Flying across the sand like a four-wheeled rocket, the first fiberglass dune buggy was sleek, stylish and a little whimsical, a small car with big wheels and a tangerine-red paint job. Christened the Meyers Manx, the vehicle was the invention of Bruce Meyers, a surfer and boatbuilder who melded old Volkswagen Beetle parts with a curving fiberglass body.
“It’s sort of a reflection of my lifestyle, which is all about being free,” said Meyers, who made the front fenders flat enough to hold a couple of beers, kept the car’s sides high enough to keep mud and sand from the driver’s eyes, and designed the vehicle so a surfboard could be easily tied overhead.
Built in 1964, his Manx was far from the first car to race across the beach or desert. But the two-seater inspired thousands of imitators, turned the dune buggy into an emblem of 1960s California cool and helped spur the development of off-road racing. Scores of drivers now flock to the Baja California Peninsula each year for a race that began in 1967, after Meyers and a friend drove 1,000 miles through desert sand and scrub in record time.
Meyers, who spent decades away from the dune-buggy industry before reintroducing the Meyers Manx in 2000 and developing new models of the car, died Feb. 19 at 94, at his home in Valley Center, Calif. His wife, Winnie Meyers, said the cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder.
Through his company B.F. Meyers & Co., which shut down in 1971, Meyers built about 7,000 dune buggies, which were sold as kits and originally priced at $985. The vehicle inspired more than 250,000 copycat cars, according to the Historic Vehicle Association, which calls the Meyers Manx “the most replicated car in history.”
In 2014, the association added Meyers’s original Manx to its National Historic Vehicle Register, a record of significant American vehicles maintained in partnership with the Interior Department. The car, known as Old Red, was only the second vehicle added to the register, after a 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe.
Meyers was 37 when he started sketching his idea for the Manx, working out of his Newport Beach garage in Southern California. By then he had shaped surfboards, built catamarans, survived a kamikaze attack in the Navy, studied fine art and built a trading post on a coral atoll in the South Pacific. Surfing by day, playing the guitar at bars by night, he was hoping the new car would be something he and his friends could use to access remote beaches in Baja.
“I wasn’t thinking about buggies,” he told Autoweek in 2002. “I just thought, ‘What is something that would work well down there that’s cheap to drive?’ “
During a 1963 trip to Pismo Beach, he marveled at a group of “water pumpers,” early dune buggies made from stripped-down cars. One of them, a modified Beetle, maneuvered better than the others, inspiring him to incorporate the car’s engine, suspension and mechanical components into the Manx.
Meyers modified the mechanical components to make the vehicle lighter and faster. Drawing on his boatbuilding experience, he built a thick fiberglass body strengthened by steel tubes, later boasting that the vehicle’s shape was as distinctive as that of a Coke bottle.
“I loved the funnies – the Mickey Mouse, the Donald Duck cars,” he told the Orange County Register in 2014. “They all drove little cars with great big wheels, and there was no room for their feet. That stuck with me. I guess I mimicked some of that in the Manx.”
“If I’d known a lot about car design,” he added, “there wouldn’t be a dune buggy because I broke the rules. You have to have freedom to break rules.”
The youngest of five children, Bruce Franklin Meyers was born March 12, 1926, on his family’s dining room table in Los Angeles. His father, a businessman and riding mechanic, was friends with Henry Ford, who hired him to set up Ford dealerships across the country. His mother was a song plugger, a singer hired to promote new music for department stores or music publishers.
Meyers spent much of his childhood on beaches in and around Los Angeles, becoming a lifeguard after one of his brothers drowned. He dropped out of high school to join the Merchant Marine and later enlisted in the Navy, serving on the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill during World War II.
After the ship was struck by two kamikazes near Okinawa and began to sink, Meyers jumped into the water. As he told it, he gave his life jacket to a struggling sailor and then helped a pilot who had been badly burned, staying by his side until they were rescued about five hours later. Nearly 400 sailors and airmen were killed in the attack.
Meyers returned to the Merchant Marine after the war and studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles before building and designing boats, including his own 42-foot catamaran.
His work on the Meyers Manx was aided by his wife at the time, Shirley (he was married six times in all), who worked in the advertising department at Road & Track. She and the magazine’s editors helped come up with the car’s name, evoking the short-tailed Manx cat that the car vaguely resembled.
By the time he started selling the Manx, many of his motorcyclist friends were racing up and down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, trying to break the time record for the drive from Tijuana to La Paz, which stood at 39 hours 46 minutes. Meyers saw an opportunity.
“Here was the allure of unmistakable adventure,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “Add a certain amount of youthful exuberance, and my co-pilot’s wisdom of planning, and I thought we could do the unthinkable – beat world-class riders on factory motorcycles across open country. I thought it could lead to kit sales for my Manx.”
Equipping Old Red with 65 gallons of gas, he and Ted Mangels beat the record by five hours. “Almost overnight we had 350 orders,” Meyers recalled. Later that year, Ed Pearlman started the Mexican 1000, now known as the Baja 1000, one of the world’s most renowned off-road races. Fittingly, the inaugural race was won in a Manx, driven by Mangels and Vic Wilson.
Meyers filed a patent for his “sand vehicle” in 1965 but struggled to prevent competitors from using his design, which came to include the shortened chassis of a Beetle. After taking a copycat manufacturer to court in 1970, he lost the case and, in his telling, the rights to his invention. His company closed down the next year.
“I felt terrible and cheated,” he later told the National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper. “I spent the next twenty-something years just not thinking right. I was so unhappy.”
He worked odd jobs on boats and, constantly tinkering, later claimed to have come up with the idea for fiberglass hot tubs and pickup-truck bed liners.
In 1986 he married Winifred Baxter, who goes by Winnie, and who partnered with him to start a Meyers Manx club and company of the same name in the 1990s. They sold the business in November to a venture capital firm, Trousdale Ventures.
Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter from his fifth marriage, Julie Meyers; a brother; and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by two children from his first marriage, Georgia and Tim.
Before his vision worsened about two years ago, Meyers was still driving a Manx and making the cars by hand, often by himself.
“The Japanese have a saying: ‘In all things can be found something beautiful,'” he told the National in 2012. “People smile when they see the Manx. Don’t focus on anything but those two people driving it, who are happy. I’ve seen thousands of dune buggies. If you think about the happiness that I brought to those people, then that’s a good thing.”