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Bruce Canepa Design – Interview and Profile

Interview and photos by Dennis Gray

Bruce CanepaBruce 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.

1974 Porsche 911 RSR
1974 Porsche 911 RSR

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.

Shelby Cobra under restoration
Shelby Cobra under restoration

SCD: Can you talk about your history in racing, what you drove, who you raced against, the best and the worst?

BC: I first started racing go karts in the alleys behind my parents’ house, we used to race up and down the alleys. It was very unsophisticated then, I mean, there was a go kart track in San Jose and it was no big deal. It was to us at the time, but it was not like today’s go kart tracks. Then Watsonville Speedway was close by so I ended up racing in NASCAR Sportsman. That was the first car that I kind of rebuilt myself from the ground up, and then eventually built one brand new. Those were Chevy chassis bodies and 358 cubic-inch engines, big tires and wings. We ran on quarter-mile dirt tracks. From there I raced Supermodifieds in the late 1960s early 1970s, and the best place we raced was San Jose Speedway. I ran there and drove those cars for three years or so, and from there I ended up in Sprint Cars.

Sprint Cars were the most exciting of any cars I raced, because they were the most on the edge, and I think required the most skill. I know there’s lots of Sprint car drivers who did not drive other places, but there are very few who could drive everything else, then get into a Sprint Car and drive it. You had a 1200-pound car and generally had 800 horsepower and not much brakes. The whole idea was to go 100 percent throttle, which was the opposite of anything else. You start with full throttle then you back off a little. You know, with everything else you start with idle then you accelerate. You’re not going to do very well if you cruise in a Sprint Car. You learn to drive on a really loose surface in the dirt, and you learn to drive sideways all the time. You also learn to drive without a lot of brake or anything. So, I think they’re the best teaching car you can be in, if you can survive them and do it. For me they were absolutely the most fun of any racecar I ever drove, and only because we crashed them a lot, and unfortunately a lot of guys lost their lives during the period when I raced them. Everybody was talking me out of them at some point saying, “Why don’t you do something else?” I had my share of injuries in them, but I was never afraid much, and that is not a good car not to be afraid in. I raced against a lot of really great drivers in those cars. Gary Patterson, who is no longer alive, and all those guys who ran Northern California. Patterson, Leroy Van Connet, Jimmy Sills. There was a really good bunch of drivers in those cars. Leland McSpadden, Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell. You actually were pretty trusting because all those guys could drive real well, and they were all really good at it. Some of them still are. I saw Kinser on TV last night and I go “my God” — 20 times a Sprint Car champion.

Bruce Canepa's first sprint race car
Bruce Canepa\’s first sprint race car.
Wynn's Sprint Car
1961 Wynn’s Estes Sprinter won 1964 USAC National Championship.
1960 Kuzma USAC Championship Sprint Car
1960 Kuzma USAC Championship Sprint Car.

From there I went and road raced. I had never road raced before. The first car I ever road raced was a Porsche 934. It was George Styers Jr.’s. car. He didn’t like it. I picked it up used from him and I went and drove it. For me it was a pretty decent fit because single turbo 934s were pretty loose. They ran with a lot of oversteer and a lot of lag so that you really needed to like to have the throttle down. That seemed realistic, in Sprint Cars you drove them with the throttle down too, so I fit pretty good in that car. The first time I drove it was at Infineon, which was then Sears Point, but basically I was against all 935s because in 1978 twin-turbo 935s were the thing to have for all the wealthy sportsman racers. So I ran that car the first time I had ever seen Sears Point, had ever driven a road race car. I think I finished seventh. The second race in the car we went to Laguna Seca for the Trans-Am race that was really the same cars. They didn’t have the 935s but they had the 934 — and Corvettes and Mazdas and all that stuff. I think Peter Gregg won that race and Milt Minter was second, Greg Pickett was third in his big Corvette that he had at the time, and I was fourth. That was the first time I ever raced at Laguna Seca.

In January 1979 we go all through the car and get it fresh and take it to Daytona for the 24 Hour. I took Rick Mears with me because he was a friend of mine, and Monte Shelton, who I didn’t know, but he came with us. None of us had ever been to Daytona, and we got third overall in the 24 Hour. We should have finished second. Unfortunately, that’s when we had two mishaps and they were mishaps on our part. Monte was driving the car up in the garbage, I call it, and I kept telling him don’t drive up there in that high lane, there’s too much trash up there and he came in and said he thought an axle had gone bad. It’s just he picked up some debris, but we wasted 30 minutes changing an axle. And then, later in the night my crew was finally exhausted enough, we had a bunch of other guys helping us, and they made a mistake they sent Rick down the pit road and the left front wheel fell off. So we lost a wheel and he had to limp it all the way around and we had to fix the bodywork and get the wheel back on it. So we lost, in total, about 40 or 50 minutes total in pit time and that was enough to put us third, otherwise we would have come in second. Apart from that, it was a lot of fun.

From that point, of course, the factory invited me to come to Porsche. Then when I got to Porsche they asked me what I was doing and where I came from. I explained to them that I was a Sprint Car driver and they had no idea what that was, so I showed them pictures and they still had no idea what that was. Then they offered to build me a new car, and I kind of told them I couldn’t afford a new car and that I was doing this for fun. Then they told me they wanted me to drive, the way I drove, and they wanted me to drive more, and they helped me to get a new car, and which I still have to this day. The ’79 935 that I have is the last one that was factory built. I’ve had it the whole time. That’s car No. 12. When it showed up here, we went to Sears Point, and in 1979 it was really a big year in IMSA racing. Normally you could go to a race and there were 15 guys who could win. It was a pretty serious group of guys. You had Peter (Gregg) and Hurley (Haywood) and (David) Hobbs and (Jim) Busby and (Gianpiero) Moretti and (John) Fitz(patrick) was running full time. It was a who’s who. Klaus Ludwig was over here running. It was unbelievable the depth of that field. It was fun because with that first car in that first race I got fifth. The next week we went to Portland, I had never seen Portland in my life and I qualified on the front row next to Peter Gregg, and that got everybody’s attention. Then we ran wheel to wheel the whole race. We lapped the whole field and only on the last lap was I running out of fuel because we didn’t know enough about fuel, putting it in cold and expanding the tank and stuff. We still got third, I ran out of fuel and I had to go to reserve. if we wouldn’t have run out of fuel we would have gotten second. After that I drove the Moretti car quite a bit.

Later on I drove 962s. Then we started going to Pikes Peak, first in 1979 and 1980, and set the qualifying record with the car that I keep upstairs. The Unsers got that car outlawed after that year because they couldn’t run with us. We were faster in every section of the race than anything they had there. They basically got us outlawed from that point. I went back to Pikes Peak in 2000 and drove the Kenworth, the big truck. I tested it for the chairman of Kenworth and then he told me he wanted me to drive it, so we went to Pikes Peak and for three years in a row we set the record for big trucks. Which was pretty amazing, because it is a 13,000-lb truck and has almost 2000 horsepower and 4000 lb-ft of torque. That was the year that Dave Richards brought over the Prodrive team with all the Subaru rally cars. Just to get a sense, the Prodrive drivers were only averaging 30 seconds faster than the truck, which is funny because I remember Nick Fry coming over and introducing himself to me and telling me I had all his guys completely spun out because they couldn’t figure out how this truck could go not much slower than a factory Subaru was going. Anyway, now I’m going to Bonneville this year with a car that should go close to 300mph, and I’ve never done that. Other than that I have a car that will do a pro race once in a while, but mainly we do a lot of historic car racing, which is a lot of fun. We have a lot of guys who used to race in the day, from (Bobby) Rahal to Hurley, and it’s just a blast. It’s a lot less stress and more fun than pro racing was, and you get to drive lots of different cars!

Prepping Porsche 935 for vintage racing
Prepping Porsche 935 for vintage racing
Bruce Canepa's Porsche 935 at Sears Point Infineon Raceway
Bruce Canepa\’s Porsche 935 at Sears Point Infineon Raceway
Pikes Peak Porsche Turbo
Powered by 3.0 liter flat-6 twin-turbo Porsche engine producing 450 hp, Canepa drove this 1,000 pound machine to second in the Open Wheel Division at the 1981 Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Canepa qualified on the pole with a record time.

SCD: Is it unusual for someone to have such a broad interest in automotive types? Hot rods, street and sports cars, vintage and historic racing cars and on and on?

BC: Well, a lot of people think it is, but my particular friends who are car guys, like Bruce Meyer, who is my best friend, and we do tons of car stuff together, and he likes all kinds of cars. Bruce and a number of other guys we all hang out with are the same. They like hot rods, they like Porsches, they like racecars, they like low riders, so I think it’s normal. When you go into their garages to see what they like, you only see what they drive. A lot of these people have a hot rod, I don’t care who it is. For example, Tom Armstrong from Seattle. Tom likes everything, from Duesenbergs to Cords, to Cobras, and hot rods, he likes everything. I think there’s a lot more of that, and part of that is a maturing process for a lot of guys. It’s just over time they appreciate much different cars, and I think I got an earlier start on it. Starting at 10, it’s been my business. It isn’t like I went and became a real estate mogul and then came back. I never stopped doing it.

I think for a lot of guys, if they have the time and they can afford to do the cars, then all of a sudden they slowly have an appreciation for lots of cars. You see them start off with one kind of car then all of a sudden change. They may start out with Ferraris, then like Porsches or racecars or want a vintage racer or whatever. It’s just a thing that develops over time. Now having said that, there are lots of guys who just like one group of cars, they’re just total Ferrari fans or they’re just Corvette fans, and you go to their garage and it’s all just one kind of car. Some of these guys have just the greatest collections in the world of one marque. That’s just never been me because I like everything. I was lucky I went to Indianapolis when I was very young, and that I went to dirt tracks when I was young, and went to road race courses when I was young, before I got to drive at those places. I got to experience a lot of different cars all the time, and because it’s all I’ve ever done, really, in my entire life, I have had a huge exposure to it and got to experience a lot more of it.

1972 Chevrolet Chevelle 'Buck Kinney's Special' Drag Car
1972 Chevrolet Chevelle \’Buck Kinney\’s Special\’ Drag Car was five-time NHRA national record holder. Buck Kinney is the only Canadian ever inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame.
So-Cal Special
So-Cal Special broke the class C record with a run of 172.749 mph at the 1953 Bonneville meet.
1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, Buddy Baker
1969 Dodge Charger Daytona was first NASCAR Grand National car to post a 200+ MPH race lap, driven by Buddy Baker. Won 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington.

SCD: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in Vintage and Historic racing in the past 20 years?

BC: The preservation of the cars, the originality of the cars, the quality of the drivers. I mean a number of things have happened. Number one, everybody’s learned that the car being original and correct and as it was is very important. You kind of have to thank Steve Earle for that. He was the first one who planted that seed, saying, “You don’t take an old car and race it like it was a new car.” Whether it be a Ferrari Testa Rossa or a 935 Porsche, you should be driving it, and it should be restored and built as it was originally. I have to thank him because a lot of guys wouldn’t understand that mentality if it wasn’t for Steve. Because of that now, for me, that’s the only way it should be. I can’t imagine it to be another way, but what I do see has changed, is the cars have become more and more valuable, which is not a bad thing. It’s nice that your portfolio has something that is appreciating. There aren’t that many things doing that.

1968 Lola T160 Can-Am
1968 Lola T160 Can-Am

It allows you to make the investment in the cars and make sure they’re totally correct, take care of them, get them up to the highest standard they ever were so that they’re all in good shape, and then have a little bit of time to be able to enjoy them and drive them the way they were supposed to be driven. A lot of guys are making a real effort to do that. I see a lot of guys who have never raced in their life and they have driver coaches and they are testing all the time, they are driving lots of different kinds of cars to get experience. They’re driving tracks both here and abroad. I see guys who can afford this really putting a lot of effort into it and it’s a lot of work. A lot of seat time is a lot of work. For me it’s easy now because I did it my whole life. These guys are trying to compress that into a very short window of time and that’s work, and that’s not fun all the time. It’s fun to drive the cars, but it’s work to drive them efficiently. There are so many guys who have become really, really good drivers, and back when I drove these cars they could have been pro racers. Examples, Ken Epsman. Kenny drives well enough that he could have been a pro driver. Rob Walton drives well enough that he can run pro cars. He started pretty late doing this, and yet he has great hand-eye coordination, he has great car control. He seems to be very focused when he does it, and you have a lot of guys like this. I see them all the time so I watch their driving skills. There are a lot of guys who are really good at this, and they only did this in the latter part of their lives.

SCD: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the Concours d’Elegance shows in the past 20 years?

BC: Not a lot of them. On and off all the time. Last year we showed a car at Beverly Hills that we just restored. A lot of that has to do with restoration. We had done a ground-up restoration on a Cobra, so we showed it at Beverly Hills. We were invited, Bruce invited us and we showed it there. And won an award. Then we went to Pebble Beach last year with two cars. At Pebble Beach they had a Porsche racecar class so we took the 917-10 Can-Am car and the 962 Rothmans car and ended up with a first and a third, which was really nice for a first time at Pebble Beach. Usually we do concours because we get asked to bring stuff we have. I’ve made, my company’s made, the effort to go out of our way to take cars to concours so people can see them. Those things aren’t easy either, they’re a lot of work. Load up the car the day before, make sure everything is working right, get up and 5 a.m., get it out of the museum, and get it spotless clean because they are going to look at it. My cars are spotless clean, but you get it spotless clean at another level, so you spend a day preparing the car at a minimum, and this is on cars that are already “perfect.” Load it, take it there, leave at five in the morning, unload it on the grass, be there with it, hang out, be there all day, take it home, and then I tell guys we clean it all up again before we put it back in the museum. It’s a lot of work, but it allows people to see cars they otherwise would not see. That’s why I allow the public to see the museum any time they want to see the cars, it’s not restricted.

1972 Porsche 917/10
1972 Porsche 917/10 won Best of Class at Pebble Beach Concours d\’Elegance in 2009, in addition to finishing 3rd in the 1975 German Interserie Championship.

SCD: Where do you see Vintage and Historic racing headed?

BC: Where is it headed? I think it’s headed just to higher levels of quality and perfection and driving, than it is today, that’s all. Future generations — I don’t know what they’ll be like with the cars, but I know I have a son who’s 19 and he likes old cars. Part of it’s because he’s around me and he has to like them, but he does like them, he likes them a lot. He likes my Javelin as much as he likes any modern thing on the freeway, he thinks that’s cool. Hopefully these generations will be able to afford these cars and do what we’ve done with them. They won’t be doing it with newer cars I don’t think, because I don’t think new cars are the same anymore. Based on how they are built. Street cars have no real identity anymore. They’re all somewhat the same for trim and styling. Because of the safety laws and electronics they’re all the same platform now, they’re very similar. And there are no more light, nimble sports cars, touring cars and GT cars, they’re all heavy. That’s part of all the laws and regulations. I think people will continue to like old cars. They get in old cars and they get to feel and hear and do things in them. New cars are almost automatic; they almost don’t need a driver anymore. Old cars, you have to drive them, you have to turn them and stop them, you have to get a sense of what they’ll do and figure out how to make them do it. I think it will just keep going.

This year at Monterey we had 850 entries and were going to run 600 cars, which is the most we’ve ever run there. Pre-reunion, we’ll have 375 at that. What is happening is that we added another day to the main week because guys have come this far and made all the preparations and then don’t get a lot of driving time. We added another 15-minute session so they get four instead of three. So we start on Thursday. Eventually, my goal is to get all the SCRAMP guys to agree we run the thing all week long with a day off in the middle. Because there are so many great cars that should end up on the track. That event is a full week event anyway. Concours is Monday and Tuesday and there’s McCalls on Wednesday, and there are the auctions. It’s not a weekend event any more anyway. There is no lack of interest, even in these economic times. Here we are with 800 entries. We got to experience what Steve experienced when he ran that event, he had to tell 200 or more people that they don’t get to come. And try to whittle through that when we did that.

The selection committee included John Lamm and Bill Warner and Steve Earle and myself; that was a hard task. Who do you tell, “you have to stay home.” I don’t think we made enemies. We did not receive any hate mail afterward. And sure enough, people had my email address. I think most guys appreciated that we did more than ever before and tried to accommodate as many cars as possible. We put as many cars in the classes as we could, figured out the paddock so we could get more in there. We redesigned the paddock to gain enough space. By grouping the F1 cars together, there are two F1 cars per garage, and there are 20 garages. So that’s 40 cars and 20 less spaces you need. We put the Bugatti group together. We put the NASCAR drum brake group together. We’ve had to do some work on the paddock so there won’t be an empty spot. There will be nothing but great racecars in the paddock, and some great street cars. We’re not going to have trucks, or vans, or rental cars. I tell my friends, you can have an AMG Mercedes, that’s a great car, but it’s not going to sit on the paddock. Bring your Sprite, and that you’re going to park in the paddock. To me the paddock is a big showplace. Our goal, and Steve’s goal is, if Infineon is the same, just take care of all the details. It’s a lot of work. Our hat’s off to Steve because how he did what he did at Monterey, with his staff, is incredible. The reality of it is, if you want to bring that to a higher level than it was, and that’s our goal, it takes ten people. We have ten different people who are working on ten different things daily. I know my weekly total is five or six hours a week, at a minimum, and that’s just on little stuff. Then there are ten full-time people, and that’s not including volunteer people. Really, we’re just trying to do what Steve did and take the time to do all the details no one had time for.

1970 Trans-Am Ford Mustang - Dan Gurney and Peter Revson
1970 Trans-Am Ford Mustang, driven in period by Dan Gurney and Peter Revson
1972 Chevron B21
1972 Chevron B21 was the works entry for the 1972 South African Springbok series. It was the last B21 built and was actually the prototype for the B23 model. The car competed in all five events in the Springbok series winning four of them on their way to clinching the 1972 championship.
1969 Porsche 917K
1969 Porsche 917K

SCD: Where is the collectors market headed?

BC: I think what is happening is that tangibles are finally starting to surface as real worth. The reason I’ve always collected cars is because I’ve said there is only one of those, or there are only two of those, or 30 of those. Somewhere there has to be value for that because it’s not being reproduced. It’s never going to happen again, and that’s what it is. To me a car has always been a form of art, much more so than a picture. This is an engineering feat, a mechanical wonder. If you look at cars, they are the most incredible technological feat of my lifetime. Being born in 1950 and watching cars, watching what happened from what a 1960 car is and comparing it to today’s car is pretty amazing. Now you go back and really have an appreciation for what was handmade and machined and done. That is what these old cars are, they’re art.

Unfortunately, some of them are a problem created by man. New cars don’t have that design elegance that old cars have. I’m a designer and I feel that all the truck design I did when I worked at Kenworth was all done by hand, we sketched it, and then we built a full-size scale as a prototype. Today, everybody’s in a hurry so they draw it in the computer, and put in a machine and cast the part, whether it’s a hood or whatever, and they have a model in hours. Then they say send it to tooling, and that is the process. There are some great designers in the world, as good today as back then, but they don’t get to sit there and study that car for a month and tweak it and do this and that. You’ve got to get it out all the time. The demand on schedules has taken away the design elegance.

Now that’s one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that they don’t get to design cars that look like that because they have this crash standard and these airbags and this that and the next thing. You have to have all this stuff, so anyway it just leaves out a lot of the artistic part of the car design. You have all these modern cars, whether it’s a modern Ferrari or Aston Martin or Porsche, I don’t care what it is, you can’t find a new car that has as much design appeal or identity as an old car.

A new 911 is a perfect example. They’re great cars, but a new 997 Porsche is not a ‘67 RS or a ‘73 Carrera RS. I just say it’s so limited now, what they can do to that car. Look at the old one, they did not have to look at bumper standards and weight, they could build the car light. They had no emission standards, so you really got to build a pure automobile, more than what you can do today. Now I think that people are realizing that this is really a form of art and the values are really starting to show it. I mean people pay $100 million for a painting or a sculpture all the time. Paintings that are 20 and 30 and 40 million, sit there and I think, well that makes no sense to me at all. I mean that makes absolutely no sense at all. Because that guy was talented with a brush, I’ll give him that. But still, he didn’t engineer anything, machine anything or make it work when he was done. The car is a much higher level of artistic quality than a painting. Really, how many tangible things in the world are like that?

1968 Porsche 911L Rally Car
1968 Porsche 911L Rally Car

So you say, “I’m not going to do that I’m going to do something else.” What are you going to do? Military equipment? Old airplanes? I love old airplanes. You take P-51s and Corsairs and all those old airplanes, but there are even less of those, and they have no utility unless you are a really experienced pilot. You can’t go out and play with a P-51. And even if you are an experienced pilot, you’re not playing with a P-51, that’s a serious piece of equipment. I mean with a car you can play with it. You can get your buddy and cruise down the street and fart around with it and do whatever you want. You’re not doing that with an airplane. Not safely. And then it’s not easy to house it and maintain it or anything, whereas with a car you can take it home and put it in the garage, and the next day, fire it up again, or a month later fire it up and go again. I think people are starting to realize that there is nothing like that in the world, so the numbers are huge, but relative to other things. I just saw a house on the beach in Malibu for $57 million. Who cares?

SCD: What are your feelings about the latest mega million sales of cars like the Bugatti Atlantic and the Ferrari GTOs?

BC: What I think is happening is that they’re starting to have their just value. Now, when the muscle cars went crazy I thought that was unjustified. This is one of 17,000 Corvettes built that year; that’s not the same. Now, if it’s 1 of 1, or 1 of 10 or something, then that’s entirely different. You look at some of these cars, take the GTO, and now there’s three GTOs sold. Now look at that Bugatti. It’s unbelievable what that car looks like, from every angle. The first one of those cars I saw was Ralph Lauren’s. If you were a car guy you couldn’t walk away from it. The first time I saw Ralph’s was at Pebble Beach when it was first restored and he unveiled there. It was magnetizing. You just sat there and kept looking at the car from every angle. I tell guys real design is such that no matter what angle you look at it — low, high, three-quarter, front, side, back, from the top down — I don’t care where you look at it, it’s gorgeous. If you look at every angle, and every angle is correct and the design is angled, that’s real design. There aren’t many cars like that in the world. There aren’t that many. So I think they’re just being recognized as valuable.

The other thing that has happened is that the wealth in the world has expanded. I mean you have wealthy people in China, you have wealthy people in Russia, lots of places besides just the United States, but you don’t have more cars. There are only so many. I don’t know how many billionaires there are in the world, but probably two percent of the billionaires would buy up all the GTOs. So not much supply for the billionaires. If they all wanted a GTO, they’re out of luck. I think that’s what’s happening in the car trade. I’m not surprised. On one hand, I think it’s great because I have a nice collection of cars. On the other hand I hate it because there’s a bunch of cars I can’t afford to buy. I can’t afford to write a check for my own collection today if I had to start over. I really think we’re only a few years away from when China will be buying lots of cars. Right now they can’t take them in. When they open the door to wealthy Chinese buying collections and bringing them home, omigod. They could buy them all.

SCD: From a collector’s standpoint, what is there to buy for under $100K and over $500K? From a Vintage and Historic racers standpoint, what is there to buy under and over $100K?

BC: I think it depends on what a person is comfortable to drive. I think there are more pieces to that puzzle. I don’t think you can limit it to dollars. You have to include a couple of things, because one guy may not like driving one thing with slick tires and 200 horsepower. You have to figure that part out. For $100,000, I tell guys that one of the most fun cars you can drive, that will teach you to drive almost anything, is an early 911. That is a car which is extremely safe, which I think is important, because as people come into racing who never did it, they have no experience of getting hurt. None! And I’ve had a fair amount of getting hurt. I think what happens is that I can sit there and say I wouldn’t want to get hurt like I was driving Sprint Cars. When you’re young, you heal right up. “A skull fracture? No big deal, when do I get back into the car?”

It’s different when you are over 50, breaking bones isn’t so simple with your other responsibilities, your companies, your families, everything. You really can’t afford to go out and get injured. OK, so I sit there and think, if I’m going to vintage race, I’m going to be really smart and get into a car and if I have an accident, I’m safe. And I say that because people say these are old cars and they’re really not that fast. I tell guys to go down the freeway in your streetcar and just for a minute look at the bridge above and just imagine hitting it at 60mph in your streetcar with 20 airbags. You would say you would never do that. When you go to the racetrack you’re going 80 or 90 or 100mph in an old vintage car, and you have no airbags and if you hit anything there is nothing there. It’s just not the same, and yet guys just have no concept of speed when they’re racing, none. They forget it all. “I can go as fast as the car can go.” Not really, but that’s how they think. They think, “I’m successful, so I can drive,” and that’s not necessarily true either. Even guys who can drive sometimes think they can drive when they can’t. There are plenty of wrecked racecars to prove that.

So, I think if you talk about a $100,000 car, it’s an early 911, a short-wheelbase 911. That’s a fast car, it teaches you oversteer and understeer, to whatever degree you’re comfortable. It handles unbelievably well. I mean, a 50-year-old Porsche doesn’t handle like a 50-year-old car. You get into one of these old 911s, or a 911S, and it’s just a blast to drive. And if you crash, I tell guys that Dr. Porsche was really the first guy to discover deformable structures. I have wadded up a Porsche and walked away because the car took the brunt of the energy and slowed it all down, and I got out of it with nothing more than bruises. I think that’s a great $100,000 car for a guy to start with. It’s as safe as you can be. Most of those cars are 200-220 horsepower. They run on a 6-inch wheel with a pretty good chunk of tread under it. They stop good, they turn good and do everything really well. So there is your $100,000 car.

When you talk about the over $500,000 car, we never got there. My comment is the ultimate development of a racecar was the later 911 RSR. It is my value for an over $500,000 car. It has all the safety of anything you could ever drive. It now has 350 horsepower, it has 14-inch wide rear wheels and slicks and wings. That car is absolutely as much fun as anything you could ever drive. It goes fast on a fast track and it handles great on a short track. There’s lots of other cars. You could go to Can-Am cars, or F1. If you drive a 911 or you drive an RSR, you get out smiling and laughing. You get out of those other cars and you’re sweating and trying to get yourself calmed down again because it’s a fair amount of stress compared to a lot of other racecars. I can drive one of those and chuckle and talk to those guys all the way around the course.

SCD: How important is maintaining original “patina” in a vintage/historic car?

BC: I think the problem with racecars especially, more than road cars, is that there are very few racecars that you can leave as they were because they have been through so many wars. If you look at how many times cars have been re-wadded up or re-bodied, or engines that have been changed. I mean, you don’t find many racecars where you can say you’re leaving it as original. Even in my museum upstairs there are two cars that are pretty good examples of that. The Pearson Ford is a great story because it was built for the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1975. They won the class at Daytona with that car. It was supposed to go the 24 Hours of Le Mans too, but it didn’t because John Holman of Holman and Moody died at that time. That program got cancelled and that car sat in the building, original. It just sat, it got parked. There are not many racecars you could take home and wash off and leave all the original patina from a 24-hour race and say this looks awesome. It’s original and has been kept that way. Most of them have been re-bodied, repainted 20 times, re-parted, upgraded as many times as they could figure out to make it go faster. So maintaining a patina is really hard to do. It’s extremely difficult to do unless you have a racecar that ran a season or a couple of seasons and then somebody put it over here on the shelf and kept it that way.

1990 Porsche 962C, Japanese Trust
Japanese Trust 1990 Porsche 962C. It has not been modified from factory specification or damaged in any way.

It’s pretty hard to have cars that are original like that. I like both. I tell guys if I can find an original car that is so original that I can completely restore it by cleaning it and going over it to make sure there is no oxidation on it — so you wouldn’t have rust on it if it rained yesterday — I’d need to restore it as close to the original as I could. I don’t want it to be different than it was. It will end up being better than it was. In the old days, even 962s, when we restored them, the noses didn’t fit, the doors didn’t fit, the tail didn’t fit. Every time you would put them on, it would chip the paint or fracture the composite, because they weren’t fitted very well. Now the Al Holberts of the world, and the Bruce Canepas of the world, we were so meticulous we would go get the car from the factory and go fit everything, and take it all apart and get it massaged and rebuilt. When Penske used to buy a car from March, it was completely rebuilt in his shop, like new. Everything he didn’t like he threw away, and everything else he finished, because they were production racecars and they were never finished, there was no time to finish them to that level. So, when I restore one, I want the doors and hood and everything to open and close and fit, so we take a 962 and we gap it. We go around and make sure all the doors open and close without banging into the body, and same with the nose and same with the tail. We don’t make it street car perfect, we don’t make it dead flat, we don’t make the gaps all consistent. We just make sure as a racecar you can put the tail on and off 20 times and not fracture the paint and the stuff. We do that with all the parts, we basically go through the car and do a lot of that with everything because I want the thing to be nice when it’s done. So that’s kind of what we do.

SCD: Do you develop and support cars for clients?

BC: Yes, I do that for clients who basically race with us. If I’m going to go to Monterey and run two or three classes there, if somebody we’ve sold a car to wants to go to Monterey, then we’ll take them there. We do all that, we have full track support, trailer, awning. We do it like a number of other guys do it. We don’t go to Sebring and haul my car to Sebring. Unless I’m going, we don’t do that track. There’s guys who do that really well. There’s guys who do that full time, and do a fabulous job, but that is their business. I do it as a service for customers who want to race where I’m racing and have cars and do business with me. That’s what I’m about.

SCD: What else do we need to know about yourself or Canepa Design?

BC: I think the main thing about myself and this company is that if you want to do things absolutely 100 percent right, and thorough, and safe, that’s what we do. And if you don’t want to do that, you’re at the wrong place.

Bruce Canepa – Photo Gallery (click image for larger picture and description)