Cars

One Kansas man’s homegrown automotive museum

Rex Russell with his “pride and joy,” his 1937 Lincoln dual-cowl Model K limousine with body by Brunn & Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. He said the car is one of only seven built and is in perfect running condition.
Rex Russell with his “pride and joy,” his 1937 Lincoln dual-cowl Model K limousine with body by Brunn & Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. He said the car is one of only seven built and is in perfect running condition. The Wichita Eagle

MENTOR – This unincorporated Saline County town is probably one of the last places you’d expect to find a classic car museum. But that’s where Rex Russell lives and keeps approximately 80 mostly original, unrestored, drivable automobiles.

The cars are stuffed and stacked on lifts inside a steel building constructed to house them, but Russell is out of room for more cars. So he is in the process of constructing a second, larger building that will more than double his floor space to more than 20,000 square feet.

“People ask me where I find all these old cars,” says Russell, 83. “I tell ’em, I don’t find ’em, they find me.”

Take, for example, his amazing 1937 Lincoln Model K V-12 Semi-Collapsible Cabriolet limousine.

“This is my pride and joy,” he says. “They only built seven of them.”

The big burgundy-colored Lincoln carries a badge indicating its body was hand-crafted by Brunn & Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., a legendary coach-building company acquired by the Ford Motor Co. in 1922.

Russell has owned the V-12 Lincoln for less than a year.

“We were in Canandaigua, N.Y., on a steam car tour,” explained Thelma Woerz, a fellow car collector who helps maintain and run Russell’s museum. “This guy kept following us around. When we stopped to eat lunch, he came up to our table and asked, `Are you going to the car show tomorrow?’

“I said yes and he said, ‘I am going to bring a car tomorrow that I want you to see.’ 

When she saw the Lincoln limo, Woerz said to herself, “Rex needs this car in his museum.”

She ended up negotiating a deal for the car, along with some other items for the expanded museum.

The Brunn-bodied Lincoln is a dual-cowl car, with a roll-down window divider between the huge passenger compartment and the driver’s compartment. Both the driver’s compartment and the passenger area feature roll-back fabric tops.

The driver is positioned behind a huge steering wheel (no power steering) in one of two black leather bucket seats. With jump seats folded down and a huge couch-like seat in the rear, all trimmed in beautiful brushed cloth accented with wood trim, the passenger area can accommodate five people in comfort.

The Lincoln is equipped with a standard trunk, along with fold-out arms that can support a steamer trunk.

The stylized waterfall grille slants back from the front bumper, with teardrop headlights sculpted into the flowing front fenders, which each house a sidemount spare tire.

Underneath the long hood sits a V-12 flathead engine equipped with polished aluminum heads, cranking out 125 horsepower and amazing amounts of torque. The car employs a remarkably smooth-shifting 3-speed manual transmission and is equipped with a mechanical brake booster to slow the big car down.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room in the museum right now to hold the Lincoln, so for now, Russell’s GMC pickup has had to give up its space in his garage to the ’37 limo.

Step inside the museum itself, and any car lover is likely to gasp at the sight. There are approximately 20 hydraulic car lifts that Russell bought from a manufacturer’s inventory and then assembled and painted, to display one car above another.

Near the front door sits a replica of the Chevrolet brothers’ 1926 Ford Indy race car, powered by a Frontenac engine.

“It was built by the same company that built the original,” Russell says as he fires up the amazingly loud 4-cylinder modified Model T engine. Farther down the line, there’s a 1916 Metz.

“It doesn’t have a transmission … it’s a friction drive,” Russell explains. “It was sold in kits, $25 a kit. It took 11 kits to build a car, or for $89, they would put it together for you.”

Russell is a font of such automotive knowledge. He got his start in collecting cars in a roundabout way, restoring and collecting Caterpillar tractors and dozers with one of his sons. But when his son died in an industrial mishap, Rex Russell lost interest in those machines.

“But then I bought a 1911 Model T, and this is what happened,” he smiled, gesturing at all the cars surrounding him.

He points out an orange wagon-like 1911 Mercury, one of several originally built for use in the Chicago stock yards.

“As far as we know, it’s the only one in existence,” he says. He doesn’t often attend car shows, but enjoys taking cars to special events and giving people rides.

“I had a woman 103 years old who climbed up in the back of that Mercury at a nursing home.”

Russell also has a policy that anyone who has sold him a car is welcome to come by and drive it. He also loans out most of his cars for weddings, graduations and such events. But not the Model Ts, with their unfamiliar planetary transmissions, and not his Lincoln limo.

“I chauffeur the Lincoln,” he says. “We drive all of these cars,” he said, showing off a fully equipped workshop where a 1936 Cord sedan is getting some mechanical attention.

“We’re always open to the public,” Russell said, noting that he especially enjoys showing off his cars to car clubs and other interested groups. There is no admission charge. To arrange a tour of his auto museum, contact Rex Russell by email at rexru@hometelco.net. Mentor is located 10 miles south of Salina just off of I-135, about a mile east on East Mentor Road.

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