TRIAL BY FIRE
Air-cooled ambition burns bright at the Anaheim base of Porsche specialist, Benton Performance…
John Benton’s ambition burns bright.
The flames ignite at midnight in Anaheim, California, one works unit away from air-cooled Porsche specialist, Benton Performance. It’s just turned Halloween 2019, and company founder, John Benton is busier than he’s ever been, working with his eight-strong team to customise and restore some of the best 356 and 912 projects in the world. Of course, he still has the same innovative, enthusiastic approach he applied to his first 912 build more than three decades earlier, but across the coming months, he’s planning to develop a stronger, uprated, bespoke flat-four engine specification and he’s even starting the creation of scratch-built bespoke Porsches from his company headquarters. But then, fire forces its way into his workshop.
It burns hot and long, devastating everything in its path. The fuel tank of his neighbour’s pickup truck has ruptured and the petrol is accelerating the inferno, stoking the flames as they push through the tiniest gap into the Benton base, burning even brighter. The temperature spirals past 650°C until every alloy tool and
car part in the vicinity has melted into shapeless puddles of waste. John’s cache of rare magnesium Porsche parts vaporises in the blaze, leaving the close-knit business without a vital source of engine and driveline components.
Worse is still to come. A two-car lift stands in the middle of the building, holding a museum-quality
1976 912 E over The Beast From La Mirada, a heavily patinated 160bhp 912 sleeper John built into one of the fastest and most luxurious four-cylinder Porsches in the Californian canyons. “It featured a limited-slip differential and a close-ratio gearbox. It was a ripper! Sadly, it’s gone forever.” The retaining clips holding up the lift melt away and the 912 E falls on its bunkmate, crushing the older car. They burn together. Both owned by faithful Benton clients, they were being readied for minor tuning they’ll never receive.
A third chassis is trapped on the shop floor, resplendent with a new chrome-moly integral roll cage and fibreglass body panels. The engine, gearbox, seats and suspension sit right next to this 1967 912 race car, ready to be refitted in the coming weeks, were it not for
the red-hot heat that destroys every single part. By the time the fire service extinguishes the blaze — damaging the roof lining over one of the surviving workshops and stripping the paint from its walls — there’s almost nothing left beneath the cloying layer ash.
John stands amongst the rubble three days later, trying to work out what to do next. “I could have filed for bankruptcy, but I have people around me at Benton, and those people have families to feed. I had to take care of them.” John summons the entire team and tells them to stop thinking about Porsches for the time being. They’re construction workers now. Together they’ll build Benton Performance back into the friendly, world-class Porsche business it was before. John’s certain of it — his passion for Porsche is one flame that can’t be extinguished. “I remember my first ride in a Porsche,” he says. “I’d always been enthusiastic about anything mechanical making a lot of noise — guns, motorcycles, cars — and my cousin, Michael, had just bought a 912. We went out in that car together and something just sparked.” John spent his teens and early twenties buying used sports cars one after the other, sampling marques as diverse as Alfa Romeo, MG and Lotus, but nothing scratched his itch quite like a Porsche. He bought a 1968 912 finished in Light Ivory at the age of twenty-two. It takes pride of place in his classic car collection today.
The flat-four machine was a sports car capable of doing it all. It had to be — John had no back-up wheels, leaving his Porsche to handle the daily commute across Los Angles, as well as weekend racing at Willow Springs. Lacking the budget to dispatch the 912 to specialist workshops whenever parts cried enough, he taught himself to work on early Porsches by keeping his car in good operating condition through self-servicing and maintenance. “I’ve done so much with that car!
I got married in it, I won my class in racing events, it
brought my kids home from hospital when they were new-borns and I went on to build a company around what I learned from that 912.” As his knowledge base grew, so did his ambition. Working from the corner of an industrial building, John started rebuilding aircooled Porsche engines in his spare time. He never advertised his services, but he soon cultivated clients from the local racing and car club scenes attracted by his deep knowledge of the 912. He left behind the daily grind in 2005, acquiring the licences, insurance and code compliance to establish Benton Performance as a fulltime endeavour.
Growth came quickly, and soon the Porsche community was seeking out John’s services as a 912 expert. “I used to hate that,” he laughs today. “I don’t like being pigeonholed, but I realise it’s true: I am a 912 expert! Racing, modifying and breaking my 1968 car for so long let me develop all the techniques we’re still using today.” Then based in La Habra, Orange County, Benton slowly expanded from one unit to four. Never afraid to undertake challenging projects, by 2009, Benton was on the start line of La Carrera Panamericana. The historic event is a road rally like no other, taking in 2,000 miles of full-speed driving across Mexico. “Rob Curry asked me to prepare his
356. That car has tested me in so many ways, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at work. Panamericana is gladiator school.” John rebuilt the coupe to FIA historic specification at break-neck speed, then supported Rob on the way to a debut victory in the Sports Menor category.
The team has taken more Carrera wins and podiums since, each requiring a month’s preparation at Benton and three weeks on the road in Mexico. Back home, as the 2007 global financial crisis continued to hit small businesses into 2010, John continued expansion by buying out other companies on his trading estate and offering the founders jobs. “I wanted to give those guys a way out and keep them working,” he explains. Eric Vedugo, one
JOHN CONTINUED EXPANSION BY BUYING OUT OTHER COMPANIES ON HIS TRADING ESTATE
of the men who took up his offer, is still with Benton Performance — he’s the company’s star engine builder.
BIGGER AND BETTER
Californian interest in air-cooled Porsches ignited in 2012, meaning the new hires were soon working harder than ever before. Demand for Benton Performance kept spiralling, prompting John to move the business to larger premises in nearby Anaheim come summer 2013. The type of work tackled by the shop has changed, too. Moving away from the smaller jobs responsible for kickstarting the business, Benton Performance now specialises in bespoke, high-performance builds and full restorations. Specialities are spread throughout the workshop team, giving Benton Performance the ability to tackle anything that comes through its doors. John has the engine building ability to work alongside Eric, while Ian Benton (John’s son) specialises in transmission rebuilds and coachwork.
“He has a sixth sense for where everything goes on a Porsche, which helps us give cars the finish they deserve,” says his proud father. Experienced fabricator, Randy Inglis, handles bodywork, while senior technician, Pat Todd, has a talent for building suspension, brakes and electrical systems. Over in the office,
Valerie Lugo works with John to keep the whole operation running smoothly.
On 3rd November 2019, everyone put their automotive and engineering skills aside and began an operation to save the business. The Benton team worked tirelessly for the next four months to get the workshop running again. After tearing down the old buildings, the group created an equipment cleaning area, a preparation zone and a paint booth in the outdoor lot, then fabricated a wooden roof structure to keep out the weather. Running electricity and air to the new structure and reorganising the two surviving workshops brought the business back to life. Benton Performance reopened its doors on
1st March 2020.
“We still deal with the fallout every day, though,”
John adds. “I try to live in the present, but it’s there every time we don’t have a fixture, a part or a tool.” A new swathe of competitors gives Benton Performance another challenge to battle, but focus is on finishing the surviving projects being worked on at the time of the fire
ONE BAY IS OCCUPIED BY A FAST-PROGRESSING, FACTORY-STANDARD 1968 912 RESTORATION PROJECT
and taking on new builds. “Far more guys are building 912s now. The competition drives me. It drives me hard. Benton Performance can build showstopping cars whenever we get the opportunity, and I’m ready to prove as much all over again.” To this end, there are twentytwo projects in the Benton workshop when we chat — John directs me to four Porsches, each showcasing a different side to the Benton Performance story. One bay is occupied by a fast-progressing, factory-standard 1968 912 restoration project, another with a 1960 356 B race car being converted back into a street machine. A 1967 912 rally car fills the third bay — the owner wants to contest the gruelling Peking-to-paris rally — and John’s fourth selection points to where the Benton team is going next.
“As you know, I was creating a new flat-four when the workshop burned down,” says John. “I lost a lot of the fixtures I’d been working on in the blaze, but I’m back into that project now, making huge progress. We’re going to call it the Phoenix engine.” The punchy boxer is rising from the ashes with a strengthened crankcase inspired by period racing motors and near 2,500cc of displacement, plus custom four-inch cast iron cylinders and matching pistons from the Chevrolet stable. John is targeting more than 200bhp and a redline beyond 9,000rpm, with the ability to run up to 800bhp (yes, really!) with alcohol fuel and forced induction. A 1967 912 rally car replica will act as a test bed for the new engine. It’s the first step in a determined rebuild plan that should see Benton Performance grow bigger than ever before. John is searching for a new workshop location in order to expand the business back into three separate buildings and reclaim space he lost in the blaze, allowing his team to start exploring bespoke 901 and 356 Speedster projects. “There are so many parts available, I just know we can build entirely new cars from scratch. We’ve got the talent to make it work.” We don’t doubt him.