By Brian Earnest
Ken Mertes’ family might well be the only one in existence who still has a Sears Motor Buggy runabout that they bought straight from the factory.
And Mertes figures he is probably the only guy on the planet that it should be entrusted to. After all, the oldest memories he has in life involve the car. His grandfather, John Mertes, bought the Motor Buggy new 107 years ago. Ken’s father, John “Clem” Mertes, kept it running and spent countless thousands of hours with the car and made it his pride and joy. And more than anything, Mertes simply couldn’t bear the thought of anybody else owning the Sears that has truly become a family treasure.
“My earliest memories of the car are my earliest memories in life,” chuckles the resident of Onawa, Iowa (pop. 2,937). “We were just kids, my brother was a year older than me, and we would stand in the back there, where there’s just room enough to haul something, and we’d putz around town. That would have been in the early 1950s, and the car was a novelty even then.”
Mertes is a very proud third owner of the wonderful old high-wheeler. He’s had it longer than his grandfather, but not nearly as long as his dad, who staked his claim to the car even before he was of legal driving age.
“My dad always said that his dad bought it before my dad was born … Dad was born in 1913. His dad had it and then he ended up getting another vehicle and my dad always said that his dad told him that last time he drove it was time when his wife was pregnant with my dad,” Mertes recounts. “They lived out on a farm and Grandpa was going to help somebody else do some farm work so he drove the old car and left the good car with her in case they needed to go to the hospital. That was the last time he ever drove it ... Then when Dad got to be a teenager, he asked Grandpa if he could drive it, and Grandpa said if you can get it running you can play with it. So dad and his brother Jim messed around with it and got it running.
“Dad always said ‘Jim and I drove the devil out of it!’ … But then the timer — basically what we would think of now as a distributor cap — went bad and that was the end of it. They had to park it.”
Clem officially bought the Sears from his father in 1929 when John was forced to sell the family farm. “Dad asked if he could have the old car and Grandpa said you might as well take it or it’s going to go for scrap,” Mertes recalled. The Sears then spent a few years in storage in a relative's garage after Clem was drafted and spent time overseas doing his military service.
“When he got back from Europe and got married and got squared away a little bit, he had somebody help him figure out the timer. He got it going and it’s been going ever since,” Mertes says.
Aside from some engine work and a second set of hard-rubber tires, the amazing Motor Buggy runabout is almost entirely original. Ken can’t even hazard a guess as to how many miles the Sears has driven in its lifetime, but for being an unrestored survivor it remains in remarkable condition.
“It lost a wrist pin way back when Dad and his brother were using it, and that cylinder scorched so bad it didn’t even work,” Mertes said. “We finally found a machinist who would fix it and we tore it all the way down and pulled the engine out and had it bored and sleeved and got it running like a sewing machine. I want to say that was probably the mid-‘90s …
“Except for the engine work, it’s never been restored in any way, shape or form. It’s got the original brakes on it and it’s never been repainted and never even had a good cleaning, really. The only other major change to it is the tires were worn out on the front and almost worn off on the back and we took the wheels up to a buggy maker in South Dakota and he put new rubber on the wheels.
“I’ve still got some pieces of the old rubber and it’s still as soft and pliable as the day it was made. It’s really hard to believe.”
Every time Mertes climbs aboard the old Sears, he’s piloting an authentic time capsule from the country’s earliest motoring days. High-wheelers of any ilk are fascinating machines to car lovers, and Sears had its own interesting niche in American auto history.
Sears, Robuck and Company grew into a catalog giant that could supply almost anything you needed for your home, garage or farm. And at one time, the company could even send you with a daily driver automobile.
1908, of course, was the first year of the legendary Model T Ford, but it was also the year that Sears jumped into the car business. Its little high-wheeler, dubbed the Motor Buggy, was powered by a two-cylinder 10-hp (up to 14-hp by 1910) gas engine. The rear wheels were propelled by a friction transmission and double chain drive. “One advantage they had over the Model T’s was they had a gas tank under the front seat,” Mertes noted. “When the Model T’s got low on gas they’d have to back up a hill, but that didn’t happen with the Sears… They were a very utilitarian vehicle, but they were still behind the times.”
William H. McCurdy’s Hercules buggy factory in Evansville, Ind., was used to build the 1908 models. By late 1909, however, production was shifted to the Sears Motor Car Works factory in Chicago.
The first run of cars arrived in time for the 1908 Catalog No. 118. The Motor Buggy was a solid-tired runabout through 1909 and carried a price tag of $395. It promised “top, horn, storm front, oil lamps, fenders, Timken roller bearing axles and solid rubber tires.” The Runabout model was $25 less and didn’t have the fenders, top or side curtains. For an additional $12.95, you could get a set of acetylene lamps.
The bodies and interior were all black, as was the optional top, which was constructed of “moroccoline leather.” The wheels, frame, and running gear of the early Sears cars were painted Rich Dark Carmine Red or Brewster Green. The simple 10-hp, two-cylinder horizontally opposed engine was cooled by two fans driven by a belt and pully off the crankshaft. Top speed was about 25 mph. Four full elliptical springs attempted to dampen the harsh ride.
In 1910, the Sears line grew to five models plus a light delivery. Prices jumped up to as much as $485 for the top model. The cars all featured 72-inch wheel bases, while the Model P and Truck offerings from 1910-’12 stretched out to 87 inches. The cars rode on 36 x 1 3/8 solid rubber wheels initially, although pneumatic tires were available later.
An estimated 3,500 customers ordered a Sears vehicle between 1908 and 1912. Cars could either be picked up at the Chicago factory or delivered by rail, which is how John Mertes received his Motor Buggy. According to his grandson, John Mertes’ car was the 39th built that first model year. “[Grandpa] put a team of horses together and had to go pick up the car and take it back to the farm,” Mertes said. “Then he had to put it together, of course. There was ‘some assembly required.’”
After 1912, Sears decided that there wasn’t enough profit to be had in the car business — some sources say Sears was actually losing money on each car. It’s believed that less than 100 Sears automobiles remain; perhaps far less than that. The Mertes family Motor Buggy was one of the few that found a long-term home.
“My dad, it was everything to him,” Mertes says. “He was a saver and kept everything he ever owned and that car would have been the last thing to go. He had his whole life stored. They didn’t have much in them days and he didn’t, especially. He was really attached to that car.
“He always wanted me to learn how to drive it. Can you imagine somebody teaching you drive in a car they think more of than you? [laughs]. It was so nerve racking I didn’t even want to do it. It was hard on me.
“He could be difficult.”
Mertes chuckles when trying to describe how it feels to handle the ancient buggy with tiller steering, a high center of gravity, primitive brakes and nothing to hold onto or keep you strapped in if things get hairy.
“It’s rickety to drive. Everything you’ve ever known about driving a car doesn’t apply,” he says. “It doesn’t even have a conventional steering wheel. You’ve got to toe the clutch all the while you are moving. In a regular car, you let off the clutch, but in this you’ve got hold it in…
“If you do it right, it usually pops off on the first pull … I choke it once and turn it over to suck some gas in, then flip it and it usually pops right off. The trick is on the steering column there are two levers. One lever is the throttle and other little lever is your spark and that’s how you advance the spark. When you start it, you retard that lever so it doesn’t kick you. Those are two things you’ve kind of got to deal with and the steering wheel isn’t a steering wheel, it’s just a push-pull deal. At a moderate speed on pavement it’s a piece of cake, but it had to be a scary thing going downhill on rutty old roads with that direct steering. A guy could get in trouble pretty quick.
“The accelerator is on your right thumb and the brake is on the right-hand side like a regular brake. Shifting is a lever that just slides back and forth… You just start it off on lower speed, then let off on the clutch a little bit, then get it up where you want to run it. You’ve kind of gotta get the feel for that … And you gotta try to do all those things at once when all you’ve ever driven is an automatic … and your dad screams at you.”
Even after he had long since turned over the high-wheeler to his son, Clem Mertes was still fond of his 1908 Sears. He got his final ride in the car in a parade at age 90, Ken said.
Mertes has been invited to a few high-wheeler gatherings and said he would like to show the Sears at more events in the future. He has not seen another Sears survivor in the flesh, but wouldn’t mind comparing notes and stories with other owners if he ever gets the chance.
“I would probably be open to a road trip with it to go somewhere sometime,” he says. “I’ve been retired for a while and got my life more simplified so I could do that. If we had a family reunion, it’s kind of like a family heirloom and I’d probably take it that so us cousins and everybody could enjoy it.”
One decision that Mertes says he doesn’t have to make is who will own the car. It’s stayed in the family for 107 years, and that isn’t likely to change.
“Oh, I’ve had plenty of people interested in it, but nobody ever tried very hard [to buy it] because I never let them get past wishing they could have it,” he laughs. “I’m 68 and when I’m gone I have a brother and sister that will have to decide what to do with it if they are still around… For me, it will be here as long as I am.”
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