Meet Bruce Canepa, Customs and Restoration Artist to the Stars

Photograph Courtesy Porsche

Story by Preston Lerner • Photography as Credited

The collectible car world is a big tent filled with plenty of colorful characters. Collectors, obviously. Also restoration wizards, exotic car dealers, vintage car racers, prep shop owners and museum curators, to name a few.

Bruce Canepa is all of the above. Plus, he designs and builds custom big rigs to transport priceless cars in unmatched luxury.

Bruce knows something about everything,” says Bruce Meyer, founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Over the past three decades, he’s hired Canepa to work on a bunch of his cars, from a slammed Suburban and the first Ruf CTR Yellowbird to a Briggs Cunningham Corvette that ran at Le Mans in 1960 and the Porsche 935 that won the race overall in 1979.

He has a great eye,” Meyer continues. “He knows what looks right and wrong. He also has a great depth of knowledge about handling and the mechanical side, so he’s the complete package.”

Housed in a 70,000-square-foot shop/showroom/museum in Scotts Valley, California, a bucolic town just south of Silicon Valley, Canepa employs 75 people working on a wide variety of programs. He figures he sells more than 100 collectible cars a year and chips away at roughly 50 projects at any given time, including 10 or so ground-up restorations.

Photograph Courtesy Canepa

I’m a Porsche guy first,” he says. “We’ve restored both of the Can-Am championship 917s. We’ve done more than a dozen 935s over the years and at least that many 962s. We’ve also done several other Can-Am cars, like Denny Hulme’s championship-winning McLaren and the twin-turbo UOP Shadow. Last year we finished Dan Gurney’s very first chassis, which he drove at Indy and then won with at Riverside. We’ve done a number of Cobras and recently did an alloy-body Ferrari 275. We even restored the first Duesenberg [passenger car] ever built.”

What’s even more impressive than the size of Canepa’s restoration operation is its breadth. He has an engine shop that can handle anything from a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL straight-six to a flat-12 turbocharged Porsche. His metal shapers and body techs are as comfortable with old-school magnesium–found in a prewar W154 Grand Prix car–as they are with modern composites. Paint and upholstery are done in-house. He also maintains a separate area for historic race cars.

Having to subcontract things makes it hard to control quality,” Canepa explains. “There aren’t enough good outside vendors, and the ones who are really good are really busy, and most of them aren’t big enough to take on a lot of projects at one time, so you end up getting in line. I want to have as many of the disciplines as possible in-house. For me, it’s a matter of controlling the project and all of the details from start to finish.”

Need for Speed

Canepa, 69, grew up in the car business in nearby Santa Cruz. His father was a new-car dealer with Lincoln-Mercury, BMW, Renault and International Trucks franchises. Starting as a teenager, Canepa worked his way through each department. He started with sweeping floors, he explains, then began washing and detailing cars. He eventually moved on to bodywork, mechanical, sales and, lastly, management. But throughout it all, he was feeding a serious need for speed.

Like most racers, Canepa began with go-karts. When he was 15, he persuaded his father’s body shop manager to let him drive his jalopy, a ’58 Ford, on the local dirt track. Canepa quickly graduated to supermodifieds and then the beasts known as sprint cars, running West Coast and Midwest races against legends such as Gary Patterson and Sammy Swindell.

Photograph Courtesy Canepa

“I loved dirt racing, and I loved going sideways,” he recalls. “Those sprint cars were the most fun of anything I ever drove. You had a 1200-pound car and an 800-horsepower motor, and you did everything with the throttle. You controlled how fast you went. You controlled how much you rotated the car. After a couple of crashes, I joked that the steering wheel was just for hanging onto when you flipped over.”

Sprint cars were dangerous as hell, and they weren’t relevant to the street car world. Since Canepa envisioned a future in modifying and selling sports cars, he decided to explore road racing. For $25,000, he bought a Porsche 934.5– an upgraded version of a 911 Turbo race car derivative, with fender flares and a gonzo rear wing. The knocks on the car were an overabundance of turbo lag and a lack of grip.

“But if you could control that oversteer, you could go pretty fast,” he says. “Well, that’s all I’d ever done. In the sprint car, you were sideways all the time, so I was pretty comfortable with the car being loose. I laughed and said, ‘This thing is a sprint car except it has brakes and you don’t have mud in your face all the time.’”

Canepa finished seventh in his first-ever road race, an IMSA 100-miler at Sears Point. Next he placed fourth at Laguna Seca in a Trans-Am show and then third overall in the 24 Hours of Daytona, co-driving with Rick Mears and Monte Shelton. Impressed with the independent team’s finish at Daytona, Canepa says, Porsche offered them the last factory-built 935. He still owns and vintage races that car to this day.

“We’ve restored both of the Can-Am championship 917s. We’ve done more than a dozen 935s over the years and at least that many 962s.”

During the ’80s, Canepa competed intermittently in a variety of pro races in his own 935 and a range of prototypes, most notably the March 82G that qualified on the pole at Daytona in 1982. (Canepa also went on to set three records in the tandem-axle big rig class at Pikes Peak.)

But he throttled back on racing in 1981, when he started his own business. He began in a series of small garages performing collision work and mechanical repairs before expanding into customization and, ultimately, concours-quality restorations.

About Those Restorations and Customs

These days, his expertise stretches from ’32 Ford highboys to reimagined Porsche 959 supercars with 800-plus horsepower and price tags north of $2 million. He also runs a standalone business, Concept Transporters, which hauls collectible cars and creates bespoke trucks for do-it-yourselfers. Oh, and he maintains a fleet of about 30 cars in the museum above his showroom in Scotts Valley.

About 20 years ago, Canepa got back into racing–historic racing, that is. “There were enough guys who could drive the cars so that it was competitive,” he says, “but it was more fun than regular racing because it wasn’t so serious.”

Photograph Courtesy Canepa

Canepa immediately became a fixture at Laguna Seca in what was then known as the Monterey Historics. These days, he can often be seen at what’s now called the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, leading the pack through the Corkscrew in his twin-turbo 935, his Gulf 917K, his carbon-tub Canon 962C or his AMC Javelin Trans-Am car.

Of his many victories over the years, one stands out: starting near the back in his trusty 935 and driving flat out from flag to flag to run down and pass young stud Cooper MacNeil in a 935 K3. “I basically went through all 39 cars and caught Cooper with two or three laps to go,” Canepa recalls with relish. “He went a little bit wide into [Turn] 2, and I was gone.”

For many years, Canepa also played a critical behind-the-scenes role leading the selection committee for the vintage races in Monterey. Although he stepped away from this position after his attempt to negotiate a management contract with the track was rebuffed, he recently rejoined the committee and sat down with the new Laguna Seca management team to suggest ways to put a fresh shine on the Reunion. “It’s given us an opportunity to say, ‘Here are all the things that are deficient. Here are all the things we should think about doing. Here’s how to improve the event and take it to another level,’” he says.

While Canepa is a diehard racer, he’s also passionate about road cars, especially Porsches. So he was the perfect choice to transform Jerry Seinfeld’s 934–a notoriously wicked thoroughbred designed for the track–into a remarkably tractable and comfortable ride for the street.

“Nobody else but Bruce Canepa could have done what he did,” Seinfeld says. “He understands everything.

He does mechanical stuff. He does cosmetic stuff. I told him, ‘The brake pedal was a little high. This piece of felt doesn’t quite fit.’ He never tried to talk me out of anything. He understands obsession. Like me, he’s completely insane and obsessive. That’s what I like about him. If you’re not a completely obsessed maniac, you’re not going to enjoy life fully.”

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

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slowbird Dork
5/17/20 8:45 p.m.

I remember watching Pikes Peak on ESPN2 back in the 90s and seeing the incredible sight of a big rig taking on those mountain curves. That was the first time I'd heard of Bruce Canepa. Over the past several years, I've seen a few videos and articles about the restorations his shop does, but I wasn't 100% sure it was the same Bruce Canepa until now. The one I remember is there was some prototype supercar built in the 80s that never really even worked right because it was the prototype, and they took it to Bruce to both restore and refine it to be a usable car. That was pretty impressive.

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