Interview and photos by Dennis Gray
Bruce Canepa has been involved with automobiles in one fashion or another nearly all of his life. He was born into a California car family, therefore his early fascination with anything mechanical was understandable, if not expected.
An accomplished driver, Canepa raced in period in Trans-Am, sprint cars, IMSA and others, punctuated by a third overall at the 1979 Daytona 24 Hours with co-drivers Rick Mears and Monte Shelton. He currently competes on the vintage racing circuit with the Porsche 935 he has owned since new, plus a wide variety of other desirable racing machines.
Similar to the early days at his father’s dealerships, Canepa is currently involved in all aspects of Canepa Design, from restoration services to custom transporters and SUVs to sales and service. Dennis Gray interviewed Canepa at his 65,000 square foot Canepa Design showplace in Scotts Valley, California, where they touched upon a range of topics, including Canepa’s racing history, his eclectic car collection, the future of vintage car racing and much more.
Sports Car Digest: Can we begin by discussing the history of you and your company, Canepa Design?
Bruce Canepa: First of all, I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, and my dad was in the car business. He had come back from World War II when he was in his 30s, and when he got back he needed a job. His sister’s husband had a Packard dealership, so he went to work there cleaning cars. Eventually, by the 1960s, he’d become a new car dealer himself. He had Lincoln-Mercury, BMW, Renault and International Trucks. He was a car dealer his whole life, after he got out of the war. So I grew up in the car business. I loved cars early on, and my dad said by the time I was four I could pick out every car make and model on the road. By the time I was 10 all I wanted to do was go to his car business after school. That’s all I cared about.
When I was 12, I asked Dad if I could work there after school because I wanted to buy a car. So he made me a deal; he would pay half of what I earned toward a car and really, he had me work just like he did. He had a real strong work ethic. I started out washing cars and cleaning out the lot and everything else. I eventually learned to detail a car, and I could do the job as good as anybody. Then I worked in the body shop. I learned how to sand and paint and do bodywork and I liked that. It was a creative area of the car business, whether they were wrecked or old, you got a chance to make them like new again. For a hobby I would restore whatever needed to be restored, mostly at that time in body and paint. Then he had me working in mechanical, in the parts department and in the sales department.
By the time I was 25, when I got out of college, I basically was managing his dealerships. By the time I was close to 30, Dad and I had different directions we wanted to go. I wanted to get rid of Lincoln-Mercury. I wanted to buy the Mercedes store and the Toyota store, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so I left his dealership in 1980 and started my own dealerships, ending up with the beginning of my businesses. They were new car dealerships like my dad’s, but they were German cars and Italian cars. Eventually I got tired of that. I didn’t like the way dealerships were run. I don’t consider them user-friendly for customers, but if you don’t run that system the way it’s run you don’t succeed. You’re nice to a customer and the guy down the street slams him in a car when he goes away to think about it. So I got out of the car business.
I had started doing my specialty business in the early 1980s as a satellite to my main business, so I had my dealership where I had Porsches, and I had a separate building where we were doing restorations and design work and prototype work. All the things that I loved, I was doing. I had no idea if I could make any money or not. As part of the big picture it was making money, but I had no idea if I could make money myself and support my family.
By 1990 the car business had gotten pretty ugly. We had gone through a pretty big hit in the sales business, and I had decided that I was going to try and get rid of the car dealerships. I had decided to do my own independent business, which is what Canepa Design is. I called it Canepa Design because a big part of our business model was doing design and prototype work, and we were doing a lot of design work for Kenworth Trucks. I really liked big trucks, and that was a really big part of our business. That developed into doing things for car manufacturers and that developed into doing things for developers and independent products that I thought need to be designed, whether it was a wheel or body kind of stuff. As that grew, I started doing more and more in the collector car business. I wasn’t doing it for the general public. I always liked old cars, and I started calling them collector cars. I liked everything from old Porches — I liked Porsches a lot — and old racecars, and I kind of was doing that in conjunction with the others.
In the 1990s we took all our dealership businesses and converted them into independent businesses. I started doing whatever I liked. If I liked it we bought it and sold it, or we fixed it up. That was my business model. If I don’t like it, we’re not doing it. About six years ago we needed to expand, and I found this building here in Santa Cruz, it was very underutilized. I got a great bargain on purchasing it, and we basically laid out a state-of-the-art business, asking: “If you could do what you wanted to with your business, what would you do with it?” So now, we do most everything in house. We have a great metal shop, we do all forms of machining, we have our own paint shop facilities, we do interiors, upholstery, we do Porsche engines all the way up to 962. We don’t do other engines because there are experts in every field, so if it’s a Chevy, we go to guys like Ed Pink and Tony Otto. We use all these other companies to do other engines, but all the gearbox and differential work we do here.
We now are doing a lot of racecars. Of course, I raced cars, and we have five people who, that’s all they’ve done their whole life. Three of them were with Porsche and with Audi, and they are really experienced guys who worked for Joest and Porsche. Now a lot of that kind of racing has slowed down or changed, so I moved them out here and they work for me full time. That allows us to take our race stuff to entirely the next level, and also allows us to do a lot of ground-up restorations. You go to the shop and it’s diversified. There’s Gull Wing Mercedes, hot rods, Can-Am cars, 962s, 356s. There’s everything in the shop. And really, my principles about what we do have not changed. I do everything that I like. I like old hot rods. I like old Porsches. I like older Ferraris. I like older Mercedes Benz. I like racecars. So, really, when you walk though the facility, everything is related to what I like.
There’s an M1 in the shop. I also like those cars and have owned several of them, and that’s why we have them in here. If I find a perfect one, I’ll buy it. The other thing is that I want only the best of whatever it is, whether it is the best original car, or the best restored car. I don’t want average cars. There are plenty of guys selling average cars. We know how to find the best original car or the best restored car, and/or we can do the best restoration on a car, so I only want the best stuff. Every car here is totally functional. Everything works, it doesn’t leak oil, it drives good, it’s been thoroughly tested. My theory is that a car should drive as good as it looks in every respect, whether it’s rolling the windows up and down, the gauges working, or stomping on the brake pedal at high speed, I don’t care, everything should work 100 percent. So that’s how we do the cars here. There’s no point in doing that to average cars. We are very fortunate. I have a pretty large client base that would rather have the best than something less than that. We’re also getting lots of new customers who have always been looking for something like that, someplace where they thought they bought it before.
So that’s what we do, and we still do truck design. We have a company in Fresno where we build the big transporters and trailers and such. I will always like big trucks and trailers because they are just big cars. We just took the new Peterbuilt and redesigned the side skirts and bumpers and fairings for it, so I will continue to do that kind of stuff. I love that stuff. I’m always looking for the next big thing. We’ve now added in support for customers. Most of our customers who we race with are customers who race the same kind of cars that I race, whether it’s the IMSA class in historic races, or a Trans-Am car or a Cobra. We probably do more Cobras now that I’m restoring a Cobra to race. I generally have customers who like what I like, so once they’ve seen something and they like it or want it, then we’ll sell them one of those or find one of those and then we support that for them. We support eight or ten customers on a regular basis for racing. We do it at the races that I’m involved in, so it makes it great we’re all there, I’m there, and we make sure everything’s done right.