We lost Bruce Meyers. Yes, the Meyers with the S at the end of his name. The Meyers who designed the legendary Meyers Manx dune buggy, one of the most iconic, most recognizable, most fun and most copied designs in the history of the automobile. The Meyers who was famous for leaping tall sand dunes with a single bound and running through the esses at places like Pikes Peak. Yes, that Meyers.
He passed away peacefully and quietly in his sleep, a manner totally contradictory to the way he lived his life. He was 94 years young. I loved him. And I miss him dearly.
Bruce was, to say the least, a very complex individual and a unique character who grew up in Southern California in the early days of surfing, drag racing, hanging out at the beach and driving on the dunes.
Bruce was born the youngest of five kids in Los Angeles in 1926… on the dining room table.
Bruce’s father, John Meyers, was friends with Henry Ford, who hired John to set up Ford dealerships across the country. Along the way, Bruce’s oldest sister was born, but not in the backseat of the Model T which Henry Ford had given to John.
When the Meyers reached Los Angeles they stopped and made a home, and John continued setting up Ford dealerships.
Success in business allowed John Meyers to move to a large home in the affluent community of Palos Verdes. But like thousands of others, the Meyers lost everything during The Great Depression. So most of Bruce’s formative years were spent in cheap rental districts on the water, where he surfed and roamed the beaches of Hermosa and Manhattan Beach.
Bruce’s eye for design was not developed and refined by a traditional education at a school such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. No, he was schooled in fine arts at Chouinard Art Institute. And the iconic shape of the Manx came not from the hand of an admirer of American or Italian or French automotive sculpture, although he appreciated many of those designs. Instead, it came from the eye of a man who found fun in the cartoon cars he saw in comic strips.
He served in the navy during World War II; like many veterans, he didn’t often speak of his service. But Bruce was a genuine war hero who served on the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill, which was badly damaged when hit by two kamikazes off Okinawa. Everyone had to jump overboard to avoid the fires and Bruce gave up his life jacket to a sailor without one. He ended up on a rescue ship hours later having saved the life an injured American pilot he found floating among the flaming debris and oil slicks.
How many of us have dreamed about getting away from it all and sailing away to a Pacific island? Bruce did that. After the war, with both wander and lust in his eye, Bruce hired on to help construct a trading post on Penrhyn Island, an atoll in the northern group of the Cook Islands in the south Pacific Ocean. On his way back to the US, Bruce stopped for a few months or R&R in Tahiti, which lies 833 miles south and east of the Cook Islands. There he mastered the art of sailing the native outrigger boats and played the ukulele on the local radio station.
Upon returning to Southern California, Bruce worked with Dale Velzy, the first commercial surfboard builder, and learned to work with fiberglass, building both his own surfboards and catamarans. Later, Bruce worked for Jensen Marine, a fiberglass boat builder in Newport Beach, where company owner Jack Jensen pounded into Bruce the guiding principles that defined his designs: Make it simple and efficient. Don’t add stuff that just adds cost.
Eventually Bruce built a 42-foot 2-man catamaran that he and a friend were going to sail back to Tahiti. But the friend backed out at the last moment and Bruce sold the cat.
Bruce’s smaller cat designs using canvas, light-weight aluminum and fiberglass weren’t lost on a fellow surfer who pulled up alongside Bruce’s cat at the end of one of the annual Newport to Ensenada Races and complimented Bruce on finishing well ahead. That other surfer was Hobie Alter, who would find fame and fortune building and selling lightweight catamarans called Hobie Cats. And now you know the rest of that story.
Bruce was okay with that. He was totally focused on his automotive project: a fiberglass dune buggy. The car was a great success. Too great, unfortunately. The simplicity of the design made it easy for rip-off artists to make a splash and be in the dune buggy business literally overnight. Cheap imitations abounded. You’ve heard the expression “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” For Bruce, imitation was the cheapest form of thievery. He took the copycats to court on copyright infringement. Unfortunately, the magistrate who handled the case was about 85 years old and Bruce’s was his very last case before retirement. Bruce said the judge spent most of his waking hours asleep at the switch. At the end of the day, the judge ruled for the copiers. That put Bruce out of business.
Bruce was married six times. I knew the first: Shirley, who had a happy-go-lucky personality much like Bruce’s; and the last, Winnie, the woman who helped Bruce pull his life together and who shared his love for Manxes, Manx history, and the Manx family. Especially the people. She was the love of Bruce’s life.
Winnie, who has a mind like a steel—or perhaps fiberglass—trap, says Bruce built a mile of Manxes: 5280 in total. And that doesn’t include the several hundred Manx IIs, about 1,000 Meyers Tow’ds, a couple of hundred Manx SR’s and 75 Resorters/Turistas— a total of nearly 7,000 kits. Other manufacturers sprang up overnight and ended up producing over 350,000 copies and look-alikes. Eventually over 300 companies worldwide copied the Meyers Manx in one form or another.
But Bruce never ran out of creative ideas to exercise his fiberglass skills.
Bedliners for pickup trucks? They’re as common today as, well, pickup trucks. Bruce did that first too. Fiberglass hot tubs? Yup, Bruce again. But the world wasn’t quite ready for a “plastic” hot tub at the time.
Do you remember Grand Prix of America? No, not the track outside Austin, but the open-wheel Wankel-powered formula go-karts and mini racetracks created by a group of Detroit auto execs headed by John DeLorean and his brother Jack. It was 1973, and you could race for a buck a lap in Troy, Michigan. Bruce was asked to submit a design for the cars. It was a beauty, but politics raised its ugly head.
The Can-Am race car bed for kids? Yes, you guessed it: Bruce. He called it the Night Racer. “A little bed that looks like a McLaren race car,” Bruce said. “I had to get clever. I came up with other ideas to try to keep the company running.” But the Can-Am bed fell victim to the rip-off artists, too. Meyer’s quality at $500 couldn’t compete with cheaply made $200 knock-offs, some of which even stole the Night Racer name.
B.F. Meyers & Co. closed its doors in 1971 with a public auction. Sadly, Bruce’s dream was sold at less than ten cents on the dollar.
Bruce was broke and broken, an angry man. Who wouldn’t be? And who could blame him? Counterfeiters had pulled Bruce’s plug by pulling a plug.
It took until 1994 and an invite to Le Mans by the President of the Manx club of France for the awakening to occur. Jacky Morel was not inviting Bruce to attend the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but rather an annual Volkswagen event, during which thousands of VWs took over the entire town, including the race track. Bruce, somewhat reluctantly, accepted the invite, and he and Winnie flew off to France.
Among those thousands of VWs participating were several hundred dune buggies, most of them knockoffs, but also plenty of genuine Meyers Manxes. To the owners, Bruce was a genuine hero. They loved him as the father of the dune buggy revolution. As Morel led a parade of buggies around the Le Mans track, Jackie said to Bruce, “You have every reason to be bitter, but just see how the people love you. You make them happy. Look at the smiles.”
That was the turning point for Bruce, who thought for a moment and said to Jacky, “Yes, you are right. These are all my children. Even the bastard ones. And when you’re surrounded by love, it’s pretty hard to be unhappy.”
It took a few more years but Bruce and Winnie resurrected the company in 1999 as Meyers Manx Inc. and released the Signature Series, a limited edition of the Classic Manx. Today, Meyers Manx offers the New Classic, the Manxter 2+2, the Kick-Out Traditional, the Kick-out SS and the Manxter DualSport. These fiberglass kit car bodies were dreamed, designed, and brought to reality by the man who started it all: Bruce Meyers.
My relationship with Bruce ran long and deep. It would take a book.
I worked with Bruce and Stewart Reed, currently chair of the Transportation Design Department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, on the design and development of an EV Manx. Stewart’s first job after graduating from Art Center was working with Bruce to design the Manx SR, the first production car with scissor doors, and one which a counterfeiter couldn’t easily copy.
Bruce was 84 at the time he started this project. Every day he spent long hours out in his shop, a short 50 steps away from his home in Valley Center, California, working with his trusted sidekick, Miguel: planning, designing, building, fixing. He lost the tip of one thumb to a band saw, which pissed him off something awful because the bandage interfered with his dexterity in the shop and on the guitar.
Unfortunately, only one lone prototype of the EV was built.
In 2014 I coerced Bill Warner, longtime friend, longtime R&T contributor, frequent co-driver in Nelson Ledges 24 Hour races and founder of the Amelia Island Concours, into inviting Old Red, the first Manx, to Amelia. The occasion was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Manx and its record-setting run up the Baja peninsula from La Paz to Tijuana, driven by Bruce and Ted Mangels. At Amelia, the Manx took 1st in its Small Car class and shared center stage with the likes of the aluminum-bodied 1930 Duesenberg Model J Speedster from the William Lyon Family collection.
That same weekend, Old Red was inducted into the Historic Vehicle Register as a car of “significant design and construction.” It was the second car, following Peter Brock’s Shelby Daytona Coupe, to be so honored.
In May of 2015, I accompanied Bruce, Winnie and a team of American and Australian racers as unofficial photographer as Bruce participated in the NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally in a race-prepared Manx. Believe it or not, he had never finished a Baja race. His last attempt in 1968 ended when, while racing a Tow’d, he passed Parnelli Jones, drove into a dust cloud in an effort to keep the lead, and hit a bank. . . where he almost cashed out. His injuries were so severe that he had to be airlifted and ambulanced out. Bruce said the ambulance driver decided to impress Bruce with his skill behind the wheel. Bruce was sure he would die in a wreck without ever reaching the hospital.
For the 2015 NORRA 1000, Bruce started the race, then played the diverse roles of trail boss, team organizer, team manager and chief mechanic, grabbing the reins of the race-prepped, Subaru-powered Manxter DualSport again for the final stint across the finish line. A finisher at last!
In 2017 I spent time with Bruce in Barstow, California, when VW celebrated 50 years of the NORRA 1000 with Bruce, Baja Bugs and Buggies, and the original Bruce Meyers Manx, of course.
At the time of his death, Bruce was penning Volume 2 of his autobiography. He was a natural writer, with an amazing recall of the most minute details of his life and a poetic turn of phrase. Hopefully Winnie, who is also an excellent writer and editor, will help Bruce’s life story cross the finish line.
Marty Fiolka, a well-known off-road racer, writer, videographer and Manx fanatic, asked Bruce to work with him on a video documenting racing in Baja in the early days. Bruce’s narration at the beginning of Fiolka’s video, Baja Social Club, is pure poetry in motion and emotion.
Renaissance Man is not a description I use often or lightly. Only a few make my shortlist. Racer and artist Sam Posey. The innovative, entrepreneurial husband and wife duo of Bruce and Gertrude (Jimmie) McWillliams. Racer and restaurateur Rene Dreyfus. Designer Peter Brock. And, of course, Bruce Meyers.
In case you’re considering a Meyers of your own— as you well should.
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