Darin Schnabel ©2014, courtesy of RM Auctions
Darin Schnabel ©2014, courtesy of RM Auctions
The Mercer Automobile Company was established in 1909 by the Roebling family, creators of tensioned wire-rope suspension bridges — embodied by the Roebling-built Brooklyn Bridge. The company was crippled early on by the deaths of its Roebling family leaders, but it survived until 1925, when it was renamed the Mercer Motors Company, signaling its acquisition by Hare’s Motors, a joint venture with Simplex and Locomobile. During that short early period, however, it was responsible for one supremely important, successful and significant automobile. The Mercer Type 35R Raceabout defined the concept of “sports car” long before it became a common description. The T-head-powered Type 35R was recognized from its introduction for elemental appearance, ample power, and most importantly, the hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize attribute of “balance.” It won races and the hearts and admiration of sporting drivers from its inception. Few automobiles can claim the distinction of having remained valuable throughout their histories. The Mercer Type 35R is one of them, as they have always had appreciative long-term owners, in whose hands their combination of style and performance have been carefully preserved, and they have been frequently and enthusiastically exercised.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1911 Mercer Type 35R Raceabout
Number Produced:1,700
Original List Price:$2,250
Tune Up Cost:$2,500
Chassis Number Location:Brass tag on frame
Club Info:Antique Automobile Club of America
Alternatives:1911 Locomobile Model 30, 1911 Chalmers Forty, 1912 Stutz Bearcat
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 235, sold for $2,530,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM Auctions’ Monterey, CA, sale on August 16, 2014.

Seldom have man and machine been as inexorably linked as is Henry Austin Clark Jr. to this 1911 Mercer Raceabout.

Clark acquired the car in 1949 from well-known early collector William C. Spear Jr. for all of $3,500, and it remained with his family until RM Auctions offered the car in Monterey last August.

“Austie” Clark, who stated that he received his last real paycheck when he was mustered out of the U.S. Navy after World War II, was one of the foremost early collectors and automotive historians. His extensive automotive collection was the basis for the Long Island Auto Museum, which also included a large parts inventory and a massive literature collection. Unfortunately, the paper was improperly stored and much of it became virtually useless.

The 1911 Mercer was a prominent fixture in the museum along with the Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York-to-Paris race.

Clark rescued the Thomas Flyer from a local junkyard, and it now resides in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, NV. Clark was often photographed in the Mercer. A photo in the RM catalog showed him behind the wheel, in a cloud of dust with an impish grin, oversized scuba goggles and outlandish cap. That shot certainly captured his personality.

A precise, powerful engine

The T-head Mercer Raceabout was produced from 1911 through 1914, and our subject car is the earliest known one.

The “T-head” refers to the 300-ci, 4-cylinder engine that was created by self-taught engineer Finley Robertson Porter. The engine’s success was due to the precise balance between power and overall weight. It is thought that 1,700 T-heads were produced between 1911 and 1914, with a third being Raceabouts and a little over 400 being Runabouts.

Our subject car started life as a Runabout with a starter, generator, soft top and doors. It was converted during the war years with amenities removed including the windshield and cowl; the seats were lowered and the steering column rake adjusted. The car was essentially a chassis with an engine, fuel tank, seats and a 5-gallon oil reserve. As noted author Ralph Stein stated, “One did not sit in a Raceabout, one sat on it.” It was a factory race car sold to the public.

The number of known period drivers who filled the record books with victories driving a Mercer included Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma, who were vicious rivals — especially after Mercer fired DePalma in favor of Oldfield. In 1911, the Raceabout won five of the six major events it entered, and it won the 300-inch class at Santa Monica in 1912. The following day, it set eight new speedway records at Playa del Ray.

Henry Austin Clark Jr. stated that the Mercer Type 35R Raceabout was “without a doubt, the greatest pre-war car built in the United States.” High praise indeed.

Patina, history and long-term ownership

In October 2006, while on assignment for SCM at the Otis Chandler auction in Oxnard, CA, I watched Chandler’s 1911 Mercer 35R Raceabout sell for $1,595,000, which was a record price by about $500,000.

Is the “Austie” Clark Mercer worth another million over that? You bet it is and here’s why:

First off, it has the long-term ownership by one of the early stalwarts of the car collecting community. Add in the fact that it is the oldest 1911 35R Raceabout known — and that it has a period patina that can’t be duplicated. At 2.5 million bucks, we can’t call it well bought — but it was certainly fairly bought. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Auctions.)

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