Start Small & Dream Big - The American Sunroof Corporation Story: Part 3
|Heinz Prechter hard at work in the 1990's.|
By 1995, the daily grind had become stressful. Prechter appointed David Barefoot, formerly ASC's Cheif Operating Office, to head the company. Stepping down as CEO, Prechter remained as Chairman of the board and active in the company's new joint ventures. Colleagues never truly suspected anything was wrong with their devoted boss, but inside Heinz Prechter's mind a very quiet war had been waging since the beginning. Prechter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and for decades had privately dealt with bouts of depression while managing to build a global automotive empire with tremendous success.
Prechter grew more politically involved after stepping down as CEO, and donated large amounts of money to conservative political candidates in Michigan and nationwide. A friend of the Bush family, Prechter and his wife Waltraud purchased land in the Bush's home state of Texas and opened a 10,000 acre cattle ranch to enjoy a change of scenery from time to time. Prechter also was a champion for Downriver Detroit, and supported community improvement efforts all throughout the region when others packed up and left. Work remained a constant draw for Prechter, and while interests in real estate and a newly-founded charitable organization kept him active, ASC was still his heart and soul. The new millenium approached and ASC wasn't showing signs of backing down to the challenges of the next generation of automotive design. As the year 2000 arrived, General Motors contracted ASC for a new concept vehicle based on the full-sized Silverado truck platform. The Chevy Super Sport Roadster debuted on the show circuit for 2000, and the public hungered for a production model. New Mitsubishi Eclipse designs were approved and rolled out of their Bloomington, Illinois facility that same year and a Spyder convertible model was selling very well. Clearly, ASC 'still had it'.
|The ASC-built Chevy SSR Concept. A production version debuted in 2003.|
While working in his office on the afternoon of July 5th, 2001, Prechter suddenly told a colleague that he wasn't feeling well and would be heading home early. The coworker noticed that he looked "very tired" and suggested that he get some rest. The following morning at 8am, Heinz Prechter's body was discovered in his Grosse Isle, Michigan home. An official cause of death was suicide by strangulation. Prechter suffered from a severe wave of depression and it came on with ungodly force. And with that, the successful captain of the ASC empire was gone.
|A Younger Prechter in Seemingly Happier Times.|
Many of you reading this might be thinking "Why would a mutli-millionaire business leader take his own life while his company was riding high?" Its a great question, but we also know the sad thing about mental illness: It doesn't care about who it affects. You could be a military veteran, a factory worker, or a business executive and the ill effects of depression could claim you at any time. In the 36 years Prechter worked and cultivated his beloved ASC, only the very closest friends and family members were clued into his bouts with bipolar disorder. While being treated, colleagues would notice that Prechter would "bounce back" from his dark periods in a matter of time...and it wasn't really talked about around the conference tables and break rooms. The stigma of any successful person that's labeled as being "mentally ill" remains a career-ender today just as it did 10 or more years ago. In fact, ASC's employee health insurance plan didn't cover mental heath therapy at the time of Prechter's suicide...a policy that Prechter's successor, David Treadman said "will change" in the future. More than 700 people attended Prechter's funeral services on July 11, 2001, including Karl Rove and Michigan Governor John Engler. The company was sold to outside interests in 2002 and remains a profitable corporation to this day.
|Heinz C. Precter, Founder and CEO of ASC (1942-2001)|
In an effort to champion a good cause in his memory, his widow, Waltraud Prechter established the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund in November of 2001. This organization exists to foster research into the causes and treatment of depression at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A cultural awareness also exists with the automotive industry today that didn't in 2001. More people talk about mental health matters today in the US, but it still carries negative connotations that can have damaging results.
As the dialogue into metal illness continues in the wake of recent mass shootings and domestic disputes, one fact remains: Mental illness can touch anyone at any time in their life, with results as devastating as bringing down an automotive empire and as tragic as ending a human life. Heinz Prechter's story is proof that there is greatness inside all of us, and sometimes a darkness that we can't seem to shake. Amongst the automotive press, the ASC and Prechter story is largely untouched. Nobody wants to revisit tragedy, but we should be honest with each other and celebrate the achievements of this man, recognizing his struggles at the same time. While looking back on Heinz Prechter's life and automotive legacy, it is my hope that we can all bring depression a little further out of the shadows, and into the light of day.
* Heinz Prechter's landlord in his very first shop was none other than famed California car customizer George Barris.
* One of ASC's first jobs was to install sunroofs in Lincolns built for President Lyndon Johnson. The high build quality of these installations impressed the Ford executives enough that they awarded Prechter's company the contract for the 1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7 sunroofs.
* ASC pioneered the first in-car video entertainment system with the 1996 GM minivans known as the "Preimere" edition, which featured a built-in DVD player, small drop-down LCD monitors, and integration with the factory Delco stereo system.
* ASC developed a convertible version of the Saturn SC2. It was never approved for production, but it may have helped Saturn appeal to the youth market that GM hoped the divsion would largely appeal to. Saturn ceased production in 2009.