The Mercer Cobra - metal in fine fettle
The Cobra was already a fine hybrid of a car, a union of the venerable AC marque from the UK, and the brash US racer / entrepreneur, Carroll Shelby. The car that was born of these two, the Shelby Cobra, is a much revered, and much raced, car. But in a smaller chapter of Cobra history, one car was produced with another name preceding Cobra - the Mercer Cobra.
The idea for the Mercer Cobra sprang from the pages of Esquire magazine. In 1963 the editor commissioned automotive designer Virgil Exner to 're-imagine' models for four US marques - Stutz Super Bearcat, Duesenberg Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton, Packard Convertible Victoria, and a Mercer Raceabout. After publication of the magazine in December 1963, there were moves to realise the designs. The Duesenberg was built as a concept car, and a company established to take the car into production, but unfortunately the business collapsed before any cars were built beyond the prototype.
There, there was the Mercer. Mercer as a marque closed in 1925, its Raceabout, first built in 1910, had been a much admired car. Exner's reworking of the Raceabout was also built as a concept car, atop of a Cobra chassis, shortened to 108 inches. Under the bonnet was a 289 cu. in. V-8 engine, along with four-speed manual transmission, four-wheel independent suspension with transverse leaf springs, four-wheel disc brakes.
As it was, the Mercer Cobra was already a distinctive car on paper, but then the design was stepped up, due to the business area of the company that commissioned the car. That company was the Copper Development Association, and for me, it is this involvement, and design influence, that really makes this car special. Exner wove copper and brass elements into the dash, the instrumentation, engine, wheels, trim, exhaust - as you can see in the images accompanying this story, the metal elements, along with the sculpted pearl white metal of the Mercer Cobra's body, makes for a car that at the very least demands a second look.
The car was completed in 1964, and at first, toured the world for 10 years, promoting the use of copper and brass. Once its promotional duties were done it was purchased by Joe Bortz, a concept car collector.
Build costs were as follows. The Cobra components, “one left hand drive chassis complete with front and rear axle assemblies, including disc brakes, road springs, 5 road wheels, 4 with tires and tubes. Engine and gearbox supplied free, issued by Shelby American, Inc. with installation kit, including radiator, petrol tank, all supplied, packed to chassis, including wiring and instrumentation.”, cost $3,019. The coachwork, carried out by the Turin-based Carrozzeria Sibona-Basano, was a further $10,400. The price the Copper Development Association paid for the commission was $35,000.
The Mercer Cobra came up for auction in August 2011, at the RM Actions event in Monterey. Its pre-auction estimate was $800,000-$1,200,000, the heights of which it didn't reach, selling in the end for $660,000.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the car was not designed to be driven, rather it was a showpiece of design… and copper. But the car has indeed been driven - sparingly - and was a hit when appearing at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
So there you have it, ClassicCar.com's first look at the work of Virgil Exner, a man whose work I think we will be revisiting many times.