If California never existed, and you had to create the ultimate Californian, he would be Bruce Meyers: surfer, artist, war hero, boatbuilder, Baja racer, and creator of the Meyers Manx, aka the fiberglass dune buggy. Meyers died of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder, Feb. 19 at his home in Valley Center, California. He was 94.
The iconic buggy he built is part of the national archive. It was the second vehicle added to the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register, a record of America’s most historically significant automobiles, motorcycles, trucks and commercial vehicles sustained in partnership with the Department of the Interior and permanently archived at the Library of Congress.
Not bad considering Meyers never set out to build an icon when he started cobbling together his first Manx in 1964. But icons are never designed to be icons; they are the result of design purity.
“My life has been full of adventures,” Meyers was quoted as saying in a Volkswagen press release in 2017. “I want people to have an adventure in life.”
Certainly Meyers did. What he built allowed others to have fun as well.
Surf, sun and car culture
Born in 1926 on his family’s dining room table in Los Angeles, Meyers grew up in the sun, surf and burgeoning car culture of Southern California. He quit high school to join the Merchant Marines, then the Navy. He survived a kamikaze attack that took out 389 of his fellow crewmen. Upon returning home, he trained as a fine artist at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
After that, he lived in Tahiti, running a trading post before coming back to Newport Beach, California in the early 1960s. Once back, he became one of the first to mass-produce boats and surfboards made of fiberglass – the latter a huge improvement compared to those made of wood.
But being a hot rodder and desert rat, he wanted to create a vehicle that could easily tackle the sands of Baja. During a 1963 trip to Pismo Beach, Meyers noticed desert rats negotiating the dunes. One in particular caught his eye: a Volkswagen Beetle minus its body panels that had a far easier time than traditional four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Meyers soon went to work. He shortened the Beetle’s chassis, retaining its floorplan and running gear. He then fabricated a fiberglass monocoque tub with seating for two. As for the vehicle’s look, Meyers took his cue from the cars driven by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
“They all drove these funny little cars with great-big-fat wheels on them,” Meyers told the HVA. “So, the art training, the childhood memories, and my experience in fiberglass led to the creation of the fiberglass dune buggy.”
The Meyers Manx
He built the first car, finished in 1964, for his own amusement, naming it “Old Red.” Meyers went on to build a handful for his friends in his garage in Newport Beach. Soon, demand grew beyond his circle of friends, and B.F. Meyers & Co. launched in 1967 to build more buggies.
Named the Meyers Manx by the editors at Road & Track magazine – where his wife at the time worked – it was available as a kit car for $985. Initially offered with a monocoque body, it was later sold with a fiberglass tub; customers supplied the shortened Volkswagen Beetle chassis and running gear.
In the meantime, Meyers and his friends took their Manx to Mexico, where motorcyclists ran 1,000-mile races from Tijuana to La Paz in an effort to beat the record, which stood at slightly less than 40 hours. Meyers and his co-driver won the race in 34 hours, 45 minutes. The race, known as the Mexican 1000, would become the Baja 1000.
“Almost overnight we had 350 orders,” Meyers told the New York Times.
The Manx continued to garner attention in Road & Track, Hot Rod and elsewhere. Car enthusiast Steve McQueen drove one in the 1968 movie, “The Thomas Crown Affair.” (It recently traded hands in March 2020 at Bonhams’ Amelia Island auction for $456,000.)
“It was a phenomenal success,” said Meyers. “Suddenly everybody wanted this happy little car.”
Disillusioned and done
While it’s estimated that at least 250,000 buggies were built, a mere 7,000 were built by Meyers. It’s not that Meyers wasn’t successful; he realized more than $1.5 million in sales in 1969. But he patented his design too late. In the court case that followed, a judge ruled the patent invalid; the design had been in public use for too long.
Meyers estimated more than 70 companies stole his design, including Sears, which offered one called the Rascal. It even inspired a Saturday morning cartoon show on CBS. “Speed Buggy” starred a talking anthropomorphic dune buggy that proved so popular, after its 16 half-hour episodes ran on CBS in 1973, it continued in reruns on CBS, ABC and NBC into 1977.
Ultimately, Meyers closed his shop in 1970. Feeling cheated and unhappy, he held a number of odd jobs, doing his best to forget the Manx. But 1994 found him at a car show in Le Mans, France. The reception he received got him to thinking about a Manx revival.
Soon, he formed Meyers Manx LLC with his sixth wife, Minnie, who he married in 1986. After an initial run of 100 Manx kits priced at $2,000, Meyers realized he wasn’t making much money. This led to the Manxster 2+2, which debuted in 2001 looking much like the original, but with seating for four and a trunk. Unlike the original, it was not a kit car, and retailed for $5,395.
In November 2020, Meyers sold his company to Trousdale Ventures, a firm run by venture capitalist and car collector Phillip Sarofim, who named former VW, Audi, and Porsche designer Freeman Thomas CEO and chief creative officer.
“He was an original,” Thomas said to Autoweek. “He was someone who understood humanity as much as innovation.”
“I was just a character who lived a lifestyle of breaking traditions,” said Meyers, “and the dune buggy did that.”