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Cool Cat: Bruce Meyers, the Father of Dune-Buggy Fever




Carroll Shelby didn’t do what Bruce Meyers has done. Neither did Enzo Ferrari. They just hired the right people.

“Bruce, would you sign this?” “Bruce, I just want to shake your hand.” “Bruce, can I get a photo with you?” “Bruce, remember that trip to Ensenada?” “Bruce, could you come over and take a look at my Manx?”

Here at Big Bear Bash, the country’s largest annual dune-buggy gathering, Bruce Meyers lounges in the shade, receiving supplicants with the grace and patience, if not the gravitas, of Marlon Brando’s “Godfather” character. Meyers didn’t invent the dune buggy, but he was the Moses whose seminal creation, the Meyers Manx — the world’s first fiberglass buggy, built in 1964 — led the sport out of its Southern California home and brightened up the world.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, and it won’t happen again,” says Harry Klumpp, whose lifelong dune-buggy fascination began when he saw a Manx on the cover of Car and Driver in 1967. “Carroll Shelby didn’t do what Bruce Meyers has done. Neither did Enzo Ferrari. They just hired the right people. Bruce designed the car himself, and he made it himself, with his own hands. A lot of people ripped him off over the years, and he was very bitter about that. But nobody cares about them anymore, and everybody loves Bruce Meyers.”


Bruce Meyers stands next to his Kick-Out Manx but cadges a ride in another buggy at the Big Bear Bash.

Nearly 5,300 Manxes and 1,700 derivatives were sold before the crushing weight of 250,000 knockoffs drove B.F. Meyers & Company into bankruptcy in 1971. But Meyers and his wife, Winnie, rebooted the business in 1999 and have been knocking out modern buggies ever since. “I just turned 90, and everybody thinks I’ve got one foot in the grave. Well, I don’t,” Meyers says. “I’m making a model of my next vehicle—tube frame with Subaru parts. It will give you the performance of a Ferrari and the creature comforts of a bicycle.”

Meyers’ pale-blue eyes twinkle with this bon mot. His white hair is thinning, his back aches, and he walks with a limp, but he’s still the coolest dude on the scene. “He’s the epitome of what the Southern California lifestyle used to be: the surfing, the sand dunes, the off-roading,” says Craig Stone, who owns a 1970 Manx. “The Manx embodies that culture. You can’t drive it without having a smile on your face.”

A hot-rodder who owned an endless succession of flathead Fords, Meyers grew up on Los Angeles County’s beaches with an abiding aversion to the 9-to-5 grind. After surviving a kamikaze attack that forced him to abandon ship during World War II, he spent a postwar stint in the South Seas, living in Tahiti and running a trading post on a coral atoll. When he returned home, he helped pioneer the use of fiberglass to shape sailboats and surfboards.

Meyers was introduced to off-roading in the early 1960s with a Volkswagen minibus he used to explore Mexico. Later, while sand sailing at Pismo Beach, he was fascinated by the so-called water pumpers — homemade mongrels featuring crudely welded chassis fitted with supersized rear tires and fire-belching V-8s — that dominated the dunes. Then he spotted a body-less Beetle. “And it was just zipping around those water pumpers like a mosquito,” he recalls. “I went home and started drawing pictures.”

With several friends and fellow builders, Meyers helped establish the dune-buggy template: Start with a cheap Beetle. Remove the body to reduce weight. Shorten the floorpan to move the occupants closer to the rear wheels. Mount bigger tires to increase traction and ground clearance. Cover the chassis with a primitive shell sans adornments such as doors. Add fuel, stow a couple of six-packs, and have a blast.

The dune-buggy scene was primed for an explosion, and Meyers was uniquely positioned to light the fuse. To begin with, he was a formally trained artist whose sketches would look at home in a Renaissance studio. Second, he was a genius at shaping fiberglass. So instead of plopping a rudimentary metal body on a VW floorpan, he fashioned a fiberglass monocoque that looks as fresh and spunky today as it did when it emerged from his rented garage in a sketchy section of Newport Beach in 1964.

“The sense of gesture, the sense of movement, the sense of life — I brought some of that to the sculpture of the Manx,” he explains. “It thumbs its nose at tradition. It’s leaning forward, and it looks like it’s about to jump out of the funny pages. It sends a message, and that message is, ‘Join me. I’m having fun.’”

Named after a tailless cat, the Manx went nationwide in 1966, when it was featured with all four wheels off the ground on the cover of Hot Rod. The next year, Meyers and high-school buddy Ted Mangels shattered the record — set by badass motorcyclists — for the fastest trip from Tijuana to La Paz. Meyers blasted out a press release: “Buggy Beats Bikes in Baja.” This feat inspired the formation of the National Off-Road Racing Association. Later that year, NORRA staged the first Mexican 1000 Rally — precursor to the Baja 1000 — and the winner was a Manx driven by Mangels and Vic Wilson.

“How do you make any sense to a judge who doesn’t know a dune buggy from a grilled-cheese sandwich?”

Meyers by this time realized his fiberglass monocoques were too labor-intensive to sell profitably. He modified the bodywork so it could be mounted directly to a shortened Beetle floorplan. And then Car and Driver put a Manx on the cover with the headline “You Can Build This Fun Car for $635! (plus a lot of VW parts and tender loving care).”

Sales skyrocketed, but so did the number of competitors. “The very genius of the Meyers Manx made it easy to copy,” says Stewart Reed, head of the transportation design department at ArtCenter College of Design and himself the designer of the Meyers Manx SR (street roadster). And that’s just what an estimated 300 counterfeiters did.

Meyers sued to enforce his patent but lost in court. “How do you make any sense to a judge who doesn’t know a dune buggy from a grilled-cheese sandwich?” he griped at the time. His company’s assets were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar. He later developed a fiberglass hot tub, a fiberglass truck bedliner, even a fiberglass children’s bed that resembled a McLaren Can-Am car. Each concept made lots of money, but not for Meyers.

“It used to piss me off,” he admits, “and I lived with anger for many years.” He was so done with dune buggies that he sold Old Red, his beloved first prototype, which had made the record run down to La Paz. Then, in 1994, he attended a VW festival in France where, with tears in his eyes, he led a parade of buggies around Le Mans. “Jacky Morel, the publisher of Super VW magazine, told me, ‘You’re a very unhappy man because you focus on the wrong things. Go home and start a club, make a new Manx for the ’90s, and write a book.’”

His memoirs remain a work in progress. But he and Winnie — a vivacious woman who provides the organizational focus Meyers lacks — founded the Manx Club, which now boasts almost 4,200 members. They also formed Meyers Manx Inc. and returned to the buggy-building business. Since 1999, they’ve sold kits for more than 250 vehicles, starting with a limited run of “original” Manxes and continuing with several modern designs.

Although Meyers is still among the most upbeat men in creation, he isn’t quite as spry and indefatigable as he was, even as recently as five years ago. More than ever, he feels the effects of a wreck that mangled his legs in the Baja 1000 in 1968. “I had just passed Parnelli Jones, and you never want to do that,” he says. “Because when you’ve passed Parnelli Jones, you’re in over your head.”

Last year, Meyers nearly rolled his contemporary Kick-Out Manx. “Fortunately,” Winnie Meyers says, “it wasn’t our day to die.” But it isn’t ready for trail duty this year at Big Bear. So he rides shotgun in a radically upgraded buggy sporting long-travel shocks and a stout Subaru motor. Instead of doing any serious off-roading, he ends up on the posy-sniffer trail. “This is the no-skidplate run,” he grouses good-naturedly. “I like it better when there’s a challenge, a little bit of danger.”

The man is 90 going on 15 — which is fitting, because his buggy is 52 going on forever.

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November 2, 2016