Test Drive | 1913 Mercer Raceabout

Photography by Tim Suddard

The 1910-’15 Mercer Raceabout was the Jaguar D-type (or Shelby Mustang) of its day—a lightweight, production-based racer that still retained just a hint of civility. That said, the Raceabout’s day was a long, long time ago. William Howard Taft was the president of the United States, and World War I had not even started yet.

[Project Car: 1967 Shelby GT 350]

Raceabouts are not a common sight these days—not only are they rare, but they trade hands for about a million dollars—but during a visit to Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage we got to sample his example. Call it our date with what’s arguably one of the first-ever sports racers. 

The New Jersey-built Raceabout did things a bit differently from the rest of the pack: Where the competition featured displacements topping 500 cubic inches, the Mercer made do with just 298. Starting a Mercer takes its own little ritual, too. After Leno checked the fluids, he turned on the fuel supply and pumped up the pressure. The Mercer uses a pressurized tank to deliver fuel, instead of relying on gravity or a traditional pump.

He then set the choke, primed the cylinders and retarded the ignition. The Mercer didn’t even need a full rotation of its hand crank to come to life. It switched on like a new Honda.

Getting behind the wheel inspires both awe and confusion. Everything is big, brass and beautiful. The huge covered wheel has a brass insert, and the braking is by hand. The giant hand brake activates only rear drum brakes; a foot pedal operates a transmission brake, although it’s largely for show. (Another pedal dumps the exhaust before it reaches the muffler.)

Jay Leno’s brass-heavy 1913 Mercer Raceabout was the production hotrod of its era. Controls hadn’t been standardized when the Mercer was built, so it’s important to figure out which lever does what before you get underway; one of them is the primary brake. The Raceabout’s engine was small for its day, but the car was also lighter than its peers.

The transmission is surprisingly positive—Leno calls it the best prewar four-speed box—and the clutch is rather easy to operate. The T-series engine makes good power, and the Mercer can easily cruise at today’s highway speeds. Given enough space and guts, the Raceabout can reach a hundred miles per hour.

The steering is fairly direct, and the car’s sub-2000-pound weight makes everything comparatively light and easy. The Mercer’s larger contemporaries may have beaten it on the straights, but we can see how the Raceabout owned the corners.

While the car is quick and light, braking is another matter. Much forethought and caution are required, since all of the braking is done through the rear wheels.

Despite the lack of whoa—didn’t Ferrari also build his cars to go and not to stop?—the Mercer Raceabout is a 100-year-old rush into the past. It’s also a ride that we’re glad we experienced.

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