Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

Marilyn Slater


May 18, 2016






It was just in April, that I was at the Petersen for a book signing of William F, Nolan’s “BARNEY OLDFIELD The Life and Times of America’s Legendary Speed King”.  On the third floor of the museum was a fabulous yellow Mercer. 


Mabel Normand owned a Mercer, not the 1913 35R Raceabout that was on display but another wonderful car!  Mabel made a Keystone one reel released June 3, 1913 titled “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” Dare-Devil Oldfield races a train to save Mabel, who is tied to railroad tracks.  There were more races termed Keystone shorts starring Mabel The Speed Queen June 12, 1913 were she is arrested for speeding.  Then there was Mabel in The Speed KingsOctober 30, 1913 where Teddy Tetzlaff competes at the Santa Monica racetrack. And then in 1914, Love and Gasoline February 21, 1914 directed by Mabel Normand which she stars with Mack Swain and in April 18, 1914; Mabel again directs and stars this time with Charlie Chaplin in Mabel at the Wheel, Charlie tries to sabotages the race but Mabel goes on to win the race.   




In any study of Mabel Normand the race car films shouldn’t be over looked so seeing the fabulous Mercer at the Petersen brought to mind how very special the Raceabout was/is!



Mabel’s Mercer was a high-quality motor, only a limited numbers were produced.  Mabel’s custom-built Mercer Runabout had a "dressing table and makeup mirror that folded into her car door."






Race drivers contributed their efforts to focus on the Mercer's quality by creating competition during the many road races during that period.  The result was one of the most acknowledged American sports cars of the 1910 decade: The 1910 Type-35R Raceabout was a stripped-down, two-seat speedster,  which speeded along at over 70 MPH (it was capable of over 90 MPH)... The Mercer won five of the six 1911 races it was entered in and hundreds of racing victories followed... Mercer produced only some 5000 Raceabout. .


One, film historian has done some research into what has happen to Mabel Normand Mercer.  It seems that it was exhibited at Movieland Cars of the Stars which opened in Oxnard, California in 1967 and closed two years later. In 1971 Sam Peebles stated in "Classic Film Collector" that Mabel's Mercer was one of the exhibits at the Hollywood Museum of Autos, this information was repeated in “The Speeding Sweethearts of the Silent Screen." 




James Brucker acquired a number of the autos as part of his outstanding collection; however Mabel’s Mercer was not mentioned in the newspapers at the time.   James Brucker joined with another collector and opened Hollywood Museum of Autos in Buena Park from 1970 to 1979; we might assume that Mabel Mercer was at the new location.


While Cars of the Stars in Buena Park was popular enough to last as a tourist attraction for nearly a decade, it wasn't enough of a money-maker, it seems, to last longer. When it closed in 1979, some of the vehicles were auctioned off or acquired by other auto museums while some remained in the Brucker family and were sent to their Santa Paula ranch. What is known is that Mabel Normand's Mercer was on display at the Movieland Cars of the Stars in Oxnard.



Ken Gross, once director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles wrote in “BusinessWeek” February 9, 2007 about the Mercer 35R Raceabout. In 1999 Christies had a 1913 Mercer 35J Raceabout up for auction, a three owner car –repainted in 1940 in the correct yellow, Ken drive the almost 100 year old car, which he found nimble, surprisingly quick alas it did have feeble two-wheel mechanical brakes.  Ken asked Robert Peterson to buy it since the Mercer was an American Brass Era car. Petersen paid $926,500 (that would be around $1,500,000 today).  I think it was worth every penny.



“…The Mercer designer Finley Robinson Porter received carte blanche from Washington A. Roebling, scion of the Roebling family (builders of the Brooklyn Bridge) and the Kusers another prominent New Jersey clan to create a thinly-disguised racing car for the street, fast and low-slung machine.  Built in Trenton in Mercer County, the Raceabout sported a high-strength steel (the Roeblings were bridge builder, remember?) ladder-type frame, with just a hood, vestigial fenders, a pair of bucket seats and a crossways-mounted 25-gallon gas tank. inline 4-cylinder T-head engine displaced 300 cubic inches and developed 58 horsepower, but there was no starter…” It was designed for the road but was an incredibly successful and fun racer. “Sadly the successes for Mercer were short lived and things started to go down hill when Washington Roebling went down with the Titanic however Mercer continued to produce until 1925.





    The Mercer 35J is thought the finest car of its era, with a four-speed Brown & Lipe gearbox and Harry A. Miller’s modified engine and crankcase. With regard to the pre-WWI the Mercer was the answer to the English Stutz Bearcats. It seems to be only 17 genuine Raceabout have survived and one is sitting at the corner of Wilshire & Fairfax at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Now isn’t that grand!




And just an email (May 16, 2016): 

Joan Birdsall went with Charles Brabin (Uncle Charlie) when he delivered their custom made Bentley to Petersen Museum on Wilshire Blvd.  The Bentley was cream color with a running board, white wall tires and red leather interior. We need to check if the Theda Bara/Charles Brabin is still in the Petersen collection.



Birdsall, Joan, 05-17-2016, personal corresponds

Drew, William, 1997; Speeding Sweethearts

Gross, Ken; 02-09-2007; BusinessWeek, 1911 Mercer 35R Raceabout

Historical Marker 10-7-2008 Mercer Auto Camp

Looking-for-Mabel; cars; http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/cars.htm

Melissen, Wouter; 07-03-2008; ultimatecarpage.com, 3768 Mercer

Nolan, William F.; 1989.Oldfield, Barney, The Life and Times of America’s Legendary Speed King

Peeples, Sam; Classic Film [x]Collector; (1962- 1980) “Madcap, The Story of Mabel Normand:

Petersen, Wayne Carroll; 05-18-2016, personal photo collection

Time River Production; Kevin Cloud Brechner; photo collection