What’s a Mercer? Why, that’s simple. During the automobile’s brass era, the Mercer was nothing less than an American supercar. Mercers were setting speed records and winning races before Ferrari and Porsche were even thought of.

Formed in 1909, when the Walter motor car company was bought out by industrial magnates Ferdinand and Washington Roebling and financier John L. Kuser, Mercer was focused from the start on using racing to promote its high-quality vehicles. Engineers, designers and race drivers worked hand in hand to develop a real performance vehicle, and the Raceabout was the result. The two-seat speedster was designed to run 70 mph all day in an era where paved roads were few and far between, and would top out a 90 mph if conditions permitted. The Mercer Raceabout entered many road races from 1910-1914, and won consistently. Victory at the Indianapolis 500 eluded Mercer’s grasp, but the performance-bred Raceabout became an icon nevertheless.

Squaring off against literal giants from FIAT, Itala and Benz, the Mercer depended on light weight and nimble handling, where its competitors threw everything into large-bore, large-displacement engines. It won five of the six races it entered in its inaugural year, and racked up dozens of racing victories over the next three years. In 1914, a Mercer won the American Grand Prize, at the time the most prestigious long-distance road race in America, and averaged 77 mph over the 403-mile course. Mercer was the first American manufacturer to win this race.

Continue reading to learn more about the 1911 Mercer Raceabout.


1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Exterior
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1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Exterior
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1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Exterior
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Coming from an era where cars were already pretty simple, the Raceabout seems to have been stripped to a skeleton. Because it was designed to be raced from the showroom floor if the owner desired, there’s not much more to the body than a set of fenders with tiny running boards and a hood to cover the engine—and the fenders were removable for weight savings.

The Mercer Raceabout rides high, as cars of this era do, and the frame and axles are clearly visible.

Everything else is function, from the brass radiator to the drum-like gas tank and twin spare tires lashed to the back. The Mercer Raceabout rides high, as cars of this era do, and the frame and axles are clearly visible. The wheels are spindly, narrow and look recently descended from horse-wagon wheels.

In a way, the exposed mechanicals are a big part of the car’s style, though. The Mercer Raceabout is a car from a time when automotive design was still in its infancy, and it’s no more romantic-looking than a sexy piece of farm equipment. The frame horns and engine crank are constant reminders that no matter how exceptional a performer it is, this is still just a machine. A Ferrari is graceful; the Mercer Raceabout is visceral.

In 1915, changes in Mercer’s leadership resulted in an updated Raceabout with a more powerful engine and a larger, more conventional body. But by this time, Mercer was on its way out of the racing business.


1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Interior
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The interior of this purposeful car is the exterior, essentially. There’s no windshield, doors, roof or bodywork. The driver and ride-along mechanic were protected from the elements (and from any hot fluids the car might spit out) by coats, goggles and gloves. The dash is a simple wooden panel, and the steering wheel is pushed into the driver’s hands by an absurdly long column that’s connected directly to the front axle. The accelerator pedal is actually outside of the car. Large shift and brake levers are at the driver’s right hand, and the steering wheel’s centerpiece controls the ignition timing, a feature common to brass-era cars.


1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Drivetrain
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Modern American sports cars are known for big-bore engines compared to their European counterparts, but in 1911 the opposite was true. The Raceabout was powered by a 4.8 liter T-head four-cylinder engine. That’s by no means a compact powerplant, but compared to big-bore racers from Itala (14.5 liters) and Benz (9.5 liters) it was a flyweight. The aluminum-crankcase engine ran a high compression ratio for the time, and produced just under 60 horsepower.

Other innovations included dual spark plugs for each cylinder, and shaft drive — unusual at a time when most cars were still chain-driven. Thanks to its lightweight body, high power-to-weight ratio and excellent handling, the Raceabout was competitive with the big cars. A three-speed transmission sent power to the rear wheels. Compared to modern cars, the drivetrain was rudimentary at best. Solid axles were used front and rear, located by leaf springs that look like they’d be more at home on a buggy. The primary brake acted on the transmission rather than the wheels, making braking nearly impossible to modulate even with the hand-operated rear-wheel brake.


1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Exterior
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Original list price of the Mercer Model 35-R Raceabout was $2,250. Of the approximately 600 Mercer Raceabouts built between 1911 and 1914, fewer than 40 are known to have survived racing attrition and wartime scrap drives. Like most brass-era cars, Mercers don’t change hands often, and command high prices when they do. A 1911 Mercer 35-R Raceabout sold for $2,530,000 at Sotheby’s in 2014.


1913 Fiat S76

1911 Mercer Raceabout
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Like many European manufacturers of the time, Fiat used a larger-bore, low-compression engine to make power. Did I say "larger?" The S76 is nothing short of horrifying, with a four-cylinder engine displacing an eye-watering 28.4 liters. The 300-horsepower monster hit 132 mph and was unofficially the fastest car of its day, though the insanely tall engine made it somewhat perilous to drive. The lone survivor has been partially restored and was spotted running at Goodwood this year. Google "The Beast of Turin" if you’re not familiar with this monster.

1912 Stutz Bearcat

1911 Mercer Raceabout
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The Stutz Bearcat followed a similar smaller-and-lighter theory, and became the Mercer Raceabout’s unofficial arch-rival. The Bearcats that competed successfully at the Indianapolis 500 were essentially road cars with the lights and fenders removed. Stutz went on to arguably greater success than Mercer, parlaying its racing success into upper-class prestige as the Bearcat ultimately got heavier and more luxurious during the Roaring Twenties.


1911 Mercer Raceabout High Resolution Exterior
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Simplicity was the key to the Mercer Raceabout’s success. The car couldn’t be much simpler, and it was one of the first true road-racers, designed to be driven home from the race track after the checkered flag had fallen. Back 100 years ago, this was the car that all the gearheads were dreaming about.

  • Leave it
    • No weather protection
    • Just as likely to kill you as win a race

Source: RM Auctions

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