Journal: Remembering The Exceptional Life Of Preston Henn

Remembering The Exceptional Life Of Preston Henn

By Petrolicious Productions
May 3, 2017

Preston Henn, who turned himself into a racing legend from a fortune made in flea markets and drive-in theaters, passed away earlier this week from natural causes at the age of 86.

If the phrase ‘Waste not, want not” can be applied to anyone’s life history, it is that of Preston Henn. His knack for marketing, hard work, and ability to spot business opportunities helped him build a car collection purportedly worth northwards of $100 million. Recognizing that his drive-in theaters were sitting empty during the day, Henn took inspiration from a another theater in Compton that was used as a swap-shop during the day on weekends, and so decided to do the same with his.

Image courtesy of the Miami Herald

Henn made his public life an asset invaluable to his marketing strategy. The cowboy-hat-wearing mogul was a master of self-promotion. His antics and boisterous activities made for entertaining column inches in the local Sun Sentinel, which kept close tabs on what the eccentric mogul was up to. His more attention grabbing activities included suing Ferrari for not selling him a LaFerrari Aperta, and being charged with two counts of battery. Henn was attempting to remove a vendor from his flea market who he believed to be trespassing—the Sun Sentinel reported that Henn had to be subdued with a taser gun. The charges against him were later dropped, and three years later he continued to make references to the incident in TV spots. Henn joked in the adverts that he had be tasered because he was “wild about the prices.”

Henn’s temper was something that made him renowned on the racing circuit as well: known for swearing, spitting, and throwing helmets at those that crossed him.

Image courtesy of  Kevin Jeannette

Despite seeking out every last opportunity to expand the reach of his businesses—like famously wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ads for his Thunderbird Swap Shop—Preston was a private man as well, enjoying downtime with his wife without the intrusion of a hectic social life. But while he was able to retire from the public eye with relative ease, retiring was never in the cards. Henn continued to work at the Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, often checking up on his business from the seat of a golf buggy. Another testament to his vitality: Henn managed to squeeze 180 miles per hour out of a Ferrari, on his 80th birthday no less.

Because of its popularity in Florida, racing was an obvious, and fun way to promote his businesses operating in the state. His first foray into professional racing was in 1977 at Sebring, an appropriate location for a Floridian mogul to debut on the track. He followed this with another big Florida favorite—Daytona—and then began to race in the IMSA GT championship and Trans Am, competing with his own cars or racing for other teams.

Images courtesy of Fetter Photography, and Fred Lewis, respectively

One quality that all successful business men possess is persistence, and Henn had it in spades. He enlisted the help of other drivers, including the likes of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood, to help him find that elusive finish that evaded him for two years, finally finishing 19th on the 100-mile race of Road Atlanta in 1979, in a Porsche 935. Not a bad steed to cross the line with.

Collectors worldwide will be waiting with bated breath to hear of what will become of his sizable collection of rare vintage and modern automobiles which includes such gems as Ferrari 275 GTB/C chassis No. 6885, believed by some to be the most valuable car in existence. It has yet to be decided whether the collection will remain in situ or split up, but no matter the fate of the cars, their owner will long be remembered as the wild man who amassed them.


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7 years ago

I hauled Preston’s crashed Porsche from Silverstone down to the factory in Stuttgart in 1981 in the Z+W team tractor trailer. The truck was too big to fit through the old stone arch at the competition dept, so we had to unload the Porsche on street. We blocked traffic completely for an hour or so while while got the 3 wheeled race car out our truck and onto a factory transporter. Then I had to head back to Brussels to get our car (Mazda RX7) ready for the Nuerburgring race.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
7 years ago
Reply to  ChasH

Great story, thanks for sharing.
Sounds like good times.

7 years ago

I met Preston Henn for the first time at the Cavallino Classic in West Palm Beach back in the early 90’s. I’d watch him jump in and out of his Ferrari F 50 or Enzo wearing his distinctive white, rolled up at the sides cowboy hat and faded blue jean bib overalls. He was a man who covered no punches with anyone and it was interesting to see this over the top “showman” mingle with jet-setters and blue-blood millionaires alike. Some just didn’t know how to take his bluntness and brash demeanor. The second time we met was at the Amelia Island Concours when Bill Warner and his group honored the insanely pricey 63 Ferrari GTO. He and I stood in line for an upcoming GTO seminar and while standing there he opened a book showing pictures of his ultra rare Ferrari and questioned why he wasn’t up on stage addressing the attendees. He was a rough character and cussed like a sailor who’d been denied leave. I found my seat in the seminar and he seemed pleased to know I’d saved him a chair. He sat through the discussion mumbling and grumbling but I didn’t mind because I knew this was just who he was as a man and a part of me agreed that he too should be up on the stage if for no other reason them to add “color” to the event. I admired him for what he had done for racing recalling his Daytona 24 hour win and Le Mans efforts and looked past all his roughness. In fact I asked him to sign a piece off my GT 40 I’d brought with me. Of course everyone I’d asked, signed it with my blue or black “sharpie” but he he pulled out his own sharpie and signed it in blood red. There are few like him left. RIP Preston.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
7 years ago
Reply to  Wingnut

Awesome story.
Thanks for sharing the insight.
RIP Preston

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