7 July 2016

Respected Porsche builder's humble VW roots

Judging by his childhood environs, John Benton should not have become the go-to guy for specialty Porsche 912 builds. His hometown of South Gate, Calif., was General Motors territory, home to the automaker’s South Gate Assembly. Everyday Benton watched Cutlasses, Tempests and Buick Specials roll off the line and into the streets of this blue-collar Los Angeles suburb. That was during the 1960s, back before emissions regulations and gas shortages made foreign cars a common sight on American streets. Yet Benton’s heart would ultimately belong to all things air-cooled.

Beginning when he was four-years old, his cousin Denise put him in the passenger seat of her Volkswagen Beetle and Benton’s life changed forever.

“She took me everywhere in that car,” Benton recalls from his Anaheim, Calif. shop. “It didn’t even have seat belts, so I’d hold onto that handle on the dash as she ran the dips on the side streets, just bouncing up and down and listening to all those new and strange sounds.”

The seed was planted.

He was a mechanically-minded kid, always tinkering with his bicycle, his scooter, his skateboard. His skills were further honed over summers as he found himself “voluntold” into unpaid internships by his tradesmen uncles on their jobs. This work may not have been a kid’s idea of fun, but the skills he gained set the stage for his future success as a mechanic, electrician, and fabricator. By the time he hit high school, friends were paying Benton to work on their cars, to muscle up their Volkswagen Squarebacks and make them as loud and quick as Benton's own car.

When Benton was sixteen years old, another of his cousins bought a Sand Beige 1966 Porsche 912. After much pleading and bartering, Benton managed to convince his cousin to loan him the car for the upcoming winter formal dance at his high school. It was a night that, in retrospect, helped chart Benton's course in life.

"I couldn't wait to get rid of my date so that I could go drive the car," says Benton. "I dropped her off and drove all the way to Long Beach, as fast as that car would go with the speedometer pegged at 120 miles per hour the entire way."

Compared to his VW, the four-cylinder Porsche was so stable, so confident and Benton was intoxicated by the sound of the air whooshing across the cowl and over the windshield. He was hooked, vowing that he would one day own one of these cars for himself. It took him seven years, but at the age of 23 in 1984, he had his first 912.

Porsche ownership led Benton into club racing at Willow Springs Raceway, 100 miles north in the windswept Mojave Desert. What Benton lacked in cash he made up for in ingenuity and mechanical aptitude. Soon, he was competitive on the track and, eventually, winning against drivers with significantly deeper pockets. Inevitably, these drivers wanted to know who was tuning the 912 for this kid who kept beating their turbos' track times with his dinky little four-cylinder. When Benton informed them that he was a one-man mechanic and machine shop, he began attracting his first clients as a Porsche specialist.

As with any side hustle, though, Benton Performance – a name not formally adopted for several more decades – started as a backyard, after-hours project that gradually consumed so much time and space that it offered a new path in life for Benton. His career as a facilities engineer in Corporate America offered a comfortable living, but it was creatively unfulfilling and fraught with bureaucratic bickering. At his wife’s urging, Benton finally quit his day job and committed to the life of a Porsche builder in 2005.

Now settled in Orange County, Calif., Benton Performance has distinguished itself among other 912 shops (though a 356 or a 911 is hardly out of place in this shop). Benton’s builds, restrained and timeless, are known for honoring their original aesthetics while offering improved performance through upgraded suspensions and drivetrains.

"We have to honor the people who designed these cars," says Benton, "but I also like making improvements. If you open the decklid on an early Porsche and it looks bone stock and has 40 more horsepower, then I've really done my job."

Benton is no slave to tradition, but he clearly understands what captured his imagination those many decades ago.

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