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December 24, 2003

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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

A sense of the drive behind Marshall Mathews A sense of the drive behind Marshall Mathews (December 24, 2003)

Exhilarating ride in 1918 Mercer reveals spirit of antique auto collector

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Last January, I went for a ride with Marshall Mathews. Lou Gehrig's disease had stolen his voice by then, and his ability to walk without a cane, but he could still get up the stairs to his garage and he could still work a clutch.

We had spent the afternoon at his kitchen table, talking. That is, I asked questions and he wrote his answers on a hand-held white board. Our interview was for a profile that looked back on his life and accomplishments, and even looked ahead a bit.

It must not have been easy for him, given his advancing affliction with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. (Marshall died October 30 from the disease. See obituary in November 5 issue at

As the shadows grew longer that day, Marshall brightened suddenly as he remembered his offer to give me a ride in one of the many restored antique cars sitting up in his 24-car garage. On our way up there, I was hoping he'd fire up his 1964 Ferrari Berlinetta Lusso, an Italian masterpiece.

But we walked past it and stopped in front of a yellow and black two-seater. No doors, no windscreen, huge wire wheels; in other words, an old car. It was a 1918 Mercer Raceabout, Marshall informed me on his white board. A charming vehicle, I thought, given its size, its age and its quaint name.

Getting right to business, Marshall filled up the radiator with water I carried over from the sink. While he bled the carburetor, I donned a heavy coat he lent me and put on my sunglasses. He offered me a choice: baseball cap or woolen hat. I took the cap, so he dropped the hat and some gloves in between the seats.

I helped Marshall into the driver's seat, which took some doing, given the tight seating and the huge steering wheel. Soon we were both seated and ready for country motoring the old-fashioned way.

Around this time, his dog went ballistic, dancing around and biting the tires. Marshall ignored him and focused on starting the engine. That dog knows something, I thought. The car coughed heavily a couple of times as Marshall adjusted the spark advance. I felt the hair tingling on the back of my neck. A couple of misfires, another cough and whoa Nelly. It started.

I jumped involuntarily in my seat. The dog went crazy. The car roared to life. It was a snorting fire-breathing beast and its leash was in Marshall's hands. As we began to move, I knew this was going to be unforgettable.

The dog -- maniacal now in his barking and prancing -- ran alongside as we thundered out to Old La Honda Road. It's a steep, narrow and curvy road, but Marshall knew it blindfolded. On the way down the hill, we met oncoming cars but sailed through one tight squeeze after another.

We weren't on Portola Road 15 seconds before my cap flew off. I put on the old-fashioned wool hat and gloves and buttoned up my coat. The wind was coming right at us.

The Mercer was a time machine. With no upper body, there was no modern frame through which to view the world. We were back in the early days, waving to strangers, smelling the flowers, seeing horses in the fields as they might have looked back then, and as we might have looked to them.

As we picked up speed, the car fulfilled its sole purpose in life: excitement.

Marshall must have sensed that. He owned big touring convertibles and sleek modern racers, but he'd told me they weren't his favorites. We'd have been in his Stutz Bearcat at that moment, he said, but its clutch demanded more strength than he had, so he picked the Raceabout. Both are cars that embody the essence of driving as a sport back when it was new to the world. This was the real thing.

When we turned on to Canada Road and headed out to Crystal Springs reservoir, I felt as if I were 10 years old on Christmas morning. Thoughts of the Ferrari vanished.

Sitting in a Mercer going 60 mph has to be a thrill unmatched by any modern racer. We were kings for those few minutes. We turned around at the reservoir and parked to enjoy the sunset and a cedar tree growing on the edge of the lake. Marshall wrote on his white board: "I'll bet the guy who first owned this car didn't care what his mother thought." He'd captured the moment.

On the way home, we stopped at the Portola Valley gas station. Marshall asked me if I wanted to drive. Stunned, I accepted and tried to keep my composure. Luckily, the parking area there was big enough to allow me to turn around without hurting anything.

Driving a Raceabout will work off a lunch, if not a dinner. It's a big car and you must sit bolt-upright to handle the unpowered steering wheel. The steering is also much looser than a modern car, which gets exciting on a two-lane road.

As we neared Old La Honda, Marshall gestured for me to make the turn. I did and pulled off, thinking he would take over for the twisty ride home. He stayed in his seat.

OK, then. I pulled out into the road again and promptly stalled. Cars collected behind us. It was dark. I stalled three more times as everybody went around us.

Steam rose from the radiator. I was grinding gears, synchronizers not having been invented when the car was made. Marshall fiddled with the spark advance. I got flustered and asked him if he wanted to take it, but he just waved in a motion that said "Forward."

Finally I got it going. The headlights were dim by today's standards, but Marshall's wife Nancy had come up behind us and lit the way with her bright beams. At each curve, I prayed for nothing coming the other way. I couldn't slow down or down-shift for fear of stalling again, this time on a hill.

Marshall waved in a big circle, indicating a hairpin up ahead. Using the fumes of whatever courage I'd had when I'd taken the wheel, I went around. Road designers, bless them, use regular curves. Marshall smiled and nodded a couple of times after the curve. I felt a glow inside.

We pulled into his place and parked. Steam billowed from the radiator, but that was nothing for this car. They don't build them like that anymore. They just don't.

When Marshall rebuilt the Raceabout, I think he understood the emotions the resulting machine would bring out. I was honored to have had the chance to experience those feelings with him for an hour or so. When we were out on Canada Road that day, Marshall gave me a knowing look from behind the wheel as I tried to put my excitement into words. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

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