The 1911-1914 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout:
An American High-Performance Legend

1911 Mercer trade catalog cover showing the dashboard of a Type 35-R from the driver’s perspective.

1911 Mercer trade catalog cover showing the dashboard of a Type 35-R from the driver’s perspective.

By the early 1900s, American automakers had already become aware of the motoring public’s fascination with high-performance cars. One early American automaker who sought to capitalize on the interest in such vehicles was Mercer Automobile Company, which was based in Trenton, New Jersey. Around 1909-1910, Mercer started work on a high-performance car that it hoped would attract public attention. The end result of the company’s labors was a car that would go down in automotive history as an American high-performance legend: the 1911-1914 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout, which was popularly known as the “Raceabout.”

The Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout was an open two-seat speedster. Conceived by Mercer’s general manager Washington Roebling II (the grandson of John A. Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge) and designed by Finley Robertson Porter, the Raceabout, was built to meet some very specific and demanding criteria. According to Mercer company literature:

Type 35-R has been produced to meet the growing demand for a high-speed, high-grade, moderate-priced racing car, which a private individual may take out on the road, and safely and consistently drive at a speed between 70 and 80 miles an hour.

Trade catalog image of the 1911 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout.

Trade catalog image of the 1911 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout.

Introduced in late 1910 and initially sold at a then-hefty price of $2,250, the Raceabout was a very advanced car for time. It was built on a pressed-alloy chassis and rode on a 108-inch wheelbase. The chassis was positioned unusually low to the ground for its time, which gave it a lower center of gravity than its contemporaries. The car’s chassis was clothed with an all-aluminum body, which consisted of little more than a hood, fenders, and running boards. Passenger accommodations were minimal, consisting of only two bucket seats and a small monocle windshield for the driver. The overall chassis and body design made the Raceabout extraordinarily light for its time, weighing in at 2,300 pounds.

The Raceabout’s drive train was equally innovative. Power was provided by a 300 cubic-inch inline-4 engine. Featuring a T-head, dual spark plugs, and a high compression ratio of 7 to 1, the engine was officially rated at 34 horsepower, but was actually good for a then-impressive 58 horsepower. The engine was initially mated to a 3-speed manual transmission, which was noted for its smooth shifting. Power was transmitted to the rear wheel by a drive shaft, another advanced feature for its time.

The Raceabout’s combination of light weight, horsepower, and advanced technology made it a more-than-capable performer. Due to its low ground clearance and low center of gravity, the car was blessed with excellent handling characteristics. The car was also notably fast, having a top speed of around 75-80 miles per hour. Mercer also guaranteed that the Raceabout would cover a mile in 51 seconds.

Photograph of a 1912 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout.

Photograph of a 1912 Mercer Type 35-R Raceabout.

The Raceabout’s reputation for high performance was further enhanced by its success on the racetrack. Between 1911 and 1914, factory-supported teams of Raceabouts dominated the American racing scene. Campaigned by top drivers that included Ralph DePalma, Eddie Pullen, and Barney Oldfield, the Raceabout won chalked up numerous victories. Additional race victories were earned by cars campaigned by private owners.

After achieving legendary status in the course of its production run, the Type 35-R Raceabout was replaced by the 22/70 Raceabout for the 1915 model year. A very rare car in its heyday, less than 600 Type 35-R Raceabouts were built. The few surviving examples are cherished collector items today.

Sources

Fitzgerald, Craig, “1911 Mercer 35R Raceabout,” Hemmings Motor News, March 2007

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1008-1009.

How Stuff Works – 1911-1915 Mercer Raceabout Model 35-R 

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 958-961.

Mercer (1911): Mercer: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1911-ca. 1924, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Photograph of 1912 Mercer Raceabout 

Strohl, David, “Magical Mercer, Already legendary, this 1914 Mercer Raceabout came with an impressive history of previous owners,” Hemmings Motor News, April 2009

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1962-1964 BMW 1500

During the late 1950s, BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) was teetering on bankruptcy.  Its large sedans, sports cars, and motorcycle were selling very poorly.  The company kept itself afloat by building the Isetta, 600, and 700 microcars, which sold well, but were not very profitable.  In addition to its financial difficulties, BMW also had to fend off an unsuccessful takeover bid by German competitor Daimler-Benz.  But all was not lost for the Munich, Germany-based automaker.  In 1959, BMW started work on an advanced mid-range car that it hoped would sell in large numbers.  The end result was a car that not only saved the company, but is also credited with truly establishing BMW a world-class automaker: the 1962-1964 BMW 1500.

1961 trade catalog for the not-yet-released BMW 1500.  Note the car’s trademark kidney-shaped grille.

1961 trade catalog for the not-yet-released BMW 1500. Note the car’s trademark kidney-shaped grille.

Popularly known as the “New Class,” the BMW 1500 was a medium-priced, 4-door sport sedan.  Designed by a team headed by Fritz Fiedler, it was a remarkably advanced medium-priced car for its time.  An efficient compact design, the 1500 was built on a monocoque chassis and rode on a 100-inch wheelbase.  It employed a front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout.  Power was provided by a sophisticated 1499 cc (91 cubic-inch) inline-4 engine, which featured a chain-driven overhead camshaft and was good for 80 horsepower.  The engine was mated to a four-speed manual transmission.  The 1500 was equipped with a then-advanced 4-wheel independent suspension system, which employed MacPherson struts and coil springs on the front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs in the rear.

Not only did the 1500 feature advanced engineering, it was given a practical, yet striking-looking unit body.  Styled by Wilhelm Hofmeister, the body featured a forward slanted nose, a low-hood and trunk line, and BMW’s trademark kidney-shaped grille, thus creating an unmistakeable outer profile that would appear on BMW cars for many years to come.  The low hood and trunk line allowed for a large window glass area, which gave drivers exceptional visibility.  Inside, the 1500 could seat 5 passengers and had a surprisingly spacious trunk.

Trade catalog for the 1964 BMW 1500.  Note car’s distinctive profile.

Trade catalog for the 1964 BMW 1500. Note car’s distinctive profile.

To top it all off, the BMW 1500 offered a level of performance that was considered excellent for a sport sedan of its day.  The 1500 was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 14 seconds and had a claimed top speed of 92 miles per hour.  Thanks to its 4-wheel independent suspension, the car was also blessed with outstanding handling characteristics.

The BMW 1500 was released to the motoring public in the summer of 1962.  Initially offered at a price of $2,125, the car was a smash hit and the demand for it quickly exceeded supply.  Customers and critics alike were impressed with the 1500’s advanced design and lively performance.  The car sold so well that BMW’s financial position improved dramatically and firmly established the company as a world class automaker.  On a negative note, the earliest 1500s did experience some serious quality issues, which included problems with their transmissions, trailing arms, and rear axles.  But BMW was able to address many of these issues over the course of the car’s production run.  The lessons learned from the experience of the 1500 enabled BMW to build higher quality cars in the future.

After a 3-year model run, the BMW 1500 was replaced by the BMW 1600 for the 1965 model year.  23,807 BMW 1500s were built.  Surviving examples are sought-after collectibles today.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 174-175.

BMW 1500 (1961), BMW: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 1500, 1961-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

BMW Group Archives

ConceptCarz – 1962 BMW 1500

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 134-135, 139-140.

Die Neue Klasse BMW 1500, Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 1500, 1961-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Wikipedia – BMW New Class

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Treasures from the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection: 1924 Delaunay-Belleville Portfolio

Cover of the 1924 Delaunay-Belleville portfolio in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection

Cover of the 1924 Delaunay-Belleville portfolio in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection

In his autobiography “A Collector’s Life (an autobiography),” Z. Taylor Vinson listed and described a handful of items that he referred to as his “Treasures.” The Treasures are individual collection items that Mr. Vinson, for various reasons, was particularly proud of owning. This week, I decided to highlight one of the more unusual items from Vinson’s list of treasures: a 1924 Delaunay-Belleville portfolio.

Delaunay-Belleville was a renowned French manufacturer of prestige luxury cars during the first half of the twentieth century. Based in St. Denis, France and originally a manufacturer of locomotive and marine boilers, the firm started building luxury cars in 1904, which were outwardly distinguishable by their round grilles and hoods. By 1914, Delaunay-Belleville cars were considered to be among the most prestigious in the world and were owned by a number of luminaries, including Czar Nicholas II and the Kings of Greece and Spain. During the 1920s, Dellaunay-Bellevelle started to fall out of favor with its wealthy clientele. In response to its decline in the marketplace, the company sought to renew interest in its line of luxury cars through some creative advertising.

The 1924 Delaunay-Belleville portfolio is a trade catalog for the firm’s 1924 model range. According to the portfolio, 3 Delaunay-Belleville chassis were available that model year: the low-end 12 CV, the mid-range 14/16 CV, and the high-end 25/30 CV. The smaller 12 CV was powered by an incline-4 engine. The larger 14/16 CV and 25/25 were powered by inline-6 power plants. All three models were fitted with custom coachwork tailored to the customer’s specifications. Like other prestige luxury cars of the day, the interiors of all three models were sumptuously appointed.

Plate featuring fanciful Illustrations by French illustrator Georges Lepape.  According to Z. Taylor Vinson, a Delaunay-Belleville car with a plaid paintjob was actually built!

Plate featuring fanciful Illustrations by French illustrator Georges Lepape. According to Z. Taylor Vinson, a Delaunay-Belleville car with a plaid paintjob was actually built!

Although the portfolio does contain the vital statistics of the 1924 Delaunay-Belleville model range, it is its artwork that makes it a fascinating of automobile advertising. The portfolio was printed by Draeger, a famed Paris, France-based printing house, which was noted for printing visually striking advertising materials. It contains five plates of artwork by five celebrated illustrators of the 1920s: Georges Lepape, Eduardo Garcia Benito, René Lelong, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, and Charles Martin. The illustrations are drawn in Art Deco and Bauhaus style.

All five of the plates found in the portfolio are of Delaunay-Belleville cars. But the cars depicted in the plates are best described as “fanciful.” According to Mr. Vinson:

1924 Delaunay-Belleville: This catalogue-portfolio may be viewed as a post-war manifestation of the manufacturer’s desire to charm and amuse the reader. Certainly there has never been an item that so completely distorted the nature of what it was purporting to be to advertise, the cars impossibly elongated. The portfolio plates are by fashion artists of the day such as Lepape (whose names adorn the embossed card covers of this Draeger production), and show the cars in fanciful plaids and other impossible color treatments. The plaid car was actually produced.

Plate featuring fanciful illustrations by French illustrator Charles Martin.

Plate featuring fanciful illustrations by French illustrator Charles Martin.

Although Delaunay-Belleville succeeded in producing one of the more memorable luxury car trade catalogs of the 1920s, its use of striking visuals was not enough to ensure its survival. Due to a combination of factors that included a failure to keep up with automotive technology, competition, and the onset of the Great Depression, Delaunay-Belleville continued to struggle in the marketplace. After a slow decline that lasted many years, Delaunay-Belleville built its last car in 1950. Surviving examples of Delaunay-Belleville cars are rare collector items today.

Sources

Description Des Chassis Delaunay-Belleville 1924: Delaunay-Belleville: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, G.N., ed., The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars from 1885 to the Present, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982, p. 190.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 320.

Solley, Thomas T., Prestige, Status, and Works of Art, Selling the Luxury Car 1888-1942, Boston, MA: Racemaker Press, 2008, p. 143-145, 150, 161.

Vinson, Z. Taylor, A Collector’s Life (an auto-biography), Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library

The Subaru 360 – Subaru’s Inauspicious Start in the United States

Subaru occupies a prominent place as niche manufacturer in the American automobile market these days. Built by Fuji Heavy Industries of Tokyo, Japan and marketed towards drivers who live an active and outdoorsy lifestyle, Subaru cars are much loved by American drivers for their dependability and durability. The Japanese automaker is also renowned for employing fascinating technological features, including all-wheel drive, horizontally-opposed engines, and continuously variable transmission (my present car, a 2012 Subaru Impreza, is equipped with all three of these features). But it was not always this way. When Subaru first started selling cars in the United States, it struck an inauspicious note by offering a car that was not appropriate for the American market: the Subaru 360.

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

The Subaru 360 was a microcar originally designed for crowded Japanese driving conditions. A truly tiny car, the 360 weighed in at a mere 993 pounds and ran on 70-inch wheelbase. It employed a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. Power was provided by a 356 cc (22 cubic-inch) 2-stroke inline-2 engine, which utilized air-cooling and was good for 25 horsepower. The engine was mated to a 4-speed manual transmission. The car rode on a suspension system which employed trailing arms with torsion bars and coil springs on the front wheels, and torsion bars and semi-axles on the rear wheels. Styling wise the 360 was clothed in a bulbous (and some argued ugly) 2-door body shell, which featured rear-hinged “suicide” doors.”

The 360 was capable of a level of performance that sufficed in Japan, but was considered unacceptable in the United States. On the positive side, it was an economical car to run, with a claimed gas mileage in excess of 50 miles per gallon, and its small size made it well-suited for use in urban areas. On the down side, it was a decidedly slow car. According to Consumer Reports, it took the 360 37.5 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 50 miles per hour and had a top speed of around 55 miles per hour.

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Teaming up with automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, Subaru started importing the 360 to the United States in 1968 and offered it at a remarkably low sticker price of $1,297. Using the slogan “Cheap and Ugly Does It” (which probably drew its inspiration from well-remembered advertising campaigns for the Volkswagen Beetle), Subaru sought to market the 360 as an inexpensive, yet distinctive economy car. Unfortunately for Subaru, the 360 received a very chilly reception from the American driving public and sold poorly. Potential customers were put off by the 360’s small size, odd styling, and slow performance. Among those who did buy it, the car earned a reputation for being difficult to get serviced.

Perhaps most damaging of all, the 360 was publically branded as an unsafe car by the American motoring press. Consumer Reports rated the 360 as “Not Acceptable,” describing it as “the most unsafe car on the market.” The magazine was highly critical of the car’s lack of speed and unusual handling characteristics. It also harshly criticized the 360’s lack of safety equipment and poor performance in crash testing with larger American cars of the day. Its reputation damaged, Subaru withdrew the 360 from the American market after the 1970 model year. But Subaru learned some immensely valuable lessons from the 360’s experience, which enabled the Japanese firm to build cars that would become favorites with American drivers in years to come.

Around 10,000 Subaru 360s were imported to the United States between 1968 and 1970. Surviving examples are considered to be interesting collector items today.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 748-749.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1537.

McCourt, Mark J., “A Small Start for Something Big, The tale of how Subaru came to America with the 360 and how it nearly all ended,” Hemmings Motor News, February 2006.

Subaru 360, Subaru (Japan): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 360 and 450, ca. 1960s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Subaru 360 Drivers Club

Subaru 360, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru (Japan): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 360 and 450, ca. 1960s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

“The Subaru 360 (Not Acceptable)” Consumer Reports, April 1969, p. 220-222.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.