For brothers Jesse and Jordan Henke, the shell of the 1987 Ford Merkur XR4Ti that had been so much a part of their youth held a beauty only a car restoration shop owner could love.
The ugly duckling held some beautiful memories, and over the past four years the Henkes, along with help from their team at their business JH Restorations, have turned their passion into a beautiful award winner in the sport compact division at the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s (SEMA) 2023 Battle of the Builders competition in Las Vegas.
The cable television network the History Channel filmed the November competition and will air the program at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 27.
“I never liked the look of it much, but I knew the car from my high school and college days (at St. Clair College),” said Jesse Henke, whose close friend Tim Lewis originally owned the car. “We rode together in it all the time.
“I had a 1969 Beaumont and we’d work on our cars side by side. The car was special to me because of the memories attached to it.
“You need to have that passion to take on a job of restoring it like we did.”
Lewis sold the car when he moved to Colorado for work, but the Henkes never lost track of the vehicle over the next 20 years. A local auto shop owner had bought it and used it over the years for parts.
Four years ago, Jesse Henke bought the Merkur and the process of rebuilding the vehicle to modern standards with a more eye-catching appearance began.
Though the Henkes didn’t win the overall SEMA title, which went to a Nebraska shop’s hot rod vehicle, it’s their second top 10 overall finish in four tries at SEMA’s Battle of the Builders. They also cracked the top 10 with their 1973 Toyota Celica in 2019.
“It’s different than a lot of the stuff you see at SEMA,” Jesse Henke said.
“It’s a cross of German engineering, its Ford product and it’s rear-wheel drive. We thought, let’s do something modern and pull this thing back into the 1980s.”
Ford offered the turbo-charged three-door hatchback for sale in North America from 1985 to 1989 using its European Ford Sierra model as the base. The Sierra was also a popular choice for rally racing.
“I was never really fond of the Merkur,” joked Jordan Henke. “I thought it was ugly, but after doing all this work, it’s growing on me.
“I also didn’t understand the heritage of the vehicle as a rally car racer when I was younger.”
The extensive overhaul of the vehicle began with a 3D screening of the car’s body and components so that new bumpers, flares, and skirts could be machined out of fibreglass. The sheet metal in the vehicle was solid, needing only some spot touch-ups for rust.
The Henkes put in Ford’s turbocharged, fuel-injected 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine from a 2016 Mustang and created a new suspension to accommodate the change.
The interior has more modern electronics and customized gauge displays. Chatham’s Nesic Design restored the Focus RS seats that have been installed with a combination of hand-wrapped leather and cloth.
The exterior also got an update to Ford’s Area 51 blue.
Jordan Henke said winning the sport compact category is a real honour because it’s your competitors that do the final ranking.
“A panel of four judges narrows the list down to the top 12 in each of the four categories, then your other 11 competitors judge the vehicles to pick the winners,” Jordan Henke said. “You get to talk about your vehicle and that’s when you learn what everyone went through to get to this point.
“When those cars are up on the hoists, you can see the quality in a guy’s work.”
He said the main motivation for entering SEMA is that the competition is an excellent platform for displaying JH Restorations’s capabilities. Henke added it has resulted in new business for the shop, which has restored vehicles ranging from the 1940s to 1980s for customers largely located between Windsor and Toronto.
The restored Merkur is now drawing attention and demand for appearances.
Ford Performance, the motor sports and racing division of Ford Motor Co., will feature the car at its booth at Detroit’s Woodward Dream Cruise in August. The car will also be displayed at the Detroit Autorama (March 1-3), Toronto’s Motorama (March 8-10) and the Carlisle Ford Nationals in Pennsylvania (May 31-June 2).
The vehicle will be displayed at several local classic auto shows this year beginning June 15 at LaSalle’s Cars For A Cause.
The Henkes’ Merkur is also on the cover of the European magazine Fast Ford.