Vini Bergeman, Stretch Builder, Was An Industry Original

Martin Romjue
Posted on February 22, 2017

LONG BEACH, Calif. — More than 400 mourners and friends gathered in a standing room only aircraft hangar Feb. 18 to bid farewell to Vini “Big Daddy” Bergeman, the founder and owner of the 1980s-1990s era Ultra Coachbuilders which propelled him to the title of “King of Limousines.”

Bergeman, whose Bronx-meets-Southern California persona matched the exotic and dynamic stretch limousines he built, died Jan. 31, 2017 at a hospital in Placentia, Calif., from an illness. Born on Jan. 30, 1951, he had just turned 66 years old the day before his death.

It was only appropriate and obvious that Bergeman would be buried in a casket molded into a replica of a red classic 1950 Mercury Coupe made by Cruisin Caskets

Bergeman was one of the original custom stretch limousine coachbuilders who defined the modern day limo industry, and rode to prominence customizing stretches and luxury vehicles for a long roster of entertainment celebrities and VIPs. He inspired or mentored several other prominent Southern California limousine manufacturers still in business today, longtime limo vehicle builder Ed Grech, owner of Riverside-based Grech Motors; Dominick Vitelli, Bergeman’s nephew and owner of Quality Coachworks in Ontario; and Bill Alden, founder of Tiffany Coachworks in Corona.

“Vini was the creator of what is known to be the stretched limousine,” Grech told LCT. “His creativity and designs are unmatched. He has truly earned the title ‘The King of Limousines.’”

Throughout the limousine industry and to the wider non-industry general public, Bergeman was known for constructing the world’s longest limousine. His creation, a 1997 36-passenger, 66-1/2 foot long white Lincoln limousine, made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the longest street legal vehicle in the world, according to Bergeman’s profile on The monster limousine cost $1.8 million and was built for Sheik Hamad Bin Hamdan Al-Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates for use when he visited the U.S., the site reports. The limousine is in two pieces with a hitch in the middle to bend around corners. The rear compartment behind the hitch was built to be detachable, so when the sheik was not entertaining he could enjoy a normal 30-foot limousine.

A collage of photos from Vini Bergeman's life (click to enlarge)

A collage of photos from Vini Bergeman's life (click to enlarge)

Among the many clients of Ultra Coachbuilder’s “over-the-top” customized, radical, unique, edgy stretch limousines were Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Lasorda, according to his funeral biography. He also created two major projects for Disney, the LiMOUSEine and the MOUSEORAIL. Bergeman and partner Kraig Kavanagh also built exotic cars for Hollywood studios, including a few genuinely extravagant limousines.

Because Bergeman cut a unique character as “Big Daddy,” it drew the attention of TV producers in the 1990s and early 2000s, landing Vini reality roles on such shows as Monster Garage and American Casino, and as the cab driver in the 1990 movie "Nerds of a Feather.” He reached the height of his entertainment career in 2004 with his reality TV show, The Kustomizer, that drew on his vast custom vehicle experience, not only with stretch limousines but motorcycles as well. Along with his stretch-building, Bergeman applied his talents to a company called Ultra Kustom Cycles where he created the “Big Bike,” a 20-foot tall replica of a Harley Davidson.

In an October 2004 article for the former Limousine Digest magazine, industry writer and current LCT contributing editor Jim Luff wrote “The Kustomizer is about 50 percent customization and 50 percent Big Daddy. When you think he has done it all, he comes up with something new and wacky."

“'I just got done building a surfboard that goes 45 miles per hour,’ laughs Big Daddy. ‘I hurt my ribs riding it. It has a (purpose built) motor that lays on its side.’ Although the first episodes stretch a limousine and build a motorcycle, The Kustomizer will not be limited to stretching the conventional. ‘The next episode might be a house or a boat,’ explains Big Daddy."

“In addition to meeting Big Daddy's crew, the audience is invited to tour a Big Daddy crib, which is as over the top as he is. At 20,000 square feet, the palatial mansion sits on a California hilltop. The living room alone could house a few families. Audiences also get the privilege of going into Big Daddy's bedroom, but we need to keep some surprises for when you watch the show.”

"The first brand new limo we bought at Limousine Scene came from Ultra," recalled Jim Luff. "Vini pushed the envelope on size, amenities, and style in the 90s with beautiful interiors that simply wowed people when they opened the door and looked in. He was a pioneer in the use of lighting and mirrors to create dazzling effects."

According to his funeral biography, Bergeman was born in Bronx, N.Y, the son of Carl and Rae Bergeman. He learned how to work on cars at a trade school, and as a child he would customize model cars, taking rims from one model and putting them on another. He developed a common practice of making a car look chopped by taking a section out of the roof.

As a young man, he followed his first wife and son, Vincent, out to Southern California in 1971 to pursue a career in vehicle customizing. He found work as a body shop man and honed his customizing skills.

According to “In the 'trick car' business, Bergeman's Kolor Me Kustom company mostly ‘built studio stuff,’ he says. Similar to others who were curious about these things, one day in the late 1970s, he ‘just decided to build limos.’ The first car was already longer than anyone else's, he says, which he built ‘to fit more people, just to goof around.’ From there, however, Bergeman proceeded literally to extend the limits of the limousine.”

His nephew, Dominick Vitelli, remembers those days well. “My Uncle Vini convinced me to move out to California at 17 to work with him at his start-up Ultra Limousine,” Vitelli told LCT. “While working there for 13 years, he taught me from the ground-up about coach building and this knowledge would later result in me owning my own business. It was exciting working for him in the 1980s, especially because the limousine industry was just starting to evolve. We took on a multitude of projects that pushed the boundaries of creativity. I consider him my mentor.”

Left front clockwise: Marty Vitelli, Anthony Bergeman, Dominick Vitelli, and Vincent Bergeman at the burial of Vini Bergeman, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 (photo courtesty of Dominick Vitelli)

Left front clockwise: Marty Vitelli, Anthony Bergeman, Dominick Vitelli, and Vincent Bergeman at the burial of Vini Bergeman, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 (photo courtesty of Dominick Vitelli)

Bergeman's funeral service was held Feb. 18 at Guidestone Church in Buena Park, and he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress. A gathering of family and friends followed at the hangar in Long Beach.

Bergeman is survived by his sons Vincent Bergeman, born in 1969, and Anthony Bergeman, born in 1984; brother Carl T. Bergeman; sister Maryanne Vitelli, her sons Dominick Vitelli and Marty Vitelli, who is a sales representative at Grech Motors; and many more family and friends.

Memorial donations in Bergeman's honor can be made to The Teen Project, 8140 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley, Calif., 91352.

“He took the small cars and made them longer, and it changed the whole industry,” Vitelli said.

LCT PHOTO GALLERY: Funeral Scenes & Ultra Limousines

Related Topics: custom coachbuilders, custom limousines, custom stretches, deaths, history of the limo industry, memorial, obituary, Ultra Coach, Vini Bergeman

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