Friday, April 24, 2015

Bruce Meyers

 "I'm not smart, but I'm talented. I can draw, I have a good sense of proportions, I know a lot about fibreglass...I've raced at Bonneville, shaped surfboards, and I've never had a business plan."

I have been a habitue of car shows, swap meets, and auto races since I was about twelve.  I have owned an Austin-Healey Sprite, a Ford Torino GT, a BMW R45, a Porsche 944, a CJ5 and a large Ford Bronco [with a broken marque so that is was just a "Bro"] and a few other, less interesting, vehicles.

And, of course, my long-time companion that has earned the nickname "Surfmobile" from my nieces and nephew: The 2001 Ford Ranger

I have rebuilt five carburetors, changed countless spark plugs, refilled oil pans, and upgraded everything from radios to headlights to air intakes.  One of my proudest achievements was wiring an 8-track player into a car's glove compartment in order to keep the dashboard clean and prevent it from being stolen.  Yeah, that didn't really work.  It still got stolen.

Through all of this, I've met many people who really, really love their vehicles.  However, the greatest love I have ever witnessed was at a traffic light in Cleveland, Ohio one very cold January morning.  A driver was sitting in his vehicle next to ours wearing what looked like two winter coats, a ski mask topped by another knit hat, some very large industrial gloves, and ski goggles.  Despite all that, he still looked miserably cold.

This was because he was sitting in a vehicle better suited to the beaches of southern California: A Meyers Manx, the original and consummate dune buggy.  Given the mad love that I've seen manifest between Manx owners and their vehicles, this really didn't come as a major surprise.  In fact, it made me want to own one myself.

The Manx was invented by a quintessential Southern California crackpot by the name of Bruce Meyers, one of those figures common in American history who was a complete failure at every conventional occupation and endeavor, until one day, to quote from "Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan, "...[he] crossed the diamond with the pearl." 

Born in 1927, Meyers grew up a gearhead, not a surprise since his father had competed in the Indianapolis 500 each year from 1906 to 1908.  A decorated Navy veteran of World War II, and flush with post-war money made from working in fiberglass sailboat design and construction, Meyers desired to create a vehicle to compete in the beach dune racing that was all the rage in the early 1960's.  Most of the vehicles involved in that unlicensed and wholly illegal activity were ill-suited to the sport, as they were all street cars that had been modified, to greater or lesser extent, by their owners, so the stage was set for innovation.

After molding whole boats from one piece of fiberglass, Meyers wanted to try the same with an auto body.  In his Newport Beach garage he created something that looked like a cartoon character's ride, a four-wheeler named "The Manx", after the bobbed-tail cat.  The vehicle its features, but of an undeniable style.  While initially a sales failure, over time it became associated with the Southern California "lifestyle".

That really didn't matter, though, as Meyers had created the, vehicle...well, buggy to prove a point of pride.  In those days, bikers [and I mean those who ride Harley-Davidson's, not Schwinn's] would bomb down the deserted Baja peninsula in Mexico for about 1000 miles attempting to beat one another's travel times.  While unofficial and almost illegal [it was Mexico, after all], anyone who wanted to crush his kidneys, coccyx, rims, wheels, and skull would open the throttle wide and let their shade-tree modified hogs loose in the last grand Western experience of unlicensed freedom.

So well did the Manx behave on sand dunes, and so sturdy was the one-piece fibreglass bolted onto the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle [the original, not the modern silly ones that satisfy government regulation and nothing else] and powered by that bulletproof, air-cooled VW engine, Meyers was convinced that not only could it make it all the way down the Baja, but a Manx could do so faster than a motorcycle.  When he was ridiculed for that statement by members of a local, Meyers set his cap to prove his point.

Beginning from the traditional starting point of Tijuana and busting down the Sonoran desert to La Paz, Meyers and his partner-in-madness Ted Mangels [both are pictured above; Meyers on the left and Mangels on the right] pored over maps, found the route least likely to leave them permanently impaired, and loaded their Manx with gasoline, filling not just the fuel tank, but also a few empty oxygen bottles and a couple of empty milk cartons [about 65 gallons of potential, hellish immolation] that they then strapped to the exterior or held with their legs.  Yes, that's right.

By the time they reached La Paz, Meyers had proved his point.  The dune buggy had made the trek in 34 hours and 45 minutes, a full five hours faster than had been done by any motorcycle.  Because Meyers' wife was a publicist for a car magazine, the entire gearhead world knew of his feat within six weeks.

Little did he realize it, but along with creating the most iconic of wheeled surf culture artifacts, Meyers also created the sport of off-road racing.  Not only does every state in the union offer some form of this sport for amateurs and professionals alike, his trail through the Sonora has since become the prestigious, and wildly profitable, annual race known as the Baja 1000.  Meyers himself has been a competitor in the race, the final time at the age of 78.


The Manx is still made and sold, in updated form and styling, and dune buggy clubs are so popular worldwide that a few years back there was parade of them held in Le Mans, France during the weekend of the famous 24 hour race.  Over 1100 buggies and drivers followed Meyers in his original Manx around the track to the wild applause of the members of the gearhead universe.

Bruce Meyers is still alive and active as he nears his 89th birthday.  He still grants interviews and makes speeches before those who understand that a silly bit of brightly colored fiberglass is more than just a beach bum's bauble, but a benchmark in the glorious expression of the American creative soul when it is un-regulated, un-bounded, and un-daunted.