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Heinz Prechter helped let the sun shine in

April 11, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

That 21-year-old German exchange student had more than just $11 in his pocket the day he arrived on America's shores.

He also had will. He had determination. And, most definitely, Heinz Prechter had a plan.

He would become a leader and a pioneer in an aftermarket industry he helped perfect, thereby leaving a permanent impression on many people. Permanent? The day he died - just six days into July of 2001 in his Michigan home - the business and political world ground to a halt, stunned by the sudden loss. Presidents called to send their condolences, heads of business said there was never a better man and civic leaders all spoke out about Prechter's accomplishments.

He was too humble to ever give it a second thought.

Prechter made millions installing sunroofs and would eventually be credited with popularizing automotive accessories in the United States. He also made many friends along the way.

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A short and stout man, Prechter was an entrepreneur who always seemed to have a sharper vision. He was the definition of the "American Dream."

Born in 1942 in Kleinhoebing, Germany, Prechter was raised on a farm with big ideas and grandiose plans. He began his rolling career at 13 as an apprentice in automotive trim, tool-and-die making and coach building. After completing his studies in Germany, Prechter wanted to see America.

In 1963, with a student visa and a few dollars in his pocket, he found his way to the United States where he would eventually study business administration at San Francisco (Calif.) State University. Prechter thought he would stay a year. He never left.

As a side job, Prechter began installing sunroofs, a product that was virtually unknown in the United States at the time.

Not long after, an entrepreneurial spirit got the best of Prechter and he formed American Sunroof Company (ASC) in a two-car garage near Los Angeles, Calif. Prechter spent $764 on tools and built a workbench from an old door covered with aluminum. It was the stuff of dreams.

Within a short time, ASC became well-known for its "custom" sunroofs, as well as its support of customization in the movie industry.

By 1967, after landing a big contract with Ford to do sunroofs for Mercury Cougars, Prechter moved his operation to Detroit, Mich., and soon became a major supplier to the worldwide auto industry.

He experimented and engineered new vehicle features such as composite convertible tops and glass-panel sunroofs. The business flourished, expanding into many other areas, including custom-tailored vinyl tops, special-edition vehicles and show cars.

By 1978, ASC had modified 1.6 million American-made cars and had provided another 300,000 sunroof modules for factory installations.

"My vision always was to make a difference in what I do," he said in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press. "I first and foremost want to be a businessman."

Mostly, though, he was loved by so many.

Prechter was more than just an automotive executive who did well in the industry. He was a leader who also happened to excel in his job.

"He lived the American dream and wanted nothing more than for everyone to have that same opportunity," former Michigan governor John Engler once said.

A philanthropist and a tireless advocate of the auto industry, politicians respected him, business leaders admired him and friends adored his wit and charm.

It would all end too soon.

Prechter suffered from severe clinical depression for nearly 30 years. One night in 2001, at his home in Grosse Ile, Mich., he took his life. He was 59.

Seven hundred people attended his funeral. Former U.S. President George H. Bush and current President George W. Bush called the family to offer their condolences.

In October of that year, Prechter's wife established a foundation in her husband's memory as a way to generate research and care in the field of bipolar disorder and help find a cure.

Today, the business he leaves behind is more than significant. ASC is the flagship of a conglomerate of automotive, newspaper, real estate and investment companies with 60 facilities and more than 5,000 employees worldwide.

ASC still provides specialty-vehicle design, engineering exterior trim and distribution of aftermarket accessories.

"He was blessed with an ability to create nearly anything he saw on a drawing board, whether it be a sunroof, a motor, a building or a car," his wife said upon his induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame. "In his heart he believed that ASC was his legacy."

But Prechter's spirit lives on.

Turn into your local Chevrolet lot and you'll see the signature of Heinz Prechter proudly sitting inside the showroom. Prechter designed and worked on the Chevy SSR truck before his death.

A convertible roadster. A little bit of Prechter. A plan fulfilled.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at : www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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