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'Vette's Best Friend : Roger Brunelle, 'the guru of fiberglassing,' heads a now-venerable enterprise that customizes, restores and repairs the sleek sports cars.

February 12, 1993|DAVID S. BARRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David S. Barry is a North Hollywood writer.

The San Fernando Valley was already known as the home ground of hot-rodding and custom-car styling when the Chevrolet Corvette made its debut in 1953. The Corvette and Southern California seemed born for each other.

But the California car customizers worked in metal, and the Corvette body was fiberglass.

Roger Brunelle saw a golden opportunity when he arrived in Southern California after serving with the Marines in Korea.

Bruno's Corvette Repairs, the shop he opened in 1954, has become part of the landscape on Ventura Boulevard. Almost 40 years later, Bruno's Corvette is known to Corvette enthusiasts worldwide and is probably the oldest Corvette-oriented business in the world outside General Motors.

Phil Roche, former president of Vintage Corvettes of Southern California, has known Brunelle since 1956.

"He's kind of the guru of fiberglassing," Roche says. "He's one of the most trustable people in that business."

The shop was born of Brunelle's experience with the Marines in Korea, where he encountered a new substance--fiberglass--that was the bulletproof material in experimental bulletproof vests. Brunelle began studying plastics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by correspondence while still in the Marines. After the service, like so many other ex-GIs, Brunelle left his native region (he's from Lowell, Mass.) for California.

"When I got out here," says Brunelle, a slender, dark-haired 62-year-old who seems 10 years younger, "there was nobody in the business who really understood how to work in fiberglass." Brunelle did, and business came his way because of a simple fact--when a new popular car hits the street, there are that many more cars to be involved in accidents and need repair.

Bruno's location on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City was conveniently close to Universal Studios and Warner Bros., which helped. The Corvette, as with many high-profile cars, caught on early with people in movies and television who drove past Bruno's shop on the way to the studio.

Today, Brunelle has a staff of 15 working on as many as half a dozen Corvettes at a time, his clientele reflecting the Corvette's continuing popularity with people in show business. Brunelle says past and present customers include Henry and Peter Fonda, Steve McQueen, Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Willis, Sonny Bono and Cher, several cast members from the TV series "Peyton Place," Carol Burnett, Peter Weller and Tony Danza.

In 1962, Brunelle created a custom front end for a Corvette for the TV series "Route 66," and he also customized a Corvette for the 1964 Elvis Presley movie "Viva Las Vegas." Presently, he provides specifically requested cars for Playboy videos.

His business varies between restoration work, custom body work and body-repair work referred by insurance companies. The work is not cheap, with the price of a typical restoration job on a '60s or early '70s Corvette running from $9,000 to $12,000.

"People don't realize that fiberglass is the most expensive kind of body repair to make," says Brunelle, adding that fiberglass work takes longer and involves more sculpting than metal.

David Willetson, a commercial artist from Glendale, had done his own Corvette restoration work before he bought a vintage '60 Corvette that needed work beyond his abilities.

"The '60 Corvette I got needed a total restoration," Willetson says, "and I checked out half a dozen Corvette repair shops before I came to Bruno's.

"He was fabulous. He did a complete breakdown of costs on a computer, gave me a time frame. I felt like I was dealing with a doctor. It was probably one of the nicest car experiences I have had."

When screenwriter Frank Furino found the vintage '59 Corvette he wanted, it needed serious work. Inquiries led him to Bruno's.

"The car needed a lot of cosmetic work," says Furino, a Sherman Oaks resident. "Bruno finished the car on a Friday and I drove it to Palm Springs. I got hit by a car Sunday and brought the Corvette back to Bruno on Monday, a total wreck. I thought the car was ruined, and I was ready to sell it.

"Bruno said, 'Don't worry. I guarantee I can make it better than before.'

"And he did. I get so many compliments on that car now, people assume it's a show car. I get offers for the car all the time."

Brunelle, whose office walls display numerous certificates in plastic and fiberglass technology, has restored his share of classics. "Styles have come, gone and come back in the years I've been in business. In the '50s and early '60s, there was customizing, with flares, scoops, flames and pearlescent paint," he said.

In the 1970s, customizing gave way to a preference for restoring older Corvettes, particularly those that were becoming collector's items. Collectors wanted cars restored to showroom condition.

"Sometimes cars come in and the owner wants me to undo custom work I did on the car years before for a previous owner," Brunelle says.

Then, in the late 1980s, another trend emerged.

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