On the Road with the Petersen Automotive Museum

Getting the Word Out

Monterey – Car Nut Nirvana

Red DB5 In Parking Lot

If you can get to the Monterey peninsula during the August Automotive Extravaganza (not its official title) and perhaps more important, find parking there, you don’t have to pay to see cool cars. Just walk down the street and you’ll see exotics and classics everywhere you look, like this handsome guards red Aston Martin DB-5 captured gracing a bank parking lot on Friday.

Any museum needs to get its face out there where it can be seen by its target constituency. For Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, in August that means the Monterey Peninsula, where anyone who aspires to the title “motorhead” simply has to attend at least once. There are a lot of car events held around the country and around the world, but if you doubt the Monterey events draw the biggest crowds, just try getting around or finding parking there.

There are dozens of events, most of which charge admission, but all you really have to do is grab a sidewalk-side chair at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating, or just stand on a street corner. In seconds something interesting will purr, putter, snarl, roar or bellow past, and another, and another . . .

Maintaining a Presence

This year as part of my mission as a contributor to the Museum Pit Crew’s newsletter, Pit Stop, I wanted to cover one of the five cars submitted for display by the Museum at the various events. They brought one for the Concorso Italiano, three for the Quail Motorsports Gathering, and one for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and Tour d’Elegance.

The Museum’s Mercer Raceabout was celebrating its centennial, so they showed it in the two Pebble Beach events.

In other years the dreaded Monterey Peninsula fog would have had me heavily dependent on my camera’s image stabilization in the dim morning light of the Tour start, and wiping the mist off the lens at frequent intervals, but this year, by the time Curator Leslie Kendall and Collections Manager Paul Daniels wheeled the hardy old sportster out of the transporter park, the day had dawned brilliantly.

Staging Mercer 4 Tour

Curator Leslie Kendall and Collections Manager Paul Daniels wheel the Petersen’s 1913 Mercer Raceabout out of the transporter park in preparation for the start of the 2013 Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance.

The Mercer Raceabout

Designed and built during the heart of what has become known as the “Brass Era” of automobile design (roughly between 1905 and 1915), Mercer’s sports car took a different path to performance from many of its competition. While many racing cars of the time were huge brutes with monster engines, the Raceabout was a relative lightweight, tipping the scales at a mere 2,300 pounds.

1913 Fiat Speedcar

The explanatory sign says this 1913 Fiat “Speedcar” at the 2009 Best of France and Italy concours in Van Nuys was “America’s fastest prewar (WWI) luxury automobile.” Perhaps the leather “doors” made it a “luxury car” and allowed it to make that claim. The people in the picture lend scale, so you can judge how much bigger it was than the Mercer, whose four cylinder engine is rated by the Petersen at 60 horsepower, the same as the Fiat’s 80% larger nine-liter. You can guess which was the quicker accelerator. I wonder which wore the the monocle windshield first.

The Mercer Raceabout was built around a T-head four-cylinder engine designed in 1910 by self-taught engineer Finley Robertson Porter. At  five liters it’s about 300 cubic inches, or roughly the displacement of the Ford Boss 302 V8. A “Goldilocks” size, it’s big and torquey enough to propel the light car with alacrity, with acceleration reportedly  superior to any contemporary road car, but it’s neither as thirsty nor as heavy as the behemoths with which it raced.

Automobile Quarterly (Vol. 10, No. 1) reports the car capable of a top speed of 75 miles per hour, 100 in racing trim. The engine is good for 1,800 rpm “on occasions when it becomes necessary to obtain maximum speed quickly.” Idle is a relaxed 200 rpm.

In the first year of production, factory team cars won five of the six races they entered. During the fifth, the Indianapolis 500, the bonnets of neither of the two competing cars was opened, and after finishing the 500 miles, their headlights, fenders and running boards were re-installed (a 15 minute operation), and the cars driven home.

The success of the factory cars soon had owners competing and winning on everything from dirt tracks to hill climbs to board tracks, while briefly holding the road racing world record. Those familiar with the racers of the day will recognize the name of the factory team leader, Ralph DePalma, and flamboyant cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield. Others, like Caleb Bragg, Spencer Wishart and are Billy Knipper are less well known but in their day were as famous as the Mark Donahues and Peter Revsons of a few years ago.

At $2,600 fully equipped, the Racebout was not a car for everyone, but if, as a character in the Little Orphan Annie comic strip once explained, you liked to be able to “choose the people who pass you,” this was your car. Original owner Mrs. Gray is described as enjoying taunting the test drivers of the big chain-drive Simplex on the Long Island Parkway.

Petersen 1913 Mercer Raceabouut After 2013 Tour

Praised for its pleasing proportions, and competitive in motorsports right out of the box The Mercer Raceabout has been called “one of the finest sports cars ever built.”

The Petersen’s Mercer Raceabout

In the Petersen literature they say their example is the closest to original of any Type 35-J in existence. Seeing the car, with paint peeling off the wheel spokes and rust showing through the paint on the undercarriage, one’s first thought is that it belongs in the “Preservation Class.” It does not, having been repainted forty or fifty years ago.

The car was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. John F. Gray in 1913 and it remained in their possession until 1943. During their ownership, the Grays had occasion (A young Gray experienced a piston seizure while chasing an airplane.) to trust repairs to a young Venice, California, mechanic you may have heard of – Harry A Miller – who installed the dry-sump lubrication system that remains in the car today.

The car was sold to Herbert Royston in 1943, who recommissioned it, driving it extensively in vintage events. It was acquired at his estate auction by the famous race car driver, collector and restorer, Phil Hill, in the mid-seventies, sold to a dealer, and subsequently auctioned by Christies in 1999. The literature does not state how the Petersens acquired it.

Kendall Pumping Up Mercer Fuel Pressure

Leslie pumps up fuel pressure in preparation for starting the car. With Paul and assistance from Chris Brown and Erik Dipper, they installed the monocle windscreen and spotlight for display in Carmel.

Mercer On The Way To Display In Carmel

Paul pulls her away from the curb on  the way to displaying the Petersen Mercer on Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The eager little sports car started on the third crank.

In answer to my question, Leslie describes driving the car as “fun” but always with the knowledge that it is a seven figure piece of automotive history. That, and the respect accorded to a car with practically all its century-old pieces still in place are among the factors (along with a cryptic comment from Paul about the “fuel system”) led them to forego the full Tour route. Leslie echoed  the Automobile Quarterly’s report that in the context of its contemporaries, the car is lower and handles more “lithely” than say, a Stutz.

The engine feels torquey, and the steering firm but not heavy, both impressions aided no doubt by the car’s light weight. Legendary motoring journalist and Racebout owner Ken Purdy wrote about the car, “You can see the ground under the the right front wheel. You can gauge a corner literally to one inch, and the merest twitch of the steering wheel will pull you around the car ahead of you.

What a privilege to get to watch this great old machine in action, and what a privilege it must be to drive it!

CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility

Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist:
Dick Stewart.

All photographs are by the Author unless otherwise indicated.

Click on the images to view more detail. If the cursor is a plus sign in a circle, clicking again will yield full resolution.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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