On Friday, February 19, the visionary whose fiberglass invention helped pioneer the sport of off-road racing while also creating millions of smiles across the world, passed away in the early morning hours. At 94 years young, Bruce Meyers was the embodiment of “you are only as old as you think you are.”
Time finally caught up with the walking poet lariat of the off-road culture, a guy whose youthful outlook and hope for the future were unmatched. Having carved an artistic swath through life, his tired body and ever youthful mind finally crossed the eternal finish line.
But that’s not the only finish line Bruce ever crossed. In 2014, I had the honor of helping him drive across another one after decades of failure.
The Bruce Meyers story is the stuff of legend, and fuel for countless articles and documentaries since he formed his first Meyer Manx dune buggy body in a tiny, one-car Newport Beach, California garage in 1964. Given his penchant for sand, surf and music, also having an interest in racing seemed to sit outside the well-known narrative. However, his ultimate influence on the sport of desert racing is yet another powerful chapter to his story.
Meyers built the Volkswagen Beetle-based car, affectionately entitled “Old Red,” to scratch an itch to explore the untapped vistas of the nearby Baja peninsula with his buddies. Bruce would share endless stories of free lobster, cold margaritas and beautiful local ladies; but the trips that he and his posse enjoyed were actually pre-runs towards the near future.
One particular alcohol-fueled dare turned into Meyers and friend Ted Mangels using Old Red to beat the fastest motorcycle times from the top of Baja in Tijuana to the near bottom in La Paz.
That singular act, and all the publicity about it that followed, really helped set in motion the very first professional desert race – the 1967 National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) Mexican 1000.
Among the pioneering field of entries from that first race was Meyers, piloting a gold version of his creation that was part of a four-car factory Meyers Manx effort. Gifted the No. 1 entry and car number by NORRA, Meyers led the field for a large portion of the race before his primitive VW Beetle transmission gave up. Happily, however, the No. 10 Meyers Manx of off-road pioneer Vic Wilson and Mangels won the race and made motorsports history.
The following year, Meyers the racer returned for the 1968 Mexican 1000, this time with three of his new tube-framed Meyers Tow’ds powered by Ford industrial V-4s. Unlike the year before, he started in 66th position with co-driver Bill “Wheelo” Anderson. About 100 miles into the run, he was passed by Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe in a Ford Bronco on a stretch of pavement. Diving back onto the dirt, an adrenaline-inspired Meyers worked his way around Jones, only to crash heavily into the side of an infamous Baja arroyo. With the accident scene being serendipitously captured by the lone ABC Wide World of Sports helicopter, the two injured drivers got extracted from the stricken wreck, with the rudimentary Tow’d chassis nearly folded in half.
While Anderson had a sprained wrist, Meyers lay on the hot desert floor with compound fractures of both legs and a mangled left ankle. His excruciating 23-hour ride to a San Diego hospital is the stuff of legends. The injured racer never fully recovered from the incident despite receiving a prosthetic ankle.
In a book that he wrote a few years ago, Bruce lamented the life that followed, explaining, “That limp was to follow me as a reminder of a ‘what the Hell — let’s go for it’ youth, and that I was removed from the world of off-road racing. As the guy who possesses the very first trophy for the sport that followed, I knew very little about what took place after.”
He wasn’t removed forever.
Overcoming years of depression and survival after the loss of his original Meyers Manx business in the late 1990s, he and wife Winnie resurrected the company with the sale of new kits based on the original version of the Manx, as well as starting a worldwide club that is thriving today. That success spurred on his inspiration to build an all-new modern body, this one designed to fit a standard-length Volkswagen chassis (the original ones required a 14” cut to shorten them). He dubbed it the “Manxter.”
That new buggy not only inspired me to build my current version (an off-road/on-road machine known as a Meyers Manx Dual Sport), but it led me to help Bruce and a group of enthusiastic helpers to collaborate on a racing version of the Manxter designed to debut at the 35th anniversary SCORE Baja 1000 in 2002. Not only would Bruce race, but so too would original 1967 Mexican 1000 champion Vic Wilson along with others in his team. The effort was tied into the BFGoodrich/Toyota Class 1 team with Indy car drivers Mike and Robbie Groff, Jimmy Vasser and me. Together we managed to convince a bunch of generous industry people to join our retro efforts with all manner of needed parts and services.
Wearing the No. 1967 in honor of the first year of the race itself, the well-intentioned effort made a valiant, but unsuccessful, quest to reach the finish line in La Paz. It would return the following year, a race which was documented in the theatrical film Dust to Glory
The possessed car was campaigned with Bruce three more times. Three more times it failed to reach the end. Meyers had a Baja finishing record of 0 for 5.
After the Dust to Glory
It was sometime during that trip when I asked Bruce if the fact that he never finished one race bothered him like it would most racers. Ever the vibrant storyteller, he tried to spin off the obvious disappointment hidden deep inside with some type of cliche about life being a journey or something like that. That was Bruce.