Thursday, March 24, 2016

Letting the Sun In: Heinz Prechter and American Sunroof Industry during the 1960s and 1970s

During the 1960's, Heinz Prechter (1943-2001) attended school in Germany with the son of Dr. Golde, who was the head of the family that owned Golde Schiebed├Ącher (German for "sunshine roof" or "sunroofs"), a company located in Germany. Golde built and installed a high quality, cable driven sliding steel sunroof panel that could be cranked open and closed, or could be operated by an electric motor.

In 1963, Prechter moved to San Francisco, California to attend San Francisco State University. While a student, he worked part-time in an automotive shop. This shop did quite a bit of work for local car dealers to install Golde sunroof kits imported from Germany for customers who wanted the benefits of a convertible without any of the disadvantages. While there, Prechter learned how to install the sunroof kits and became convinced it was a feature with great commercial potential.

Prechter met George Barris of Barris Kustom City in North Hollywood, California, who was very busy creating custom show cars and street rods, as well as doing special projects for Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Before long, Prechter found himself in Barris' shop in Los Angeles installing sunroofs in some of the customs and show cars, and the idea was beginning to catch on with the public. Barris introduced Prechter to Ford Motor Company executives, and subsequently  Prechter was in talks with Ford about installing Golde sunroofs in new Ford cars as a factory option. In 1965, American Sunroof Corporation was established in Detroit. Prechter started with a $764 in cash, and he purchased used sewing machine, an old door converted into a work bench, and other items—many of them scrap parts.

Ford had previously experimented with offering a sunroof back in 1960 as a factory option for its popular Thunderbird, and it was obtained from Golde. Once testing by Ford had been completed and the decision had been made to offer the option, Ford promoted it heavily. An advertising campaign that emphasized the availability of the 1960 Thunderbird Hard Top with Sunroof followed, and the open roof feature was displayed prominently in brochures, magazine advertisements, and a television commercial was even filmed showing a Diamond Blue Thunderbird with the sunroof. Unfortunately, the sunroof option was not a popular one with the Thunderbird's customers, and Ford only sold about half as many as projected. Cars with the sunroof had to be moved to a separate section of the assembly plant for installation of the special sunroof parts as well as unique trim, such as headliners, which increased production costs and slowed the assembly line. Subsequently the option was dropped for 1961, but this reversal proved to be only a minor setback

Prechter kept in touch with Ford and continued to install the Golde sunroof kits in cars at the request of dealers and individuals who desired the feature. In 1966, plans were put in place to grow the business by focusing on working with the automobile manufacturers in Michigan to install sunroofs in new vehicles as original equipment. By 1967, Ford was again interested in offering a sunroof on some of its production cars. Convertible sales were beginning to slow since more and more people decided they preferred the look of vinyl tops and the comfort of factory air conditioning and stereo sound systems in their cars, and a sunroof was perfect for those requirements since when shut the vehicle was basically a normal closed car. For 1967, a power-operated Golde sunroof was offered as a factory option on Mercury's new 1967 Cougar, which was incredibly popular and became Motor Trend Magazine's Car of the Year for 1967. Enough 1967 Cougars were sold that the option was continued for 1968 on the Cougar, with plans to expand it to the Thunderbird line as well for 1969.

Advertising for the 1969 Thunderbird was virtually dedicated to the sunroof option, as every print ad depicted the car with an open sunroof with an attractive young lady standing up through the opening. For 1970, factory power sunroofs were being installed in not only Cougars and Thunderbirds, but also in Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorados, Fleetwood Broughams, Sedan deVilles, and Coupe deVilles. The Continental Mark III also began offering it in late 1969 (it was a late year offering on the 1969 Cadillac Eldorado as well). In 1971, with the power sunroof option being offered on Ford LTDs, Buick Rivieras, and other cars. It would only become more popular in the coming years.

Working with the Lincoln Division, Prechter designed a power glass panel Moonroof for installation in the 1973 Continental Mark IV. The silver-tinted, tempered glass panel featured a sunshade that could be opened to allow light in with the panel closed.? At this point, American Sunroof Corporation was doing quite well, and demand for their services was steadily increasing in the North American market, as well as in other parts of the world. It was later acquired by North American Rockwell, and is still an OEM supplier to many automotive manufacturers in the United States and Europe.

Today, ASC is a supplier of highly engineered and designed roof systems, body systems and other specialty-vehicle systems for the world’s automakers. Headquartered in Michigan, the company employs approximately 1,000 employees at facilities throughout the U.S.

In addition to ASC, Prechter founded Heritage Network Inc., a group of Michigan companies involved in the transportation, hospitality and communications industries. His Heritage Network group included a weekly newspaper chain (one of the largest in the state of Michigan) real estate development company and a beef cattle business. In early 1997, he created Prechter Holdings, which owned the ASC and Heritage businesses. Heinz Prechter was recognized for his entrepreneurial accomplishments, broad community involvement and political achievements.He was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Harvard Business Club and received the Automotive Hall of Fame's Automotive Industry Leader of the Year award. Prechter committed on July 6, 2001, after battling intermittent bipolar disorder for most of his adult life.

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