UPDATE, 2/20/2021: Bruce Meyers, creator of the Meyers Manx dune buggy, died on Friday at his home in California. He was 94. Meyers founded his company in 1964, inspiring the Dune Buggy craze. He sold the company this past November. Freeman Thomas, the former VW, Audi, and Porsche designer, took over as CEO and chief creative officer. “I have a lot of reverence for what Bruce created,” Thomas told Autoweek at the time. “It transcends being this four-wheeled thing. It’s a pop culture icon.” The long list of those Meyers inspired includes our own Rich Ceppos. This story is from 2006.
The Meyers Manx dune buggy should have made Bruce Meyers a very wealthy man. And for a short time, it did. But like the swells of the Pacific Ocean that were such a pivotal part of Meyers’s life, riches and success retreated like a wave receding from the shore.
Meyers lives today in Valley Center, California, about 30 miles outside San Diego. Although he’s 80 now, you can still see a good deal of the enormous energy and enthusiasm that led him to create a vehicle that embodied the carefree beach culture of the 1960s. His large head is topped with thinning white hair, and his long, barrel-chested torso is framed by a pair of thick arms. His hands and forearms look strong enough to fold a brake rotor. Those are talented mitts, capable of drawing picture-quality head shots with a pencil and sculpting fiberglass into art.
Meyers was born in Los Angeles on March 12, 1926, the youngest of five children. His father helped Henry Ford set up automobile dealerships in California. During Meyers’s boyhood, the family lived in idyllic Newport Beach, long before it was super-expensive and overcrowded. In his teens, he led the dreamy beach life that would eventually draw the masses to Southern California.
Meyers was drafted into the Navy in 1944. While stationed on the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, he survived a kamikaze attack in May 1945 off the coast of Okinawa that killed 389 men and almost sunk the ship.
After the war, Meyers drifted about for a few years. He crewed on merchant ships and spent what must have been two fantastic years in Tahiti, running a trading post and chasing island girls. He later went to art schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles, developing a talent for drawing that would eventually land him a short teaching stint.
By the late ’50s, Meyers was living in the Newport Beach area, shaping surfboards, working on boats, trekking across the border into Baja, Mexico, and running a ’32 Ford at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Although fiberglass was not new at the time, its use in boat construction was, and Meyers worked for a time at Jensen Marine, pioneering the techniques of fiberglass construction that would later serve him well.
By the early ’60s, though, his experiences and talents were about to result in something bigger than Meyers ever dreamed of.
The first Meyers Manx emerged from a cramped shed in Newport Beach in 1964. The goal had been simply to build something that didn’t look like a used Jeep and could “take you wherever you wanted to go.”
Driving over the sand in remote areas like Pismo Beach and the Baja was another activity of the SoCal lifestyle. It was a way to hang out, have bonfires, look around, be seen, and, of course, have fun. It was quickly discovered that heavy four-wheel-drive vehicles like Jeeps were not as effective running on sand as was the lightweight VW Beetle. To make the Beetle even better, beach riders fitted wide tires and cut away the body to make it lighter. On weekends, the dunes were teeming with home-built contraptions.
In the late ’50s, an L.A.-based VW dealership and speed shop called EMPI offered the first dune-buggy kit, the Sportster. It sold for about $500. The angular sheetmetal gave it the look of a hard-edged German military vehicle. It was designed to bolt onto a shortened Beetle floorpan, which for a kit-car maker is a dream come true because that pan carries the VW’s powertrain and suspension. Building a dune buggy? Just locate a junkyard Beetle, remove the body, and replace it with a custom body.
In the early ’60s, Meyers was poking around the dunes in a modified VW Microbus. He didn’t think the Sportster had much style to it, so he decided to build and sell his own buggy. Since the material Meyers was using to make boat molds and surfboards was fiberglass, he naturally turned to it for his dune-buggy body, quitting his job to work full time on the buggy in the small garage of his beach apartment. His wife, Shirley, worked in the advertising department at Road & Track, and she encouraged his project.
Meyers spent 18 months on the first Manx, endlessly tinkering with the shape, looking for some flair he felt the buggy needed. One reason it took so much time may have been because that first Manx, unlike the EMPI Sportster, didn’t use the simple Beetle floorpan. The first Manx had a fiberglass monocoque with a Beetle engine and suspension bolted to it. Meyers hoped to sell maybe 20 or 30 Manxes, which he says would have been enough to cover the cost of the project. Word of the Manx spread quickly, and in about a month, Meyers had orders for 12 kits that he priced at $995. Doesn’t sound lucrative? In the mid-’60s, a high-school teacher earned about $5000 a year. Although the kit didn’t include an engine or transmission, it did come with components such as pedals, seats, windshield, and lights.
Meyers Manxter 2+2: Taking a spin in the modern buggy.
So Sexy It Hurts: A 60’s fantasy: Owning your own piece of California.
But Meyers had the same problem novice entrepreneurs often discover the hard way: The cost to produce a kit was more than the price he could sell them for. He waves this off today with the explanation “I am not a businessman.” But a lot of people who saw the Manx loved it, and Meyers knew that since a 1964 Chevy Impala cost about $2700, he couldn’t just increase his kit’s price. So he redesigned the Manx to make it cheaper to build. The revised Manx didn’t get a new name, but it was very different from the original because it was no longer a monocoque and was now designed to bolt onto a shortened Beetle floorpan.
Meyers could now produce the 11 pieces of his Manx kit in about 10 hours. It was so much simpler to build that he could lower the price to $495. Even though that combination of price and style would soon make the Manx a popular fad, Meyers didn’t see his creation as more than a small-time regional player. “I had no vision in those days,” he says. Then, in 1965 after Meyers had moved his company, B.F. Meyers, from Newport Beach to nearby Fountain Valley, Joe Vittone came calling. Vittone owned EMPI, and he wanted to partner with Meyers on the Manx. “It would have been the perfect arrangement,” says Meyers. “Vittone already had a well-established dealer network, and he could have run the business side, leaving me free to do what I do — the design. But I said no, figured I’d get 10 orders a year, which would be all I’d need. I was the stupidest guy in the world as Joe would have delivered 10 orders a day!“
So Meyers went it alone, and his wife handled the promotion. In 1966, the Manx was featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine, but it was in April a year later that the Manx exploded onto the scene. First, Meyers and surfing buddy Ted Mangels had completed a run on the unpaved 832-mile route of Mexico’s Baja peninsula from La Paz north to Ensenada in a record 34 hours and 45 minutes. Press releases of the feat were sent to 100 magazine editors. The Manx was featured on the April 1967 cover of Car and Driver. “Once that article hit, we had 350 orders almost overnight.”
Meyers struggled to meet the demand. Orders rolled in, a backlog grew rapidly. Since the Manx was basically a 10-foot-long piece of fiberglass that took up a lot of space in a shipping container, customers soon found out the shipping costs were a significant charge. But the Manx bodies could be efficiently stacked on top of one another like paper cups, and soon Meyers was working to sign up dealers to handle sales.
While the company struggled with its growth, Meyers still managed to have fun. Also in his magic year of ’67, a Manx won the Mexican 1000, pre-runner to the Baja 1000. The following year, Meyers entered the race with a new vehicle designed solely for off-road, the Tow’d. Somewhere south of Ensenada he drove into a dust cloud and subsequently flew off an embankment and slammed the nose into the opposite side. The Tow’d folded around his feet and almost ripped off his left foot. Horrifyingly, his broken bones projected out of both legs, and he was forced to lie in the desert until an ABC camera helicopter picked him up and dropped him at a checkpoint. In all, he had to suffer 22 hours of pain until reaching a San Diego hospital.
Recovery took almost a year and may have contributed to what happened next. Meyers simply could not meet the growing demand for his Manx. Its look, which suddenly seemed to encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle of beaches, babes, and sun, really began to take off in 1968.
For Meyers, there was also the problem of just how easy his design was to copy. The essential part of Meyers’s kit was the fiberglass body. All a copycat had to do was make a mold of it and he was in business. With demand so high, countless small fiberglass shops did just that. By 1969, there were, according to Meyers, at least 70 companies knocking off his Manx.
Meyers had obtained a patent for the Manx in 1965, and in 1969 he sued a company called Lincoln Industries for copyright infringement. For weeks he traveled to a federal court in Sacramento. The 78-year-old judge, who Meyers said didn’t know a dune buggy from a shopping cart, ruled that the Manx had been in “public use” for a year before Meyers was granted his patent (remember that the first Manx was built in 1964), and therefore Meyers’s patent was invalid. Meyers’s lawyer thought they could appeal the decision and fight the definition of the term “public use,” but Meyers said he had already spent $30,000 on the case and much of the damage was already done.
Instead, he expanded his product line. He began selling the Tow’d model and eventually produced a street-only car called the SR. He made a fiberglass hot tub — “That was long before the Jacuzzi,” he points out — and a child’s bed that looked like a Can-Am car.
The company was beginning to implode. By the time Meyers expanded to meet demand for the Manx, there were too many competitors to count (even Sears produced a fiberglass buggy-like body, the Rascal). There were probably more than 100,000 Manx-type buggies produced. It’s impossible to know the exact number since no one kept any records. Meyers, however, made only about 5000 of them. The Tow’d and the SR didn’t exactly set the market afire, either. He sold about 850 Tow’ds and roughly 500 SRs. His company had grown to 70 employees by 1970, and the cheaper, often lower-quality imitations were stealing customers.
Then, in 1970, Meyers got slapped with what he says was an unfair California tax. His company was overextended after fighting the legal case and developing new products. He borrowed $20,000 from his in-laws. For a guy who once said, “I’m an artist — not a businessman. It used to be a lot of fun, and now I’ve got business managers,” the hassles became too much. In 1970, a bewildered and frustrated Meyers walked away from everything — his company, his wife, and the Manx. B.F. Meyers & Company shut down the following year.
“It took 10 years before I could hear the words ‘dune buggy’ and not get furious,” says Meyers angrily. A moment later, he turns back to his easygoing surfer personality and adds, “Sometimes, though, you have to say, ‘Shit happens.'”
After leaving his business, Meyers knocked around Orange County, doing odd fabrication jobs and living in a 22-foot motorhome. He built a house on a remote bay in Mexico. From 1975 to 1980, he worked for a company that made custom convertibles. In 1980, he decided to go into the automobile-restoration business and accepted a job to restore and customize a 1964 Rolls-Royce. That project left him deeply in the red, as he vastly underbid each phase. Proving once again that indeed he wasn’t a businessman, he nonetheless stuck it out until the Rolls, with a unique retracting roof, was finished in 1986.
Financially and emotionally drained, Meyers — remarried for the sixth time at this point in the story (“It took me six times to get it right,” he jokes) — and his wife, Winnie, moved in with his new in-laws on a 5.5-acre compound in the hills northeast of San Diego.
It was there that Meyers more or less retired and decided to indulge his artistic side. For several years he worked on a project that was hard for him to explain and even harder for this writer to understand. The gist of it was that he was trying to sculpt a breaking wave that provided the look and feel of the real thing.
By the early ’90s, however, the words “dune buggy” had lost their sting, and in 1994, Meyers accepted an invitation to a dune-buggy festival in Le Mans, France. There he was greeted like Carroll Shelby at a Mustang rally. The enthusiasm, he says, was overwhelming and got him thinking about the Manx again.
So Meyers went home and, with Winnie, started a dune-buggy club as a way to gauge interest in producing yet another Manx. Through the club, Meyers organized dune-buggy meets, and although the club is open to all makes of buggies, he also authenticates real Meyers Manxes. He says that at a gathering of 150 dune buggies, only 10 percent are the genuine article.
It seems that those who didn’t have a real Manx wanted one, so in 2000, Meyers decided to do a one-time limited-edition production run of new Manx kits for $2000 each. “I wondered if I’d sell 20,” he recalls, but he set the number at 100 and crossed his fingers.
He got 100 orders in a single month.
If there was a problem, it was that Meyers couldn’t produce more than 100 and still honor his limited-edition promise. And he had set the price so low that he barely made any money.
From his club, Meyers knew Manx owners wanted a Manx that could comfortably seat four, not two like the original. They also wanted a trunk, and he figured potential Manx customers would feel the same. In any case, the interest in a modern Manx was definitely there.
In 2001, an all-new Manx emerged from yet another small garage not unlike the birthplace of the original. Its price had moved up to $5395, but it could seat four. It looks like a modernized Manx, and it uses the same VW Beetle floorpan and mechanicals. He calls it the Manxter 2+2 and so far has built and sold 60.
The Manxter is only the beginning of his dune-buggy plans. Meyers is reproducing the original Manx catalog and will sell replacement parts. He’ll also produce another version of the Manx that will be closer to the original than the Manxter.
“We have a lot to do,” Meyers says. Asked if he thinks the Manxter will start another dune-buggy craze, Meyers replies, “I don’t know, but I’m having a lot of fun.” That, of course, was always the point.
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