Dune buggy pioneer Meyers didn’t expect lasting success

Take a walk near the small towns that sit perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and it’s impossible to ignore the signs nailed to fences, telephone poles and beach houses that lead to the sand dunes of coastal California.

“MANX IS BACK,” they read, usually in large, block letters.

Others are even more simplistic, more direct: “Thanks, Bruce.”

Thanks to a revolution, thanks to a new generation that is enjoying the simple pleasures of an older generation, thanks to Bruce Meyers and the Meyers Manx, dune buggies are back.

Four decades after melding Volkswagen parts with a little fiberglass, one man couldn’t be more proud.

“All I was looking for was a chance to get out in the open wind and have some fun,” Meyers said a few years ago during the introduction of a new dune buggy. “Who knew it would catch on again like it did then?”

If you’ve never heard of Bruce Meyers, chances are you’ve wished you were driving one of his creations.

Considered by many to be one of the most groundbreaking automotive designs ever built, the fiberglass dune buggy wasn’t just a car — it was a lifestyle.

Meyers used skill and backyard engineering to build something that broke convention to plow through the California sand. Some say his creation was what made hot rodding so hot.

Even he couldn’t have known.

Meyers grew up in California during the early days of surfing, drag racing and beach combing. After serving his country in World War II, Meyers sailed to the South Seas and built a trading post in the Cook Islands, near Fiji. He loved sailing and his interest in boat building, especially catamarans, turned into all kinds of projects that involved fiberglass.

But it was on California’s Pismo Beach, in 1966, where he saw his first “Dune Buggy.” Known as “water pumpers,” they were V-8-powered machines that were so heavy and crude that Meyers knew there had to be a better way.

Working out of his garage in Newport Beach, Calif., Meyers had a dream: He would build a buggy for the wilds of Baja, a thin strip of sand and surf jutting out of California into the Pacific Ocean. The vehicle would be light. It would be mobile. And it would blow the doors off the water pumpers.

After modifying a Volkswagen Kombi bus with wide rims, Meyers used his boat-building experience to craft the first fiberglass dune buggy. One trip to the beach turned into the catalyst for an entire industry.

What a trip it was.

Meyers made 12 cars that first year, produced using monocoque bodies (that had their own integral frame) with a VW engine and transmission. They were expensive and difficult to produce, so Meyers redesigned the body to fit on a shortened Beetle floor plan.

The result became a legend.

The Meyers Manx began the off-road revolution, eventually leading to more than 6,000 Manx kits sold in 10 years. In dune-buggy circles, the Manx would take the country by storm. It landed on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Celebrities drove them.

But imitators were everywhere.

Other manufacturers sprung up overnight. Over the course of the next 20 years, more than 300 companies made 250,000 look-alikes and near-look-alikes that would flood not only the beaches, but the streets of America. Meyers attempts to patent his product were unsuccessful. The courts said he hadn’t produced anything that was worthy of a patent.

Meyers went on to produce more off-road vehicles, including a buggy called the Tow’d, a smaller and lighter Manx. But it suffered under the weight of production problems, selling less than 1,000 units. Meyers built other vehicles: the Manx S.R. (Street Roadster); a four-seat Tourista built for hotel chains; and a few utility vehicles for Los Angeles lifeguards. But in 1971, after 10 years fighting competitors, the Meyers Manx company was out of business.

And then something remarkable happened: People wanted his dune buggies again.

Decades after that first buggy, with a renewed interest in the hobby and following the urging of many of his friends, Meyers reformed the company, opening the door to a whole new generation of dune buggy owners and enthusiasts.

After countless hours of design, he unveiled a new dune buggy, symbolically adorned with the same color as the original creation (dubbed “Old Red”).

With more than 2,000 members in the Manx Club, Meyers, then 76, felt the time was right to get back in.

The new buggy was “the culmination of a creative vision that has been nestled in my mind for years,” he said during the unveiling in 2002. “The return of retro styling in automotive circles happened to perfectly coincide with the need in the market for a car that was just plain fun.”

A father couldn’t be more proud.

“If the Manx is art, and art is truth, then this kind of truth will survive for today’s generation to rediscover.”

Today, you can read about the new-generation of Manx at www.manxclub.com, the official Manx Web site.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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