Brian Henniker, copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Company

The Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout offered here, chassis 1967, hails from the final year of T-head production, 1914. This car features many subtle improvements that were implemented since the model’s introduction, most notably the desirable 4-speed gearbox that was unveiled in 1913. The car’s history is known since the mid-1930s, when it was owned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company of New York.

In 1944, famed opera tenor and pioneering car collector James Melton persuaded the oil company to part with its prized Mercer. After Mr. Melton, ownership of the Raceabout passed to Edward N. King of New Jersey. Another passionate collector, Mr. King owned several other Mercers and managed the Mercer registry. In the mid-1960s, he commissioned the premier restorer Ralph Buckley, himself a Mercer fanatic and 1914 Raceabout owner, to restore this car to its original splendor. Upon completion in 1967, it was awarded an AACA National First Prize.

Failing health ultimately forced Mr. King to sell the Mercer to Thomas J. Lester, the famed Ohio-based collector. He owned the Raceabout for a brief period, however, as Jerry S. Foley III soon talked him into selling it. Amazingly, Mr. Foley has owned the Mercer since 1971 and it appears virtually the same as it did when he purchased it.

Mr. Foley exhibited the Raceabout on rare occasions and made some minor improvements to its presentation, including sourcing the proper Fletcher carburetor that’s unique to the 1914 model. The Mercer presents beautifully today in its light-yellow livery and possesses the hallmarks of a genuine Raceabout including a proper in-sequence-to-the-chassis 35-J engine, no. 1702, and correct chassis-number stampings visible on the frame, hood and both front fenders.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1914 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout
Years Produced:1910–14
Number Produced:750 (estimated)
Tune Up Cost:$600 (estimated)
Chassis Number Location:Plate on frame rail
Engine Number Location:Stamped on engine
Club Info:Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA)
Alternatives:1912 Hudson Model 33 Mile-a-Minute, 1914–17 Stutz Bearcat, 1914 National 40 Speedster

This car, Lot 27, sold for $4,790,000, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach, CA, auction on August 18, 2023.

After reading Ken W. Purdy’s The Kings of the Road as a kid in the 1950s, I became fascinated with the Mercer Raceabout. The notion of a then-40-year-old antique sports car that could still compete handily with present-day automobiles was simply amazing to this car-crazy teenager. Many years later, as the director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, I had the privilege of bidding on Bob Petersen’s behalf at a Christie’s auction for a nearly identical 4-speed yellow 1914 Mercer.

Petersen paid $926,500 for the three-owner, very original car. While he was pleased to get the Mercer, he thought he’d paid too much. I countered that the Mercer Raceabout would soon be the first $1 million American Brass Era production sports car. Two years later, that prophecy came true. Utah Miller racing-car collector John Price paid a half-million dollars more for Otis Chandler’s restored Raceabout, proving the Petersen sale was no fluke.

Analog to the max

Say what you will about rival Stutz Bearcats, the leaner, lighter Mercer is the early sports car many enthusiasts still want. Experts reckon there are only about 20 surviving authentic Raceabouts, and there’s really no substitute. Arturo Keller paid $2.2m in 2021 for a genuine Mercer Runabout. This was the marque’s more civilized-variant, with a skimpy roadster body, a proper windshield and a top, built on a Raceabout platform. Keller understood how hard it was to find the real thing.

It’s not just legend and hype. I drove the Petersen Mercer on the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance a few years ago. David Gooding, who grew up with these cars and runs his dad’s Raceabout, gave me a quick lesson on how easy it was to drift the Mercer on its skinny tires. “Don’t bother with the foot brake,” Gooding admonished. “Just use the handbrake and you’ll be fine.”

The torque-rich 300-ci T-head inline-4 has cylinders the size of coffee cans, propelling the Mercer with alacrity. The lusty engine doesn’t rev highly — about 2,500 rpm — but throttle response is instant, and you can feel its guttural power.

It takes muscle to lever the big wooden steering wheel through its scant 1¼ turns, but the car’s surprising maneuverability is exhilarating, just as Purdy said. The sewer-pipe-size exhaust bellows like an angry rhino. The monocle windshield is just a suggestion to the winds that whip your pantlegs and force your cheeks into an appreciative grimace. With goggles and a period flat cap turned backward, you feel like Barney Oldfield reincarnate.

The original supercar?

Other sports cars of that pre-World War 1 era are slow and ponderous — not the Mercer. Anticipating Colin Chapman, crack engineer Finley Robertson Porter understood early on that “weight is the enemy.” The Raceabout’s supple frame and flexible suspension work remarkably well. There’s a sturdy oil-immersed clutch, but Phil Hill told me you could easily shift the Brown-Lipe 4-speed transmission without the clutch. And you can.

In the pioneer motoring era, when rival automakers were still essentially building horseless carriages, F.R. Porter developed a remarkable car with a comparatively low center of gravity that swiftly runs through corners as if on rails. Ken Purdy said, “You couldn’t turn a Mercer over with a derrick.”

Mercer advertising back in the day enticed by listing the brand’s many racing successes “The Mercer is the Steinway of the automobile world,” crowed a 1914 ad. “It is possible to thread a needle while traveling at 60 mph.”

Best of the best

This $4.79m sale was more than double the last recorded result for a Raceabout, and it’s easy to understand why. The 4-speed T-head Mercer Raceabout represents an American motoring icon. Even better, this car’s unbroken history is fully documented from the 1940s. It was driven by Ralph De Palma in the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup Old-Timer Race and later by Barney Oldfield in a demonstration event. Previous owners were collector-car legends James Melton, Ed King and Tom Lester. Even better, Jerry S. Foley III owned it for over 50 years.

Genuine T-head Raceabouts are among the most desirable Brass Era cars. Raceabouts with meticulously documented provenance are also exceptionally rare, as many examples were converted from other Mercer models. According to most knowledgeable sources, the number of genuine examples surviving today is fewer than 20.

Think of the Raceabout the way you would a Ferrari 250 GT SWB — the last Ferrari that could be both driven on the road and raced successfully. The Mercer Raceabout is all of that and more. There were about 165 SWBs built, and most of them survive. But just try to find a Mercer.

This well-documented example has impeccable history, provenance, performance and authenticity. It will only increase in value. And with so few survivors, these cars are rarely for sale. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Mercer Raceabout represents the holy grail of American antique cars. And this no-excuses example is the best of the best. I’d call it equally well sold and well bought. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Gooding & Company.)

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