Hot rod artist, Texas native finds success on TLC's Overhaulin'
Bryan Fuller is an artist, but you won't see his masterpieces hanging on a living room wall.
A garage is a better place to find one of Fuller's full-throttle creations. That's where the East Texas native and University of North Texas graduate designs, sculpts and brings to life his unique line of custom cars and motorcycles.
"It's just rolling art to me," he says.
Fuller is quickly making a name for himself as a top custom builder. His handiwork has been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry, and his reputation has earned him a lead role on several popular cable programs.
He says his driving force is creating the next custom car or bike that didn't exist before he dreamed it up.
"The next one is always your favorite one," Fuller says. "That's what keeps you coming back. They're all your children."
On a June afternoon, Fuller was on his cell phone from Tampa, where he had just finished filming an episode of SPEED Network's Two Guys Garage and was about to take in a game of sand volleyball at a beachfront bar. Fuller, who spends three days a month in Florida filming the show, has been named a series regular alongside longtime host Sam Memmolo.
Fuller says the notion of starring on a television show still seems surreal.
"I never imagined myself getting into TV at all," he says.
But, then, doing the unimaginable is becoming a habit for him. As a lead builder on the TLC program Overhaulin', he helped do the nearly impossible: build a completely overhauled car in less than seven days.
And in March, Fuller participated in Biker Build-Off, a TLC show in which builders of various styles face off in a competition to create the best custom motorcycle.
"It used to be custom car/motorcycle guys were mechanics," Fuller says. "Now this is a mainstream thing with a certain audience that goes with it. We're like mini-rock stars."
Fuller has proven that he belongs in the top echelon of custom bike builders. He has finished fourth and 14th in two appearances at the World Championship of Custom Bike Building. And he has gained the respect of custom-building peers, such as Kevin Byrd, a power train engineer at Ford Motor Co. who worked with Fuller on Overhaulin'.
"This guy can do just about anything with sheet metal, and he's got the creativity to push the envelope, which is going to keep him ahead of the pack," Byrd says. "He's got a great personality, but he's also got the right skill set to make it work."
Fuller began to realize his love of hot rods as an eighth grader, when he helped his dad rebuild a 1965 Ford Mustang. In high school, Fuller built two cars of his own, including a souped-up 1930 Ford Model A with a Chevy muscle car engine and an "awooga" horn.
"It was great," Fuller says of his early projects. "In a small town, there wasn't anything to do but cruise around."
At the time, Fuller didn't realize anything would come of his hobby. He says creative people were considered weird in his small East Texas hometown. But attending the University of North Texas helped him tap his creative potential after he arrived with plans to become a chiropractor.
Fuller says that being exposed to the university's music and art programs and Denton's "funky vibe" gave him other ideas for a career.
"Going there let that creative side of me come out, and I wasn't ashamed of it," he says.
While earning a biology degree with a minor in chemistry, Fuller managed to find the time to play club volleyball, enjoy Denton's nightlife and tinker around with a chopped-up 1950 Plymouth in the garage of friend and classmate John Green's rental house. In the summer, Fuller painted friends' cars for money.
Green recalls attending a car show with Fuller. Of the 500 cars on display, only about three of them caught Fuller's attention. Green says it was clear then that Fuller had an unusual eye for design.
"I'm not surprised at his success," Green says. "He had the artistic qualities that anyone who does well in the field has to have."
After graduating from UNT in 1995, Fuller trained at Wyoming Technical Institute and apprenticed with several prominent custom builders. In 2003, he was hired by renowned Huntington Beach, Calif., builder Chip Foose.
While working for Foose, Fuller helped the team win the Riddler Award for Best Car in Show at the Detroit Autorama in 2003 and 2005. Moreover, Fuller had the chance to learn directly from the man USA Today calls "the Michelangelo of custom builders."
"Picking Chip Foose's brain was a fantastic experience," Fuller says. "It allowed me to take my design to another level."
Wanting the challenge of designing his own projects, Fuller decided to set out on his own. In 2005, he opened Fuller Hot Rods in downtown Atlanta.
His first customer was Ben Logue, his fiancee's brother-in-law. Fuller custom built a Harley Davidson for Logue, which Fuller affectionately calls "The Texas T." In return, Logue offered Fuller space to open his shop.
"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," Fuller says. "It's hard to get a shop without a customer and it's hard to get a customer without a shop. So he got a Harley for a good price, and I got a shop."
Fuller says his job is a lot like that of a custom home builder or furniture maker: There's a little bit of give and take between what the customer is looking for and what Fuller envisions. Most of the time, Fuller is given plenty of creative freedom, which suits him fine.
"I like the freedom of doing any style, and I like to challenge myself to do different things," he says.
Fuller tries to do something innovative on each project. For instance, the Buell motorcycle he customized on Biker Build-Off features a kickstand that hides behind the license plate while the bike is being driven. When the bike is parked, the kickstand comes down and the license plate slides up out of view. Fuller says he designed it that way because many bikers complain that license plates look awkward on motorcycles.
Recently, Fuller sold the bright green bike, which he calls "Fueller," to the owner of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, a 144,000-square-foot exhibit in Birmingham, Ala. The museum is billed as the world's largest collection of vintage and modern-day motorcycles.
Needing to build a replacement, Fuller is working on a bike he calls "Kawasabi." It's a 1990 Kawasaki Ninja that he is converting into a two-seater drag bike.
He is also hard at work overhauling a customer's 1953 Buick Skylark. The customer had worked for 20 years to customize the car, but he chose Fuller to complete the job.
"It makes you feel good that a guy who has invested so much time in it trusts us enough to finish it," Fuller says.
About the only constraint on Fuller's automotive artwork seems to be the depth of his customers' pocketbooks. It's not that Fuller charges an outrageous amount for his efforts, but rather that certain features are costly to build.
"They'll say, ‘This would be cool,'" Fuller says. "And I tell them, ‘Sure, but it'll add $20,000 to the price.'"
Fuller believes he has the skills to create just about any design a person could dream up. And that's a good thing, since he also seems to have an endless supply of ideas.
"Imagination isn't a limitation for me," he says. "Imagination is the easy part."
This story originally appeared in the fall 2007 issue of The North Texan, the University of North Texas alumni magazine.