Dune-Buggy Legend Bruce Meyers on His Life, Legacy, and VW’s Electric Buggy

Meyers once raged at his copycats. Now they’re in his club.

Jamie KitmanwriterRobin TrajanophotographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

In keeping with its once and always retro theme, Volkswagen brought 93-year-old Bruce Meyers, father of the famous Meyers Manx dune buggy to the New York show, where the soft-spoken, grandfatherly legend met with journalists and a steady stream of fans. Based on a shortened steel VW Beetle platform, Meyers's Manx and its perky fiberglass body sprung from his eye for design and previous experience making fiberglass boats.

Meyers quickly established the Manx bona fides in off-road racing (winning the Mexican 1000, precursor to the Baja 1000), and word of his startling creation spread. Serial production started slowly in in California in 1964, and was soon burning brightly, birthing the dune-buggy craze. Success gave rise in short order to copycats, whose wares (often direct rip-offs of Manx's distinctive body shell) drove Meyers out of business in 1971 and almost, he says, out of his mind. Although, it's only fair to say, that he did regroup in the 21st century to sell a series of 100 updated continuation models, still serves as the honorary chairman of the Manx club, and remains optimistic and cheerful. He can sell you an official Meyers Manx bodyshell from new production, if you'd like. Speaking with an occasional fact-check or prompt from his wife, Winnie, he holds a room of journalists captivated as he tells the story of a life rich in cars and nature, in a California long gone.

Despite its early demise and Meyers's heartache over heights just out of reach, the Meyers Manx got its due eventually. VW claim it inspired its designers to create the all-electric ID Buggy, a Manxy concept that incorporates the company's MEB electric-vehicle platform, which is why the company brought Meyers to the New York show. It's hoped that the ease of constructing body shells for MEB—basic crash-testing already conducted by Volkswagen—will encourage various coachbuilders and fledgling automakers to adopt the electric platform for their own designs. In fact, VW says the ID Buggy concept will be built by a small independent firm in the not too distant future.

Meyers is delighted by the retroactive respect and admiration, while remaining impressed by, if somewhat less than 100 percent keen on, the actual buggy VW is building.

On Designing the Manx

"Well, first of all, I love cars. I love art. I spent many years at art schools, drawing. Figure drawing especially—portraiture. The thing about portraiture is that it is very, very accurate. If you don't have a likeness, you don't have a good portrait. But the figure drawing has more of a sense of movement and life. And gesture is the work. Without the gesture, your figure drawing is kind of dead. So learning to draw with a lot of gesture sets the movement alive, as though the figure is going to get up and walk away any minute. So good figure drawing is probably the best [explanation of the] essence of the dune buggy. The next was a lot of love and a lot of Mickey Mouse—the funny papers are in it.

Any little dinky car with big wheels is fun. It says fun—right now. Of course, it also says adventure and it has a sense of community. It is amazing to drive and mess around in dune buggies. The life you might lead just driving it. Pulling into a gas station. There are no doors or windows so people all come over and start talking to you about this car.

Now the car has a lot of messages. It looks like fun and the simplicity of it—of course that's the only way I could do it. I'm not Volkswagen. Doing it simply was best for character. The simpler look means it's touched more people. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here, but I reached a lot of people somehow.

The business of its stance was very important. I was very aware of that. The car sits down a bit in the front, up in the back, short tight wheelbase. There's a little sense of the Model T in the front. And those popped up headlights. They seemed to be thumbing its nose at tradition. I think there is something about that in people. I think everybody wants to break the law a little bit. The car did that, making it attractive. That's kind of crazy isn't it?"

Meyers Confronts Success—and Failure

"When Car and Driver came out with [the Manx] on the cover, we were building one a month and then we had 300 orders all at once. With one set of molds.

That's a kit a day, maybe five a week, so then you've got 300 orders. Then you have big problems. So, I start building, staying overnight making molds and getting a little crew together to make more molds. It took about a year and a half to get 16, 18 molds, and then we moved into a larger place to work, and I built about 25 kits a day with 60, 70 people—big deal. Very successful. Two hundred dealers, a trucking fleet, the whole works. Then I lost it. [Meyers tried to uphold his copyright claims to his dune-buggy design by suing the largest of the many copycats, Lincoln Industries, in 1969 for infringing on his 1965 patent, but lost, opening the floodgates for the Manx-come-latelys.]

We wound up in the courtroom, losing the patent, and I find that the judges and lawyers don't know anything about art. Or anything about things that drove the dune buggies. They just simply listened to it in the courts and then it was gone. When the press learned about the Manx losing its patents, that was it. Suddenly we didn't have 25 kits a day. It was 20, 15, 10, then shut the doors. We're not in business. Now, I'm really pissed.

[For years,] I was still upset, I didn't want to hear the word "dune buggy" and I moved back to tooling sailboats and I restored a Rolls-Royce limousine. I've never been terribly interested in a lot of money, I just do what I do. I was not too smart, but we were invited to France in 1994, and Jackie Baron, the publisher for a magazine called Super VW, who were putting on a big VW show, had invited me to come. "I've got 1100 Volkswagens here so who needs another Volkswagen? We want you." But then I saw some of the stuff they wanted me to lead on parade. [The included buggies from the companies that had ripped him off.] Well I peeked at them, and they all had my stuff. I said, 'I'm not going to fuck with those anywhere. They're my enemies, they put me out of business, they ruined my life.'

He said, 'Wait a minute, you're still mad? That's 24 years ago.'

'Yeah, I'm mad,' I say.

He says, 'Don't you know that half of those people know what you did? And the other half don't give a damn.' He says, 'You've gotta change focus. You're worried about something that's happened a long time ago and it's killing you. There's a chemical in your body that will make you die sooner: anger. Anger will make you come down sooner. You've gotta stop and think of the two faces both smiling in the dune buggy.' He says, 'Every dune buggy has a couple of smiling faces. You put 'em there. They're yours. Stop thinking about that [other stuff], think about the smiling faces. There's a canary in this cage and the canary's covered up and you uncover it, the canary starts singing to the sunshine coming through the window, and while he's singing to the sunshine he's crapping on yesterday's newspaper. You've gotta learn to do that.'

He shut my mind down, he was so right. I took his other advice and we started the Manx club, and I would work overtime writing books.

The whole thing was such a rearrangement of my mind. The business of thinking on happiness instead of treacheries, worrying about nothing more than smiling faces and getting a club started. We started a club, well he started a club, basically, I'm just a figurehead. And that's the way the club is—very happy, it's very loving, and every dune buggy is a piece of fun, and all the dune buggies good or bad, they're part of the club—we allowed all copies in. For my enemies are now my friends.

Not being pissed at all those people who you were pissed at is the greatest feeling. Unload it. Throw it away. 'Cause it's all in your mind. Thinking on this happiness that I've caused. One day a guy grabbed my hand [at some event]. I said, 'What's with you?' He says, 'You've changed my life. My son was screwing around with drugs, I could smell marijuana coming out his bedroom, but he walks out and he says, "Look at the bitchin dune buggy, Dad,' " Dad went and bought a Manx kit, found an old Volkswagen, and the boy and the dad put thing together, a huge bonding process. Mom picked out the color, the other kids all got behind the whole thing, changed the whole family. I can't be unhappy. I don't have any clue as to how many people corrected their lives. The dune buggy is the best thing that Volkswagen can possibly do, maybe they don't know it yet.

Meyers on the VW ID Buggy

"Well it's beautifully styled of course, lovely surfaces, shapes. They're not at all like the Manx, but another rendition, and I think we're [okay with that]. I've questioned the size of the car, if I have any questions at all about it. It's very beautiful I'd say. I suppose there's some problems in that when their packaging is underneath the floor, the batteries take up a lot of room, that may be the driving reason for the size. But I like the thing. And 17-inch wheels? They're okay, I guess, whatever. Though I think size has something to do with cute. The Manx is toylike. It's hard to be a toy when you're very big."