The Larger-Than-Life Tale of Vini 'Big Daddy' Bergeman, the Limo King of Los Angeles
The 1980s in Los Angeles: Big hair, big cars, and Big Daddy Bergeman.
Rolling slowly down a quiet suburban street in Orange County, California, the late afternoon sun smacking me straight in the face, I struggled to make out the house numbers painted on the curbs. A flash of color up ahead caught my eye. In the front yard of a ranch house, a young lady was wildly bouncing up and down, clutching a giant inflatable pink heart tightly to her chest. I pulled the 28-foot long, 10-passenger Lincoln Town Car to a stop as she came running up, tossing the heart aside. It was her birthday. She was super excited. And completely naked.
I grew up in small-town Connecticut, where a scene like this had never played out in my wildest hormone dreams. But now I was working for Vini “Big Daddy” Bergeman, the Limo King of Los Angeles, and things were about to get weird.
During the mid-1980s, I was selling cars at a dealership in Compton while schlepping my graphic design portfolio to interviews at ad agencies. I was a car enthusiast, interested in sports car racing and classic Porsches, but after seeing some of the crazy custom stuff rolling around LA, I needed to be part of that world.
On a whim, I drove to the office of Ultra Limousine in La Palma. Parked on the side of the building was a block-long Cadillac limo with a cow-catcher grill. I camped out in the lobby waiting for Vini to emerge. When he finally did, I was taken aback. He could really fill a room.
With a booming voice and a thick Bronx drawl, Vini told me I could have five minutes. I didn’t have a game plan. I knew jack about limos, but I was brimming with enthusiasm. Somehow, we hit it off, and I walked out with a job. Even now, I think he only hired me because I had a decent camera and was a Yankee fan, just like he was.
Vini’s New York bona fides were strong. At age 20, he’d moved to LA with $16 in his pocket. As a teenager, he’d served prison time, but now was determined to make a clean start. Soon he’d hooked up with legendary customizer George Barris, with whom Vini was able to refine his already impressive metalwork skills. After a few years, he went out on his own.
Adopting a version of Barris’s replacing-Cs-with-Ks naming convention, he launched Kolor Me Kustom. Like Barris, Vini specialized in creating custom cars for the Hollywood crowd. His 1973 Dodge Tradesman “Vandamonium” became an icon of the custom-van craze. At one point in the van’s many permutations, it featured a Dodge Polara’s front end, appearing as if the van had swallowed the car whole.
By the late 1970s, with his custom metalwork, fabrication, and paintwork business attracting high-profile clients, Vini saw a big opportunity in LA’s burgeoning stretch-limousine business. At the time, when the typical stretch carried an extra 33 to 48 inches in length, Vini was thinking bigger. Always the showman, in 1978 he took a Lincoln Town Car, already a lengthy 19.4 feet, and extended it by more than nine feet. He added dual axles and, what the hell, a hot tub in the back. Ultra Limousine was born.
Over the years, Ultra created one-off custom-stretched vehicles for numerous celebrities: A Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL for Sylvester Stallone (used in Rocky IV), an excessively gold-trimmed Town Car limo with a TV that elevated out of a center console for Mr. T, a tech-laden Chevy Suburban stretch for actor Larry Hagman, which he used in the TV show “Dallas.” Vini built cars for rappers, gangsters, and sports stars.
He built several cars for Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant chain (and father to DJ Steve Aoki). One of those was a stretched Porsche 911 Targa, which the flamboyant entrepreneur ran in the 1991 Cannonball One Lap of America. Vini even built a stretch Hummer H1 for new-age musician Yanni, just about the last vehicle you’d picture a mellow flautist riding in. But such was the allure of Vini's creations.
Some of the wild projects were created more for show than function. Once, Vini asked me to sketch out a Lamborghini Countach limo, which he built out of fiberglass. An impressive sight, it was actually powered by a mid-mounted V6 from a Ford Taurus. Later on, Vini built a giant Harley limo on a GM chassis to promote his Ultra Cycle motorcycle stores. That beast actually moved under its own power and could carry 10 people in a hidden luxury lounge.
This 1983 stretch Maserati Quattroporte The Drive recently highlighted was one of Ultra’s builds. It’s similar to one built for LA Rams running back Ron Brown, which made a brief cameo in the film “Running Man.” I spent some time driving that car and it felt like a race-prepped Miata compared to the big Lincolns. Carrying only about 300 additional pounds, it was relatively svelte by stretch-limo standards. The interior was gorgeous; it was less over-the-top than the Lincolns and Caddys and finished in the same exquisite leather as the factory model.
While crazy one-offs and super stretches got the publicity, Vini and his partner Kraig Kavanaugh soon realized the core business was producing standard limos for rental fleets. They did that better than almost anyone and set new standards in length and construction in the process. Ultra revolutionized the industry, building production models with between 63 and 120 inches of extra length. Vini even developed a wide-body Cadillac. The sides of the car were cut off and an extra 10 inches were added to create a phenomenally roomy interior. It wasn't practical from a production standpoint, but Vini proved it could be done.
Contrary to perception, the all-steel construction Ultra used for its conversions was in some ways more structurally sound than the original car. Whenever one of his limos was in a crash, Vini would point out how the stretched portion of the car was intact, even if the rest of the car was totaled. Ultra took the extra step of crash-testing its cars to receive the stringent Ford Qualified Vehicle Modifier (QVM) and Cadillac Master Coachbuilder certifications. I can always tell an Ultra-built car to this day. Unlike many old stretch limos, there is no sag in the middle section of the car and the doors will still open and close.
True to his roots, Vini insisted on flawless exterior metalwork. Most coachbuilders would slap a padded vinyl top on their cars to hide the shoddy finish, but Vini would often spec his cars with painted steel roofs to show off the quality. Kraig handled the interior designs while Vini focused on the exterior and overall construction. They made a great team, and the business grew to produce more than 600 limos per year.
Still, Vini always had a flair for the crazy stuff. In 1996, he took the limousine to new lengths with The Sheikh, a two-piece articulating Town Car limo measuring over 66 feet long. The 36-passenger Lincoln was built for Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al-Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates at a cost of more than $1.8 million. Shortly after it was completed, the car needed to be cut down by 18 inches to adhere to California traffic laws.
The Sheikh was one of three Ultra limousines that held Guinness World Records. The first was a 47-foot, 10-wheel Cadillac featuring a gullwing door, a hot tub, and a rumble seat. Even by Ultra standards, it was over the top. It was featured in numerous magazines, and can be seen at the end of Billy Crystal’s video for the song “You Look Marvelous.”
After a competitor built a longer car, Vini extended the Caddy to 94 feet by adding a back section connected via an accordion system, similar to an articulated bus. It had a putting green on top, six moon roofs, a giant (for the time) TV, a fish tank, a hairdryer, two queen-size beds, and seating for 35 people. This Caddy gave me my TV star turn when I played a chauffeur in a segment of Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” To demonstrate how long it was, I pulled up to the rear door in a standard-length limo, helped a young lady out of the back of the Caddy, and then drove her to the front of the big beast, where she re-entered through the gullwing door.
Even though he eventually retired from the production limo business, Vini kept dreaming up and building wild one-offs. In 2004, he hosted his own show on The Discovery Channel called “The Kustomizer” and worked with Jesse James on “Monster Garage.” In 2011, Vini and his team built a functional and very trick Pool Table Car (for Triangle Billiards) out of a 2000 Chevy Monte Carlo. One of his goals for the car was that it would be capable of hitting 100 mph, and sure enough, it did.
If anyone could be larger than life, Vini was. Physically, he was a big guy, and he could be intimidating. If he had an opinion about something, you’d know about it. He was loud, his language was colorful and more than one employee and even potential customers got an earful. His 21,000 square foot mansion in La Jolla, California was the scene of some seriously memorable parties—a few of which attracted the attention of law enforcement. He made no secret of his rough tactics in both business and personal interactions.
"I’m not a goody-goody, but I’m not a baddy either," Bergeman told the Orange County Register in 2015. "If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you."
But for all his bluster, Vini had a heart of gold. He delivered toys to hospitalized kids. He hired folks who needed a second, or third chance. And in his last act, right up until his death in 2017, he was working with The Teen Project, an LA-based non-profit serving at-risk children aging out of the foster care system, mentoring them and introducing them to the custom car world and potential new paths.
True to form, Vini’s final ride was in a metallic-red casket shaped like a 1950 Mercury Custom Coupe, carried in a custom glass-enclosed white Chrysler 300 hearse built by his nephew Dominick. He was gone too soon—but at least the send-off was all Vini.
Roger Garbow is a freelance writer with bylines in Road & Track and The Drive and principal of Full Throttle Marketing. When he's not pretending to work, you can find him trying to cut the perfect lap at Monticello Motor Club.
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