I have realized that I kind of have a type when it comes to people I keep as personal heroes. They tend to be mechanically minded thinkers / artists, people like Alexander Calder or Rebecca Horn or mine friend Tom Jennings. They do not necessarily take themselves too seriously, but they do meaningful work. There’s another big one on this list, one I’ve admired for years: Bruce Meyers, the man who pretty much started the whole amazing industry with Volkswagen-based kit cars and dune carts. He died today, at his home in Valley Center, California.
Bruce was best known for the car that bears his name, Meyer’s Manx, which, I think, is an absolute icon for car design, still the image that pops into everyone’s minds when they hear the words “dune buggy.”
People in Southern California had hacked together “dune buggy” -like vehicles from old jeeps and stripped cars for years, and once the Volkswagen Beetle began to become popular in America in the 1950s, the kind of people who enjoyed driving in sand piles began to notice that the light, small car had surprisingly good traction, was tough, and the body was easy to remove, all good features for a small off-road car.
People started stripping Beetles for off-road use, and Bruce noticed this in the early 60’s. Bruce was not only happy to rip the screens off a bug and called it a day; Bruce was one in fact, no-joke artist, and he had built fiberglass boats for Jensen Marine, a combination that led to the formula that would make him famous: a wonderfully designed fiberglass housing that could be bolted straight onto a (abbreviated) Beetle chassis.
The first version of Bruce’s idea, built in 1964, was a little different from the later productions that would be called Manxes, after tailless cats, in that it was more of a unibody design, with hard points to romp the Volkswagen axles and drivetrain, but not need for the forehead.
The first Manx, with additional green tanks made from reshaped welding fuel tanks, became known as the Old Red, made a record-breaking off-road run from Tijuana to La Paz, a race that would inspire the famous Baja 1000 cross country which is still running today.
Let’s just take a moment here and look at Meyer’s Manx, because it’s one of those designs that is so intertwined with our cultural car consciousness that it can be difficult to think objectively.
Given the limitations of the Manx requirements – tough, inexpensive, easy to assemble in a backyard with basic tools – the result, I think, and absolute design triumph.
The body is a basic vessel that contains pretty much everything – you just bolt on a windshield, light and a roller coaster, and you’re good to go, pretty much. At the time, it was a completely updated design, a completely different design direction from the 1930s Beetle design, and with its almost arcuate curved fenders that form the overall shape feels like a Eero Saarinen architectural work, only on a much smaller scale.
Meyers described Manx in an interview:
I am an artist and I wanted to give the man a sense of movement and gesture. Dune buggies have a message: fun. They are playful to drive and should look like them. Nothing did then. So I looked at it and took care of the knowledge. The top of the front fenders had to be flat to hold a few beers, the sides had to come up high enough to keep mud and sand out of your eyes, it had to be compatible with the Beetle mechanics, and you had to be able to build it yourself. Then I added all the line and feminine shape and Mickey Mouse adventure I could. ”
The result was absolutely perfect for what it needed to be, perhaps too perfect, because it was imitated almost immediately, mercilessly and relentlessly.
Everyone, even sustaining cornerstones of American trade like Sears, threw out and sold shameless Manx clones, and despite having a design patent, Meyers was unlucky in court, and the flood of knockoffs ended with him out of business in 1971.
Bruce bounced back, invent fiberglass whirlpool, and later in life come back to build Manxes.
I had to meet Bruce a few years ago, then I drove a Class 11 desert racing Beetle; he was warm and kind and we talked painfully about all kinds of Volkswagen and dune buggy ephemera. He was so sharp and warm, and it was hard to reconcile that this was an actual human being who had created this thing that seemed to have somehow always existed.
The Manx dune buggy design was so iconic to me that meeting Bruce had the same kind of surreal effect that you would feel if you were introduced to the person who invented the feeling you get after a long fun day at the beach with friends, when you are young and beautiful and a little sunburned, and your hair feels thick and salty, and the sunset makes the inside of your car shades of vibrant orange, and everything feels wonderful in the world.
It will be like meeting that person. Just all that feeling is a car.
Bruce Meyers I do not think often get the recognition he deserves as a car designer; he becomes sure – his first Manx is on the National Historic Vehicle Register, after all – but I think his performance makes him among the most acclaimed car designers like Virgil Exner or Gordon Buehrig.
He designed a car that triggered a whole new class of vehicle, an entire sub-industry; how many car designers can say that?
Bruce Meyers showed the world how fun cars could be, and then put the opportunity to it build These cars are in the hands of everyone with a few free weekends and an old old Volkswagen. His Manx was free of pretension or foolish status or attitude – it was simple and fun, and a gift for anyone who loves the feeling of being on the move.
Bruce is still one of my car heroes and he will be missed.