Coconut Grove

Heidi Hetzer’s wild world adventure by car brings her to Miami for a pit stop

Video: 78-year-old woman's journey around the world in a vintage car

Heidi Hetzer, a German woman who has been driving around the globe in a vintage 1930 Hudson, arrives at Miami City Hall Sunday morning.
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Heidi Hetzer, a German woman who has been driving around the globe in a vintage 1930 Hudson, arrives at Miami City Hall Sunday morning.

Phileas Fogg really has nothing on Heidi Hetzer.

After all, Fogg, the fictional character in the Jules Verne classic, Around the World in 80 Days, had a rail and steamer to whisk him on his journey around the globe and a French valet to keep him company.

Hetzer, a 78-year-old woman from Germany, is traveling around the world in a 1930 Hudson — solo, except for the few times she travels with a guide. She’s seen fire and she’s seen rain. Snow. Temperatures plunging to minus-21 degrees in China and Russia. The Grand Canyon and the rolling green hills of New Zealand.

Soon after pulling up to Miami City Hall on a windy, 79-degree Sunday morning, she joked that her vintage vehicle has no heater. No AC.

“I open the windows,” she says.

“Here in Miami?” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado chuckles.

Talk about a wild adventure. Miami drivers haven’t fazed the Berlin resident yet. “They are polite, they respect the car and that I drive slow and I’m all over looking at the pictures and the boats.”

I love Miami! I would love to stay here. It is beautiful. But I must go on or I’ll never make it in two years.

Heidi Hetzer, from Miami City Hall, after a brief stop in the city on her trip around the world in a 1930 Hudson car.

Miami City Hall, the former Coconut Grove site of the Pan American terminal building, was no accidental pit stop. “It’s an iconic place. This is a site where the first international flights to Nassau and Havana were made so I think it’s a fitting place to showcase [Hetzer and] the car,” Regalado said.

“We have a close connection between Berlin and Miami — there is a piece of the Berlin Wall here from the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down,” said German Consul General Juergen Borsch. He joined Hetzer at Miami Dade College’s downtown Wolfson Campus to show her the historical segment Sunday afternoon. Her arrival, Borsch feels, “is another symbol of our close ties between Miami and Berlin.”

Hetzer, mother of two and a grandmother of five, set off on her great adventure on Aug. 1, 2014. A former racer, she sold her automobile business and knows cars inside and out — even if this 3.2-liter, eight-cylinder engine Hudson that she affectionately named Hudo aggressively chopped off the tip of her right pinkie. A rag she was using to sop spattered oil caught in the engine and swept her hand upward while in Ontario, Canada, in late September.

For the optimistic road-tripper, who pulls up to a parking space as a stranger and, with her quick smile and ease of chatter, immediately leaves guests feeling like friends she hasn’t seen for years, it was a mere speed bump.

“I cannot use the warranty on this car,” Hetzer teases. She’s put 113,000 miles on the car she bought specifically for this journey around the five continents. There are some custom additions, like a roll bar for safety. Her budget is $50 a day, not counting gasoline and repairs. “I don’t buy clothes. This is the only dress, just for you!” she quips, spinning in the breeze to show off her coral dress.

She is determined to see as much of the world as possible. The Heidi Around the World website tracks her adventures. She prefers surface roads over expressways. Has GPS but mostly navigates by instinct and tips from friendly passersby and, when necessary, her car is shipped overseas, such as for her next destination after Miami to South America. “I see much more and can talk to people and if I break down what are you going to do if you’re on the highway?”

Hetzer, 78, has driven through the Middle East, China, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Next up: South America, Africa.

Hetzer was inspired to circumnavigate the world in a car by the first woman to do so, Clärenore Stinnes, a 26-year-old German race car driver who made her trek from 1927 to 1929, in a German Adler Standard 6, in the company of a Swedish cinematographer and writer she married after their globetrotting. Hetzer’s route is slightly different owing to today’s security issues at trouble spots.

Stinnes’ silhouette is stamped to Hetzer’s Hudson Great Eight, along with stickers from Ferntree Gulley, Australia; Hamburg; and a yellow beware-of-bears caution sign from Canada. An antique Maine 1930 license plate rides the rear passenger bumper, just above wheels that spin wooden spokes. A map of her route is affixed to both doors and pictures of her children and grandchildren line the dashboard. The happy family photos remind her what she has waiting for her when she returns to Berlin in August — if all goes to plan.

“My youngest grandchild is 8 months, I’ve never seen born. As I was in New Zealand, on Easter Sunday, my telephone rings: ‘Mama, you’re a grandmother again!’” she says. Her son plans to take his own family on a three-month camping trip there. Only the youngest and oldest can get away with such adventures, Hetzer says. “I’m so lucky. I’m healthy, 78, my God! Not everybody has that.”

Hetzer, who speaks no Spanish, can’t wait for her next itinerary in Panama, Lima and Buenos Aires. “Miami, it’s just beautiful. Yesterday, I was on the beach, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Before, I was in Naples in the Gulf of Mexico. Too beautiful. Too much luxury. It’s about time I’m going on my trip where it’s poor and different. Not enough adventures for me. America was too normal. Australia. New Zealand. Canada. They speak the same language and eat the same things. I need more adventure,” she says in a giddy riff.

Hetzer’s message: “People should go out. Don’t sit at home in front of the TV. Go out and do something, whatever you do doesn’t matter. … Keeps you young in your head and in your body. The worst is to sit at home and look at other people’s lives and give up on yourself. You can do more than you think and this is my message to older people. Go out and do something fun.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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