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.
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.
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.
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.
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.