hill, George Wingard, and Peter Helck all owned Mercers. Today, Raceabout owners include Miles Collier, Sam Mann, Bob Petersen, and David Uihlein.

"Most antique automobiles are not fast," wrote Purdy, "and this one is. A good Mercer will cruise all day at 60, show 70 or more on demand, and has the steering and road holding to go with its speed."

Otis Chandler was a discerning collector, and his Raceabout was as good as it gets. The engine and suspension modifications made it even better, without any visible clues. This Mercer has it all: known provenance, originality, superb condition, desirable modifications, even the right color. When you consider the astronomical prices for artwork these days, and that fewer than three dozen Raceabouts survive--and very few are as authentic as this example--I'd call it well sold, and very well bought.

RM sold a 1915 Stutz Bearcat for $368,500 at Meadow Brook Hall this year. While the bigger, heavier Bearcat and the Raceabout were period rivals, Mercers remain four to five times more expensive than a comparable Stutz. Discerning collectors know that a Mercer Raceabout is the single most desirable pre-WWI car built in America.

Perhaps the last words on Mercer Raceabouts should be those of Ken Purdy:

"Cartsprung fore and aft, with Hartford shock absorbers that give ground bitterly and reluctantly, the Mercer ought to put up a hard ride, and in truth, it's nothing for your Aunt Matilda. But while it's tough on rough roads at low speed, it levels out nicely once it's underway, and in any case what movement there is seems natural, like the movement of a horse under you.

"You never need to worry about anyone stealing it. It would take a thief a week to figure out how to start it, the complete drill being: (1) Open cylinder primers and turn over engine a few times to put a little oil here and there; (2) Close primers; (3) Fill half full of gasoline, drain and close again; (4) Open cut-out; (5) Switch magneto to intake side plugs; (6) Set spark and throttle levers; (7) Check fuel pressure; (8) Check gears for neutral; (9) Crank; (10) Switch magneto to both sets of plugs; (11) Get in and go someplace.

"And remember those brakes, Jack."

Years Produced: 1911–14

Number Produced: 400 (estimated)

Original List Price: $2,250

SCM Valuation: Not listed, but at least $1 million (at time of print)

Tune-up Cost: $500 (estimated)

Chassis #: 478:

Chassis # Location: Plate on firewall

Engine # Location: Cast in crankcase

Club Info: The Horseless Carriage Club Of America, 40637 Highway 41, Oakhurst, CA, 93644, 559.658.8800

Web Site: http://office@hcca.org

Alternatives: 1912–16 Stutz Bearcat, 1913 Marion Bobcat, 1911 Simplex Speed Car

Investment Grade: A


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