This week, a Southern California man named Bruce Meyers turned 90. While that’s a feat in itself, Meyers has filled those 90 years with several lifetimes worth of living. He served on the USS Bunker Hill in World War II, surviving a kamikaze attack, and saved the life of a pilot who went overboard. After the war, he dabbled in fine art and spent two years in Tahiti. Then he got a job at Jensen Marine, where he learned to work in fiberglass, building some of the first fiberglass surfboards (he’s a life-long surfer) and boats. In the 1970s, he invented the Can-Am race car bed, and created the first fiberglass hot tub. But Meyer’s biggest achievement, the one you know him for even if you didn’t know his name until right now, is the dune buggy. From 1964 to 1971, Meyers built the Manx, the icon that sparked an off-roading revolution, spawned thousands of imitators, and seemingly embodies the California beach lifestyle.
If there’s an automotive universal truth out there, it could be this: Everybody likes dune buggies. What’s more, everybody knows them. You probably had a toy one growing up, and if you were born after 1985 or so, chances are your parents had one too — maybe Dad had Matchbox’s Baja Bandit, and Mom had the Barbie buggy.
Steve McQueen drove one in The Thomas Crown Affair, and Elvis drove a few in his ’60s-era movies. Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) even lent his voice to one in the Saturday morning cartoon Speed Buggy in the ’70s. With Chrome wheels, a roll bar, and a surfboard mounted up top, they embody the flashy yet easy-going life everyone east of the Sierras imagines Californians have. But despite the Manx’s iconic status, it was quickly overshadowed by imitators and, after a brief seven-year production run, disappeared.
Bruce Meyers is the first to say that he can’t take credit for starting Southern California off-roading culture; he only popularized it. In a 2009 interview with Hemmings, Meyers described how he saw the growing number of home-built “water-pumper” cars crawling over sand dunes. Stripped down to the bare frame (virtually everything was body-on-frame back then) and shortened, Meyers recalls:
They were made of old Fords and Chevys and Dodges and so forth, and they had an engine and a transmission bolted right up against the rear axle. And they always had straight pipes because that’s more fun, far more noisy and far more macho, and here we are boys, let’s make more noise.
But among all that American iron, he noticed a few bare Volkswagen chassis out there too, and he couldn’t help but notice that their flat floor pan, light weight, trailing arm suspension, and engine over the drive wheels allowed the low-power economy car to practically fly over the sand.
Meyers set to work designing and building a fiberglass monocoque body tub with Volkswagen running gear. The first prototype was finished in early 1964 and instantly struck a chord in Southern California. According to legend, Road & Track co-founder Elaine Bond gave the car its name. Inspired by the comic books he read as a kid, Meyers described the Manx’s outrageous design in a 2012 Top Gear interview:
I’m an artist and I wanted to bring a sense of movement and gesture to the Manx. Dune buggies have a message: fun. They’re playful to drive and should look like it. Nothing did at the time. So I looked at it and took care of the knowns. The top of the front fenders had to be flat to hold a couple of beers, the sides had to come up high enough to keep the mud and sand out of your eyes, it had to be compatible with Beetle mechanicals and you had to be able to build it yourself. Then I added all the line and feminine form and Mickey Mouse adventure I could.
After he finished “Old Red,” the first prototype, Meyers copyrighted the design, set up B.F. Meyers & Co., and began selling the cars as $985 (around $7,400 today) kits, Volkswagen not included.
At first, the Meyers Manx had trouble getting off the ground. The original kit was expensive, and mating the body to Volkswagen mechanicals required some serious fabrication work. After 12 copies were built, Meyers devised a simpler design, one that would bolt directly onto a Beetle floorpan, and suddenly building your own dune buggy went from a serious undertaking to a weekend project. The price dropped to $535 (around $4,000 today), and suddenly, the Manx began to take off.
In 1966, Meyers attended a party held by Cycle World magazine and heard about the Tijuana to La Paz off-road record held by American bikers. Convinced he could break the record, he loaded the 54-horsepower Old Red up with 65 gallons of fuel (held by three oxygen tanks, Army jerry cans, and milk cartons) and blasted across the Mexican desert with a co-driver. Arriving in La Paz 34 hours and 45 minutes later, he shattered the record by nearly four hours. Within months, the National Off-Road Racing Association had formed, and legions of Manxes were blasting across the Southwest. At a time when horsepower was climbing to stratospheric levels and bigger was still better, the 1,200-pound fiberglass car was a sensation. It graced the August 1966 cover of Hot Rod and the April ’67 cover of Car and Driver, giving it international attention. The business grew fast, and the Manx’s reputation grew with it.
Even with 80 dealerships across the country, Meyers could barely keep up with demand. After hearing about the Manx’s desert record, and eager to get in on the action, EMPI, the largest Volkswagen aftermarket parts company in the U.S., offered to help Meyers if it could get a cut of the action. After Meyers turned it down, the company decided to jump in anyway, and released the Imp in 1968. The car was a blatant rip-off, and Meyers sued, but the case was struck down in a California court, opening the floodgates for dozens of companies to begin offering Manx copies across America. By 1970, despite expanding its lineup to offer the wedge-shaped SR, off-road racing Tow’d (because you needed to tow it to the race), the four-seat Resorter, plus kits to retrofit a Chevy Corvair flat six in the Manx, Meyers left his company amid creeping legal debt and falling sales due to cheaper imitations. In 1971, the last of the 6,000 or so genuine Manxes left Meyers’s Fountain Valley, California factory, and it closed its doors for good.
Since then, the myth of the dune buggy has only grown. Meyers estimates 300,000 copies of his design have been made, so there’s a very real chance that you’ve never actually seen a legitimate Meyers Manx unless you’re at a dedicated event. But despite the low production numbers and hard lives they led, a surprising number of Manxes survive today, and in the late ’90s led Bruce Meyers decided to revisit his glory days and relaunch the company as Meyers Manx, Inc. While it started by building continuation models on old Volkswagen running gear called the Kick-Out, in 2012, it introduced the Kick-Out S.S., still based on Beetle chassis but able to handle modern Volkswagen or Subaru powertrains. Today, the kits start at $4,700, and a classic Volkswagen is still not included.
Everyone knows the Beetle is a Volkswagen, a Mustang is a Ford, and a Corvette is a Chevy. But not a lot of people realize that before this ubiquitous thing called the dune buggy began showing up anywhere warm and near an ocean over 50 years ago, it was invented by a guy named Bruce Meyers, and called the Meyers Manx.