Heinz Prechter Blew the Lid Off Detroit, and Now His Profits Are Through the Roof
Heinz Prechter is not satisfied with a hole in one—he wants a hole in every automobile roof. Certainly he is on the cutting edge of the trend. Prechter's American Sunroof Corp. will be responsible for 180,000 new sunroofs on American cars this year (installing some on his own assembly lines as well as supplying components for others directly to the automakers). Although the gas crunch has stalled U.S. auto sales, Prechter's empire will gross more than $100 million this year. That's not bad for a 37-year-old German immigrant who arrived in this country 16 years ago with $11 worth of marks in his pocket.
For Prechter, the sunroof is nothing less than art. He has sculpted distinctive treatments for all U.S. manufacturers, and he claims that his Towne Car roof for the Lincoln Versailles added 24,000 units to the line's sales last year alone. A noted customizer, too, Prechter makes annually some 10 palatially reworked limos, half of them exported to assorted oil sheiks. He has also turned a Cadillac Eldorado into a station wagon at Glen Campbell's behest. President Nixon ordered his limousine—complete with security features—from Prechter in 1970. A stretch job went to Elvis—"a perfectionist like me"—and Henry Ford II sent over a Pinto to be customized for the Shah when he celebrated the Persian Empire's 2,500th birthday in 1971. "They'll never make a car," Prechter boasts, "that we can't change."
The diminutive (5'5") entrepreneur was born in the tiny German farming village of Kleinhöbing and moved to nearby Nuremberg when he was 13 to apprentice in his uncle's auto repair shop. Upon emigration, he enrolled in San Francisco State College and worked part-time installing sunroofs (common on European cars) for a small local body shop. Two years later he bought his own business in L.A. and quickly attracted celebrity clients. Frank Sinatra was wowed by Prechter's plush designs and ordered a customized Ghia. So did Dean Martin, and even Bob Newhart requested a Cadillac station wagon with bar and telephone. "My work," proclaims Prechter, "was perfect even then."
The sun did not really shine on Prechter, however, until 1968. After several pilgrimages to Detroit, toolbox in hand, he finally won over skeptical executives by making conversions while they watched. Now, from his headquarters 12 miles from Detroit, he oversees eight U.S. branch plants.
Prechter's single-mindedness does not melt at the end of his 12-hour business day. At an auto show in Frankfurt, he fell for a theology student. She resisted for three months, but in 1977 Heinz and Wally (short for Waltraut) Ellinger were wed and now live in nearby Ypsilanti. "I knew I'd marry the right girl," confides Prechter. "I'm a planner. I had my specs."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine