Never Lift: The Life and Cars of Bruce Meyer, "Everyone's Car Guy"
Meyer, founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, has a collection that has to be seen to be believed.
The alleyway behind Bruce Meyer's garage in Beverly Hills, California, isn't quite like back alleys elsewhere in Los Angeles County. For instance, most of them don't have valet parking for famous designer boutiques lining the pavement. And they certainly don't have five purebred vintage race cars (three of which won Le Mans) idling impatiently, waves of heat rising from their lightweight alloy engine lids. Meyer is seated at the front of the line in the achingly gorgeous, silver 1957 Ferrari 625/250 Testa Rossa, grinning like an eight-year-old boy, ready to get this high-octane show on the road.
We've spent the past couple hours inside Meyer's car cave, a restored former parking garage where these multimillion-dollar pieces of automotive history were lowered, one by one, to ground level by means of a very industrial-looking platform lift. Each was fueled and carefully pushed by hand onto the lift, the safety door latched, then lowered to the ground in a slow-paced procession of whirring motors and rotating pulleys with Meyer himself at the controls. Then relative silence as each car goes through assorted checks and starting procedures before bursting to life, the booming, snarling exhaust noise bouncing off of the space's brick walls.
"Normally things look a little more organized in here," Meyer says apologetically as he gives us a quick tour. "With everything going on, things are a little crazy."
Crazy, for sure. Over here sits a mammoth prewar Bentley, over there a lightweight-spec Jaguar E-type, across from that a Chevrolet Corvette C6.R that won Le Mans in 2009. Every car has a story. The gorgeous black Porsche 356 Speedster is a replacement for a similar car Meyer graciously sold back to its prior owner, Steve McQueen, who realized the mistake he'd made. The rare and seductive four-cam Fly Giallo Ferrari 275 GTB Meyer says someone once offered him a 250 GTO in trade for. At the time, the 275, a newer car, was perhaps worth a thousand or two more. "I just couldn't see taking a loss on a car I'd just bought," Meyer laughs. Today, the 275 GTB/4 is worth millions more than he paid, the 250 GTO multiples of millions.
It's clear these cars aren't about money to Meyer; rather, they're about miles logged and fond memories. They're about tales of historic feats attained by special cars and legendary people. They're about the sounds they make, the emotions they evoke, and the sheer joy they create. We ask Meyer if it can really be enjoyable to drive a vintage multimillion-dollar race car through the crowded, distracted Los Angeles streets. "Why, because of what they're worth?" he replies. "Nah, they're great to drive!"
Meyer is often referred to as "everyone's car guy" for his lack of pretension, for his boundless enthusiasm for cars, and because he's so well connected with seemingly every major player in the hobby. Meyer was the founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and his personal cars represent some of the finest in the country. Certainly, he has come a long way from his first car, a 1950 Plymouth gifted to him by his aunt when he was 16 years old. He grew up in a family that cared little about automobiles as anything other than basic transportation, but Meyer spent his youth in the exhaust-infused heyday of hot rodding, and he dreamed of big engines and drag racing.
"I loved hot rods growing up," he recalls. "I went to the drags, and I was born and raised in the '40s and '50s. In 1957, I turned 16 years old, and all I wanted was a 1955-57 Chevrolet or a '40s Ford, but it just wasn't meant to be. My parents forbade anything like that."
After high school, he left Southern California to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In 1960, his father, the owner of Geary's, a high-end gift store in Beverly Hills, told him that if he saved some money, he'd split the cost of a new car with him. Although the younger Meyer was tempted to buy a new high-power American car he could modify, he was also aware of the growing European sports-car scene and felt the pull strongly.
"At the time, John von Neumann had Competition Motors in Hollywood, and I went out and priced a new Porsche [356 coupe] with him," Meyer says. "It was $2,700 with
European delivery. So I talked my dad into thinking this was a safer car, you know . . . four-cylinder, 60 horsepower. He thought that was really good thinking on my part, so he paid for half of my first car. And that's what got me started with Porsches."
It also got him heavily involved in the automobile social scene. "In 1961, there were very few Porsches around," he says. "You'd flash your lights at other Porsches and wave. I joined a group called the Porsche Owner's Club, and we did gymkhanas and other track events. It was still a very boutique kind of a car at that point."
Meyer cherished his Porsche until 1964 when he was out of school and tending bar in Northern California. One day, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing for sale caught his eye. "I sold the Porsche in Lake Tahoe and bought the Gullwing," Meyer says. "It had a V-8 Corvette engine in it with Rudge wheels, and it looked 100 percent stock. It was faster than a Cobra, really fast."
Fast-forward to the 1990s, and the Chevy-engined Gullwing is gone, sold long ago to Meyer's college fraternity brother who still owns it today. In its place, a lovely original 300SL and a plethora of other desirable sports cars, race cars, and hot rods. Now back in L.A., Meyer has amassed a world-class collection and is well known in automotive circles for his knowledge and enthusiasm. A wildly popular candle store in Beverly Hills and some well-timed real-estate investments have given Meyer the means to afford many of the cars he grew up dreaming about. In his social circles, Meyer became friendly with Robert E. Petersen, founder of the Petersen Publishing empire, which made its namesake a very wealthy man with titles such as Automobile sister publications MotorTrend and Hot Rod.
"Robert loved the 'deal,' and he came across what he thought was an opportunistic chance to buy the building where the Petersen is now," Meyer says. "He thought it would be a great automobile museum." Meyer agreed, and a relationship was soon forged with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which owned some cars but had nowhere to display them. It should have been a match made in automotive heaven, but it wasn't.
"It was just not a compatible partnership," Meyer says. "That marriage broke up. It probably lasted less than 10 years." Nevertheless, Meyer's input as founding chairman has been critical in seeing the museum through to its 25-year anniversary. In that quarter century, the museum has seen many changes, the most significant being a major remodel in 2015 that shed the building's department store roots to create a world-class, three-floor, 95,000-square-foot treasure trove for enthusiasts.
"I always say we could never be where we are today without Robert E. Petersen," Meyer says. "It was his vision to do an automobile museum, and it was his money that contributed to the purchase of the building. But then we would never be where we are today with him, because he would never have done what we did, spending over $100 million in bringing the museum up to current standards. He was an automotive enthusiast but not nearly to the level that he was in hunting and fishing."
Through the museum, Meyer began to meet many of the people who made a heavy impression on him and his life. "My heroes growing up were Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney," Meyer says. "I started a club called the Checkered Flag 200, which at the time, I wanted to get 200 people that would give $1,000 a year to the Petersen, and both of them joined as soon as I started asking people. I became really good friends with both of them. You know how they say never meet your heroes because you'll be disappointed? Well, those two guys were . . . the best."
In fact, Jones's advice to an aspiring racer is the source of Meyer's famous mantra, "Never lift." Indeed, Meyer seems to have more energy and drive than many men half his age. Today, the Checkered Flag 200 has some 600 members, and Meyer is the Petersen's vice chairman. He has no problem reminiscing, but he's always more excited to talk about what's to come.
Like our impromptu road race, which is now rolling off its starting marks and through the boutique-shop- and palm-tree-lined streets that fill downtown Beverly Hills, a police escort providing safe passage. Our finish line is the Petersen Museum, where the cars will be staged in the Bruce Meyer Family Gallery for an exhibit of its namesake's own cars. Named "Winning Numbers: The First, the Fastest, the Famous," the exhibit is tied together by notable competition cars.
"My heroes growing up were Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney," Meyer says. They say never meet your heroes because you'll be disappointed? Well, those two guys were the best. "
The leading Ferrari 625/250 Testa Rossa, for example, is among the winningest privateer Ferraris ever, finishing first in 11 races during the 1957 season before being uprated by von Neumann from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine to a 3.0-liter V-12. It sounds terrific every time Meyer gets on the throttle, spewing its 12-cylinder symphony from four exhaust pipes as it goes. Behind Meyer is the first production Shelby Cobra ever built, chassis No. CSX2001. It was also the first Cobra entered in competition, and the car raced for years in Europe, where Meyer tracked it down and bought it. You'd think an important car like this would never see the light of day, let alone mix it up on busy city streets, but Meyer wouldn't have it any other way. "I think of myself as a driver and enthusiast, not a collector," he says. And he's adamant about actually using the cars in his collection to the best of his ability.
Then there's the 1965 Iso Bizzarrini AC/3 Competition, a very red car that might look a lot like a Ferrari to many casual onlookers—and for good reason. Giotto Bizzarrini was the engineer at Ferrari responsible for the 250 GTO, but a worker's revolt there led Bizzarrini to find work at Iso, where he developed this car to win Le Mans. And it did, claiming first in class in 1965. As we trundle through the posh 90210 zip code, the Bizzarrini is the only car to get a little grumpy, its climbing temperature gauge mandating we pick up the pace to feed more cooling air to the race-spec Chevy 327 V-8's radiator.
The silver 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB has no problem with moving a little faster; after all, its nickname is the "SEFAC Hot Rod." Why? In '61, Enzo Ferrari had his crew tune five short-wheelbase 250 GTs to produce even more power than they were already making, 307 horsepower to be exact, from a 3.0-liter V-12. Then he had the five cars wrapped in lightweight aluminum bodywork to maximize their power-to-weight ratios. This car, chassis No. 2689, won its class at Le Mans that year and did the same at Monza and Montlhéry en route to clinching the '61 FIA GT Cup championship. More recently, it was Meyer's 60th birthday present to himself. On the road, it vies for position with a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette, one of three prepared by American Briggs Cunningham for the model's first-ever outing at the 24-hour endurance race. Chevy and other American manufacturers at the time had a pact to not lend factory race support, but the "Father of the Corvette," Zora Arkus-Duntov, snuck his engineering expertise to Cunningham's crew, which went on to win its class at Le Mans in 1960 with this very car.
As we make our way through traffic, our quintet of race cars causes even jaded Southern Californians to stop texting and start snapping photos. People on the sidewalk stop in their tracks to stare, and many drivers do the same. At some point, it seems we've even lost our police escort, which is now nowhere to be seen. Then a truly Meyer moment happens. At a busy intersection, the cars are struggling to stay in a pack. Meyer rolls to a stop alongside a random CHP officer in his Ford Police Interceptor, who rolls down his window and with a smile and a thumbs-up creates a little break in traffic for our merry caravan's escape. Minutes later, we arrive at the museum. Checkered flag.
Later that week, "Winning Numbers" officially opens at the Petersen, where Meyer says a few words as members of the museum and local media ogle the 14 cars on display. It's strange to see the five cars that were driven here days before in a rush of noise, heat, and exhaust now sitting silently, immaculately on plinths for display. More competition cars owned by Meyer are here, too: a famous Don Prudhomme dragster, a So-Cal Speed Shop belly tank racer ("When things go wrong in a belly tank racer, they go really wrong," Meyer says), a pair of Le Mans-winning Porsches, and others. Meyer tells a story about having recently come back from driving 2,000 miles in a '32 Ford hot rod during a vintage tour.
"There were Corvettes and Porsches, and no one else had a '32 Ford," he says, beaming. "Without a doubt, I had the most fun." We're positive he did.