Sitting in this 1911 Mercer 35R Raceabout, you immediately notice something about the nearly 100-year-old vehicle: the clutch, brake, and throttle pedals are in the same arrangement as those in modern cars. The gearbox even has a standard H-pattern. But there's one very crucial area where progress is apparent.
Jim Himmelsbach of Zakira's Garage - a restoration shop in Cincinnati, Ohio, that recently finished working on the car you see here for owner Sam Mann - talked about what it's like to drive. "It's not difficult," he casually offered. "But keep in mind that you're driving a car with basically no brakes." The conventionally located brake pedal does little more than make noise as it attempts to clamp down on the driveshaft. To scrub off slightly more speed, you need to pull the handbrake. Since this $1.6 million car belongs to someone else, it is important to make a mental note of the handbrake's location just to the right of the driver's seat.
The Mercer Automobile Company was established in 1909 in Mercer County, New Jersey, and was financed by the Roebling family, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge. To prove that it was a real player in the fledgling automotive industry, Mercer developed the Raceabout for sporting competition. What made the Mercer unique was the fact that it was relatively light and could get by with a smaller engine - 4.9 liters - compared with contemporaries like the Stutz Bearcat. Cars were equipped with either a three-speed or, like Mann's car, a four-speed gearbox. Top speed was in the range of 80 mph, but with a few tweaks, 100 mph was attainable. These speeds, almost unthinkable for the period, helped Mercer shine at the track. Raceabouts won five out of six races in 1911 and finished twelfth and fifteenth at the Indianapolis 500 that same year, despite having a significant power deficit. After the Raceabouts crossed the finish line at the Brickyard, the Mercer team reinstalled the fenders and headlights and drove the cars back to New Jersey.
Ninety-seven years later, we had a chance to clamber into the driver's seat - perch, actually - of Mann's pristine but not overly restored 1911 Raceabout. "When you hear that exhaust note," Zakira's shop manager, Dave Schleppi, advised, "it won't be hard to imagine having a ball back in the teens." He was right, but it was the Raceabout's abundant torque that left the most lasting impression. That, and the arm strength required to turn the large, metal-spoked steering wheel that's sitting right in your lap. With zero wind protection, 50 mph feels like 100 mph. The Mercer can be tossed into a corner, but watch out for bumps, since the steel chassis feels about as rigid as a thin sheet of plywood. Also, the gearbox takes a firm hand. As a whole, though, the driving experience is surprisingly modern. Just remember where the handbrake is located as you approach other cars from behind.
We returned to Zakira's and safely stashed away the Raceabout, providing us a chance to reflect on a century of automotive progress. In fact, cars adhere to the same general formula that they have for a century: four wheels, an engine in front driving the rear axle, and a steering wheel to control direction of movement. Just think: those of us who watched The Jetsons in the 1960s probably assumed that we'd all be traveling the world in flying cars by now. It makes you wonder what the Bugatti Veyron will feel like in 100 years.