SALINA — Don Reinsch started building hot rods when he was 15 years old. He's still going strong today, 55 years later, having just finished his rare 1946 Mercury Club Coupe.
"This is probably the most ambitious project I've ever taken on," he says. "I had a '47 Mercury when I was a very young man and I loved the lines of that car."
So when a friend spotted the '46 coupe on an auction bill on the Internet in 2008, it focused Reinsch's attention in a hurry. "It was north of Lincoln, Kan. There were 40 or 50 cars sitting out in a field... it was pretty complete," Reinsch said.
Missing was the flathead V-8 engine and most of the interior. But Reinsch knew he could bring the car back to life.
"I made up my mind I was going to buy it, whatever it cost," he said. The bidding got hot and heavy for a while, but Reinsch ended up winning the car and bringing it home, where it sat for several months. He attended another auction and bought a 1986 Lincoln for its engine and transmission.
He had to find another 302 Ford V-8 engine since the first one had a cracked block, but he pieced enough parts together to build a fresh power plant. Reinsch had worked for decades as a master mechanic for International Harvester and then as co-owner of a Salina truck repair facility, so engine-building comes easy to him.
"I had it bored and balanced... I went nuts and put a (Crane roller) cam in it," he said. He beefed it up further with a Speedway Motors Power Plus polished intake, a 600 cfm Edelbrock carb and a set of Mustang-style Summit chrome exhaust headers, which empty into a set of Flowmaster mufflers.
He enlisted a neighbor, Joe King, to overhaul the automatic overdrive transmission.
"I took the body off, the front end off. I had stuff strewn all over the place," said Reinsch, who modified the frame's cross member to accept the bigger transmission. He also installed a '57 Ford 9-inch rear end outfitted with 4.11 gears, along with a Mustang II front suspension with disc brakes.
"Yes, it will run," he said. But he noted that with the overdrive feature, at 70 mph, the engine is rotating at only 2,400 rpm. "That's just about right," he said.
The body of the fat-fendered '46 Merc was similar to the pre-war '41 and '42 models, but the front ends were heavily restyled, with a horizontal "waterfall" style grille and lots of stainless steel side and fender trim. Mercury built just over 24,000 of the 5-passenger coupes in 1946.
"There was no rust, but it had more lumps and hail thumps than you could believe," Reinsch said. "The stainless was all smashed flat... I don't know how many hours I've got in that... I had a little pick and some tools that I made to straighten it all out."
Although he normally painted his own cars, Reinsch chose Brian's Paint Shop in Salina to apply the two-tone green paint scheme on his rare Mercury, going with a dark Cadillac Polo Green on top, with a Jaguar Seafoam Green below. The grille was in good enough condition that he was able to clean it up, but the Mercury emblems on the front and back of the car had to be sent off to be welded and replated. That cost nearly as much as what Reinsch paid for the whole car at the auction, he noted.
Inside, he discarded the factory dashboard, which he considered too ornate, and gave it to a friend. Reinsch fabricated his own simpler design and filled it with black-faced Auto Meter gauges. A '67 Ford supplied the steering column, shifter and steering wheel, while a Pioneer stereo unit went into the dashboard and a Southern Air air conditioning unit was added below it.
A 1995 Mercury Cougar supplied the front bucket seats, while the rear seat was sourced from a 1973 Thunderbird. JC Upholstery in Salina reshaped the back seat to fit and covered the seats and door panels in an off-white Ultra Leather, using a square panel design. Goldfield Trim & Upholstery in Lindsborg installed a custom-built headliner.
Reinsch was sidelined for several months after major surgery to repair a broken hip, but with the help of a couple of buddies, he was able to show his '46 Mercury for the first time last weekend.
"It's been a labor of love... I enjoy doing this," said Reinsch. "I know my work ain't perfect, but it's decent. I can't compete with the big bucks guys, but I like doing it myself."