From Road & Track
The warehouse at Benton Performance-a tuner and builder renowned for its work on vintage Porsches-burnt to ashes last week, taking with it a collection of rare parts and cars valued in the millions. Just one week on from the fire, the shop's owner, John Benton, says it's time to rebuild.
"The shop is open, but we're a wounded beast," Benton said in a phone interview with Road & Track. "You watch a Godzilla movie and he's kicking everybody's ass, but then he just gets totally fried, well that's where we're at right now. We're trying to get back to the point where Godzilla emerges from the ocean again and just lays down the law."
The blaze started last Wednesday night, near Benton Performance's facility, nestled into an industrial complex in northeast Anaheim, California. At 11:53 p.m., a 2016 Ford F-150 spontaneously combusted in the adjacent lot, said Benton, who watched security-camera footage of the fire escalating. The heat from the vehicle fire collapsed the diesel tanks on a nearby pickup. The burst tanks spread flaming diesel fuel across the floor of the lot, engulfing a nearby lumberyard and the buildings next to Benton's.
"On a regular night, it probably would have just burned up that truck, and we all would have come in the next day and gone 'holy shit.' But that's not what happened," Benton said. Sustained winds with gusts up to 50 mph have exacerbated fires throughout Southern California this week, including wildfires in nearby Corona and Hillside that have consumed thousands of acres of land in the area, displacing residents and businesses alike.
"So at the same time we were burning, everybody else was burning," Benton said. In addition to wildfires in surrounding areas, an apartment fire and a suspected arson took precedence that night, Benton said, adding frenzy to the local fire department's evening. The fire department arrived 20 minutes after the blaze started, but pulled their pump truck up to the wrong building, he said. By the time the fire truck was repositioned, it was too late for Benton's warehouse.
"Everything was lost. The entire building. All the infrastructure. Everything in the building. And it's all gone. It's gone. It was 2200 degrees in the voids without flames," Benton said.
The warehouse blaze started on the side of the building that held racks of Porsche racing seats-soft, vintage rarities that found homes in Benton's high-end builds. From there, the fire quickly spread to Benton's collection of magnesium wheels. (Chemistry lesson: magnesium ignites at a relatively low temperature, heats quickly, then burns so intensely that the brightness of the flame can injure your eyes. Here's a video primer).
"Once the magnesium went off, it just started going and melting, and it melted all the alloy wheels, and all the tires on the wheels went off," Benton said. The shop was packed with shelves full of engine blocks, heads, complete shortblocks and longblocks from 356s, 911s and 912s. "I had stuff from 1955 all the way up to (the Porsche 911) SC, up to 1978," Benton said. "When I got here there was nothing to be done."
All told, Benton estimates more than $3 million in damages, including the losses of a museum-quality 912E and an irreplaceable personal car among other casualties. But the melted Porsche parts represent perhaps the biggest loss for Benton, who relies on a back stock of used or NOS parts, collected over decades, to keep his business running. Now Benton can't run to his warehouse for a Zenith or Solex carburetor. Every extra part is gone. Instead, for the foreseeable future, he'll buy from other suppliers for the first time. The task of resupplying his shop is daunting, Benton said, as vintage Porsche parts become rarer and more expensive. But he is clinging to hope.
"As human beings, we go through these phases. Originally, your lizard brain tells your you're going to die. And you're not in the best, most logical place. At least, I wasn't initially. But then, you start to be rational, and get rid of that poison. And you start thinking of possibilities. So for me, I'll focus on the things I can still accomplish."
For now, Benton will reconfigure his business, stuffing his operation into the portions of the shop that didn't burn. His engine building operation will continue and expand. He'll search for a new lathe, a new mill, a new band saw, MIG and TIG welders. Depending on how the insurance battle plays out, Benton Performance may be forced to move to a new location. We wish him luck.
"I go through waves when I'm like 'how am I gonna do this?' But I'm surrounded by good people and I've got two sons that work here. Everyone else who works here might as well be family," Benton said. "I've invested a lot of time into legacy. And what I mean by that is bringing young guys in here and giving them a chance. And I don't want to let them down."
You Might Also Like
16 of the Most Interesting Engine Swaps We've Ever Seen
See 70 Years of the Greatest Ferraris Ever Built
These Are the 14 Best New Cars for Less Than $45,000