Like the steam locomotive and the manual typewriter, Brass-Era automobiles are anachronistic curios, but there is no denying that these ingenious inventions allowed their users to accomplish epic feats. Whether connecting the coasts of the United States, pecking out the landmarks of 20th century literature, or putting the horse out of business, all three machines remind us how far technology has come in 150 some-odd-years.
They also make us realize how much was done without any of the technology our enfeebled society relies on today. Driving a Brass-Era race car might be likened to making a fire with sticks, but the conflagration could be as fierce, frightening, and all-consuming as any ever started.
Brass-Era automobiles, so-called because of their shiny brass radiators, acetylene lamps, and bulb horns, were the very first horseless carriages, and generally span the period between 1896 and 1915. It was a time of experiment, triumph, and failure, with gasoline, electric, and steam power employed by hundreds of manufacturers in America alone. Sadly, few examples of these automotive efforts survive, with the exception of the once-ubiquitous Ford Model T, a landmark whose invention and manufacturing process changed the world forever. But as in any period, there are standouts, and one of America’s greatest sports cars of the Brass Era was the Mercer.
Gooding & Company, the official auction house of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, is offering a 1914 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout as a highlight of its Monterey Car Week sale, being held August 18 and 19, which will also include another contemporary of the Brass Era. About these, Gooding & Company’s founder, David Gooding, says, “The phenomenal Jerry S. Foley III Estate features the absolute pinnacle of the Brass Era with the Mercer Raceabout, and the Lozier Meadowbrook, a treasure that has not been offered for sale in over six decades. Along with our Classic Era selections, these cars represent the crème de la crème of the early automotive world.”
Long before Chevrolet’s Corvette earned the moniker “America’s Sports Car,” the Mercer was America’s very first. The Mercer was designed by Finley Robertson Porter in concert with industrial manufacturers Roebling and Kuser, constructors of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then new, the 1911 Mercer T-head Raceabout dominated American motorsport for five years. With a top speed of almost 80 mph, it became the first American-made automobile to win the American Grand Prix. Racing greats of the day chose a Mercer, including Ralph DePalma and Barney Oldfield, two of the period’s most successful drivers.
As is the case with a contemporary supercar, the Mercer had an impressive power-to-weight ratio and nimble handling for the day, along with a minimalist design that features two bucket seats. Unlike today’s monocoque marvels, the Mercer offers nothing in the way of comfort or safety, rather, only a tiny monocle windshield to separate the driver and riding mechanic from the elements.
The engine, a four-cylinder T-head design, produces 60 hp at 1,900 rpm. The power plant is paired with a low-slung chassis, which aids weight distribution and balance. Resplendent in period fashion, this car’s paintwork is bright Canary Yellow with black striping and black leather upholstery. One of only four known 1914 examples surviving intact, chassis No. 1967—paired with engine No. 1702—features the desirable four-speed gearbox (as opposed to the three-speed-gearbox iterations of 1911 and 1912), and was driven by American motoring greats in its day.
The history of this important car goes back to Socony Oil, the predecessor of Mobil petroleum company. It was subsequently purchased by opera-singer James Melton for his museum collection. Eventually acquired by Jerry Foley, it remained in his collection for more than 50 years. In this instance, it is not unrealistic to call this a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to acquire an irreplaceable Brass-Era jewel, one estimated to fetch as much as $4 million.
Ready to start summer in high gear? There’s still time to join Robb Report’s 2023 California Coastal Rally, June 4 through 8. For more information, or to register, visit here.
Click here for more photos of this 1914 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout.