Charleston Profile: Driving Force
Terri Henning takes life for a spin in her collection of vintage cars
The cold drizzle casts a damp gloom over Paris, but you’d never know it from the polished chrome-like gleam in Terri Henning’s eyes.
She’s got her leather driving jacket on and her gloved hands on the wheel, and she’s buckled in a gorgeous curvy convertible, a vintage 1957 British racing green Triumph—a car you could picture Gatsby driving—her smile as wide as the windshield. The engine purrs as she approaches the starting platform at Paris’ monumental Place Vendôme. Cameras are clicking, crowds are cheering, the flag comes down, and she’s off.
Henning and her navigator, Marietta Colburg, a friend from Charleston, are the only Americans entered in the 2007 Rallye des Princesses, the only all-female vintage car rally in the world and a classic European sporting event. Over the next five days, they’ll cover 1,650 kilometers (almost 1,025 miles) of breathtaking back roads, driving past châteaux, through rolling green valleys, and around hair-raising hairpin turns—well, once they get out of Paris, that is. “What should have taken us 20 minutes took an hour and 40 minutes,” Henning laughs. “We saw the Eiffel Tower four different times from four different angles. I don’t think anybody did any worse than we did that first day—we missed all of our checkpoints—but nobody had more fun than we did either.”
Speeding off in a fragile, finicky car in a foreign country, where she doesn’t speak the language or understand the street signs, with only a confusing route book and an equally confused navigator to guide her, doesn’t detour Henning. She may be the driver, but she’s mostly along for the ride. “I never go with competition in mind,” she says of the rallies that take her hither and yon. “I only care about having the experience. I told Marietta not to worry, I knew we’d get lost. I don’t expect to win; I just expect to see beautiful back roads and amazing countryside and meet terrific people who all share a passion. That makes me a winner already.”
In fact Les Americans (as Henning and Colburg were affectionately dubbed in a documentary film about the 2007 rally) crossed the Cannes finish line in second to last place, but their unflappable spunk earned them the “Esprit de Rallye” award, a prize the big-spirited Henning has taken home from other events, such as the Mountain Mille. No surprise: her love of adventure, driving old cars, meeting new people, and chasing thrilling experiences comes through loud and clear, both on the road and off. These are loves directly tied to the love of her life. Terri’s late husband, Ed, a world-class racer and car connoisseur, introduced his bride to the elegant, sporty, moderate-to-high-horse-powered world of classic automobiles, and their shared passion for the vintage car culture continues to be her driving force.
Terri, who grew up in Alabama, already had an affinity for high-performance cars and Harley Davidson motorcycles before meeting Ed, a McDonald’s franchise owner, through her job as a site acquisition developer for McDonald’s. But when she walked in his warehouse and saw vintage cars for the first time, she was hooked. “It was like going into a museum of art,” she says. “The cars were just so sexy. I wanted to drive them, but Ed said, ‘No, you don’t know how.’”
Undaunted, Terri headed to the Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving in Arizona to learn the finer points of reading the track, the difference between straight-line braking and trail braking (she prefers straight-line), and how to maximize speed through the apex of a turn. Ed came to watch her final road test, nodding his approval from the sidelines. “You’re an excellent driver,” he told her. “You’re fearless.”
From their home base in Charleston, Terri and Ed enjoyed traveling around the world to car shows, track races, and vintage car rallies, where he’d take the wheel of his beloved 1957 Devin SS or the 1957 Porsche Speedster and she’d ride shotgun as navigator. When Ed died in a motorcycle accident in 2001, just shy of their second wedding anniversary, the clutch slipped on Terri’s fearlessness. “I didn’t know if I would ever do a rally again,” she says. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do something without Ed that I’d only done with him. I wasn’t sure I had the skill and ability, or the emotional strength.”
With the support and encouragement of their many friends in the vintage car community, Henning got back in the driver’s seat. The first rally she participated in following Ed’s death was the Highlands Classic, a gorgeous romp through the North Carolina mountains. She’s since ventured out and driven rallies that she and Ed never did together and now averages between four and five touring events a year. Some must-attends include Barnstorming Maine, which she takes her father on each year (an exception to her standard “all-female” team); the Mountain Mille through the serpentine roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains during peak leaf season, with nights spent at swanky pit stops like The Greenbrier and The Homestead; and the Colorado Grand, a 1,000-mile spin through spectacular scenery—a favorite rally of fellow vintage car enthusiast Jerry Seinfeld and one of the events that was on Terri and Ed’s list of things to do together. Most of the rallies are judged on time/distance/speed, with drivers trying to make certain checkpoints at determined intervals, and most are exclusive, charitable events—the Colorado Grand, for example, accepts only 75 “sports or racing cars of distinction built prior to 1961” out of 375 entries and has raised more than $2 million for Colorado charities over the years.
“I’ll tell you what, that woman can drive,” says Sally Weil, a Charleston friend who has accompanied Henning on several rallies. “She’s very knowledgeable and very careful, and she loves having fun. Her car friends—these fabulous people from all over the world—have such respect for her. They love her and look out for her, then she usually whips them in the race!”
Henning’s ongoing education in all things automotive (she may be the only woman in Charleston who subscribes to Road & Track, Car & Driver, Auto Week, and 19 other car magazines) extends to the buying, selling, and restoration of cars. Her collection includes a 1954 Jaguar XK 120 that once belonged to Clark Gable; a 1957 Porsche 356A Speedster in metallic sea-foam green; a Lotus 23 racecar; and Ed’s prized 1957 Devin SS, winner of the Road & Track Trophy for the “Car The Editors Would Most Like to Drive Home” at the 2005 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, a car that Terri finds “exhilarating” to drive. “I love everything about the cars and the rallies: the sound of the engine, the lines of the cars, the smell of exhaust,” she says.
“I could never be the driver my husband was. I do it for the pure love and joy of it,” Henning adds. “Sharing this passion with me was his greatest gift to me.” This gift has taken Henning down roads she never imagined. Recently, she traveled to a tiny island off Croatia with some of her car friends and was so smitten with its wondrous Old World aura that she plans to return this August. For her upcoming 50th birthday in 2009, Henning and friends are planning their own festive rally zooming from Italy to Croatia along the Dalmatian coast, with celebratory Champagne checkpoints along the way.
“That’s the magic of the car world,” says Henning. “You never know who you’re going to meet or where that relationship will take you.” She just buckles up, puts on her helmet, her gloves, and Ed’s old leather jacket, and takes off, savoring each and every turn.