Manx dune buggy was not the first time inventor made his own way
If you were fortunate enough to attend the Kuwait Concours d'Elegance last month, you might have seen a little old man in a striped sweater walking around the exhibits, cane in hand and chirpy wife in tow. Not many paid attention to him. With so many classics on display, what could one twinkly eyed pensioner have to offer?
If only you knew his story; how about the fact that he shot down Kamikazes in the Second World War, jumped off a burning aircraft carrier, sailed across the South Seas in a homemade boat, raced hot rods on dry lakes and then found the time in his 40s to invent the dune buggy? Not to mention marrying six times, inventing the hot tub and building the famous Bricklin SV-1?
If that got your attention, then it's time you learnt about the impossibly charming Bruce Meyers, creator of the famous Meyers Manx - and one of the most fascinating men in the footnotes of automotive history.
Meyers was in Kuwait City to present a lecture about the history of his dune buggy. Somewhat nervous about speaking before a large crowd, fate issued him a pass when he was forced to skip his own presentation after staying out too long in the desert watching the grandchildren of his off-road creation surf the dunes. The next morning over coffee, 85-year-old Meyers is glad to leave the lecture hall behind and eager to tell me about the inspiration for his oft-copied invention - Mickey Mouse. "I used to read the funnies in the newspaper," he explains.
"All the characters - Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse - all drove little dinky cars with big fat tyres. Maybe my instincts when I was creating the dune buggy were guided by my memories; it was a subliminal urge that came out. I loved those little cars as a child."
Most might have left it at that, an unknowable pipe dream. Not in California, where, Meyers says, everyone's a little bit crazy.
"In California, we don't work in factories all of our lives to get a gold watch. I was a beach boy with a lot of talent, obviously, and I did what I wanted, when I wanted. Since I was a little boy I was always making something with my hands, like skateboards and things like that. Making a car was just another way of expressing myself."
With six years of art school under his belt and experience building fibreglass sail boats for Jensen Marine, the biggest boat company in the state, the pieces were slowly locking into place for Meyer to create his car. He'd already raced flathead Ford coupés and roadsters on dried-out river beds as a member of California's famed Quartermilers club. What was missing was the chance to do something different, until one day he ventured out into the arid desert of California.
"On some of these dunes, people were playing around with these old cars called waterpumpers. It was an old Ford or Chevy with two wheels on each end of the rear axle with the front wheels way out in front. It wasn't very effective. But when the Volkswagen [Beetle] came along, we found that it was much more efficient.
"The dune buggy owes itself to the Volkswagen really," he says. "The rear-engined car is always more effective off-road, with far more traction. They worked so much better that I decided I could make one of those that you drive on the street, and that it was a good way to make a cute little car like my cartoon characters had driven when I was a child," he recalls fondly.
In 1963, at the age of 40 and after working on it for a full year, Meyers finally unveiled his creation - the Manx, an name bestowed on it by the editors of Road & Track magazine, who noted its stubby similarity to the cat without a tail. To prove the car's off-road reputation, Meyers entered it in the torturous Baja 1000 rally - and promptly smashed the record.
"The motorcycles did the 1,000-mile Baja in something like 40 hours. I beat them by around five hours, all loaded up with 65 gallons of gasoline. We were the only ones in the history of the off-road racers to never have even a pit stop."
The car was an instant hit, with Meyers wildly underestimating the demand for the "happy car".
"There were 45 magazines in those days around the world and I was in every one of them. Car And Driver did an article about the Meyers Manx with me on the cover, which produced 350 orders. I had one set of moulds, could only make three or four kits in one week. That's why everyone started copying it, because I couldn't produce them fast enough," he says bitterly.
Thanks to the car's memorable appearances in films such as The Thomas Crown Affair - where Steve McQueen drove a Corvair-engined Manx - demand for the little buggy shot up exponentially. But Meyers never patented his designs, and soon, shops all over the country were offering versions of the Manx.
Meyers took the copycat manufacturers to court but, sadly, lost the case and, subsequently, the patent rights to his own invention. After seven years, his company was forced to close down.
"There was a smarter lawyer on the other side than mine," he says, still visibly upset more than 40 years later. "They took everything. I had a company that had 60 or 70 people, a trucking fleet, 200 dealers; we were making 25 kits in one day. And when it all went away in 1970 it just left me hanging. Seven good years, that's all I had.
"I felt terrible and cheated. I spent the next twenty-something years just not thinking right. I was so unhappy."
It must seem cruel, but Meyer was no stranger to hardship. After his older brother drowned while he was young, he trained to be a lifeguard and eventually joined the Merchant Marines. At the age of 19, he was drafted into the US Navy to fight in the Second World War.
Meyers was stationed as a gunner on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill as it led operations in the Pacific against the Japanese armada. From the onset, the carrier came under assault from Japanese suicide pilots - the feared Kamikazes - and it was the job of this young man from California to bring them down in flight or be killed trying.
On the morning of May 11, 1945, his luck ran out. With the ship supporting the US raid on Okinawa, two Kamikazes punched through the heavy anti-aircraft fire and then the thick armour of the Bunker Hill. With the ship taking on water, flames raging on the deck and with bomb-laden planes unable to take off or land, the order was given to abandon ship.
"It was 50 feet to the water," remembers Meyers. "There was a guy standing next to me on the rail. I kept counting down from three and asking him to jump, but he was afraid. I finally jumped without him."
Filled with flaming debris, the water was scarcely better. A good swimmer, Meyers donated his life vest to another struggling sailor. He also came upon a stricken pilot who was severely burnt and stayed with him until they were both rescued by a passing destroyer about five hours later.
The pilot survived and Meyers, who was relatively unhurt, volunteered to help take the still-floating Bunker Hill back to the US for repair. But when he returned to the ship, he was met with a terrible scene.
"Four hundred men died on the Bunker Hill. I spent almost a month coming back with a skeleton crew, pulling the dead men out of the ship."
Among the bodies was the young sailor who refused to jump into the Pacific. Trapped between his fear of the ocean and the raging inferno, the boy from Nebraska put off his choice too long and never made it off the flight deck.
"He was just 20 years old," he says, with sadness.
Meyer's war was over, but not his love affair with the sea. He returned to the Merchant Marines, where he soon found a new adventure. "I sailed off on the South Seas on a square-rigged ship. That was a dream of mine, since I read Robinson Crusoe. Somebody wanted me to build a trading post and I volunteered, went out there and lived on a coral atoll for six months with a little village of Polynesians," he reminiscences.
"Is it still there today? I wonder. I don't know. It's been a long time."
After the failure of the Manx company, a demoralised Meyer started over, with mixed results. He continued to invent and build, claiming the hot tub and the spray-on pickup bed liner as his ideas, among others, as well as building the prototype for the famous gullwing sports car, the Bricklin SV-1. Today, he still builds Manx buggies, and he has made his peace with history.
"The Japanese have a saying: 'In all things can be found something beautiful'," says Meyers. "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."
Published: March 10, 2012 04:00 AM