It's every designer's dream to come up with the iconic shape for a product category. Bruce Meyers did it back in the 1960s. Through a very random series of events, Meyers mastered a new production method, applied it creatively to an emerging group of objects, and created what may be the ultimate manifestation of that object to date.
He also got completely screwed by copycats.
There are several design and business lessons in his story. Let's dive in.
In the first half of the 20th Century, automobiles were still manufactured by human beings. Since anything bolted together by a factory worker can be unbolted by a consumer, it was just a matter of time before people started hacking cars.
By the 1930s, if you wanted a fast car, there were plenty of manufacturers happy to sell you one. But as America was suffering through the Great Depression at the time, a handful of thrifty, mechanically-minded folk preferred to build their own swift rides out of spare parts. Ford Model A's, B's and T's were plentiful, and by cruising a junkyard, you could harvest enough unwrecked parts of these commonplace rides to Frankenstein together your own.
And if you're going to cobble your own car together, why not modify it a bit? A movement originating in southern California embraced this idea, wedging enormous engines into tiny cars, adding fatter wheels, modifying the bodies, adding fanciful paint jobs. They'd then race each other in the streets or even dry lakebeds for bragging rights. The "hot rod" subculture was born.
In the decades that followed, the hot rod gained a weird cousin: The dune buggy. In several scattered pockets of the country--Idaho, Oklahoma, Michigan, southern California--people began hacking old cars not for street speed, but for cruising around on the sand dunes present in those regions.
Driving through sand, with no demarcated road lines, was fun. It was also challenging, with traction being a major issue. Four-wheel-drive was a rare luxury, so clever methods had to be developed to give more common rear-wheel-drive cars some decent grip.
Jeep and tractor tires were experimentally added. The driver's seat, which was often little more than a crude DIY bench, was moved all the way back to the rear axle, to put the driver's weight directly over the drive wheels. The sheer weight of a car would lead to it being bogged down in the sand, so to shed pounds body panels were removed, roofs were cut off. (Primitive roll bars were sometimes created by harvesting the handrails from swimming pools.)
As dune buggies began (literally) gaining traction in the '50s and '60s, a southern Californian hot-rodder and art student named Bruce Meyers was watching them buzz past him on the beach. "I'd surf, smoke a little grass, go to art school, race a '32 Highboy Ford at the [Bonneville] lake beds, chase pretty girls and hang out in Pismo beach, watching the water pumpers [named after their water-cooled engines] - the first dune buggies," Meyers told Top Gear.
These Mad-Max hack jobs could do the work, but they were ugly, the domain of dedicated motorheads unconcerned with any aesthetic philosophy. Body panels were removed or frames were welded up from scratch, yielding artless metal skeletons. "I despised what they were doing," Meyers said in a 2005 interview. "I liked their function, but I didn't like their looks."
Meyers could be called a beach bum, if he wasn't so darn productive. To give you some insight into his personality: When he was a child, one of his brothers drowned to death at the beach. His family subsequently forbade all of the Meyers children from ever swimming in the ocean. Meyers couldn't resist the lure of the water and snuck back to the beach constantly. On the sly he even became a licensed lifeguard, ensuring that not only would he not drown, but he'd be able to help others at risk.
That training was put to the test during World War II. Meyers was a naval gunner on the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, which sustained two direct hits from kamikaze airplanes within 30 seconds of each other. The order was given to abandon ship and Meyers made the 50-foot jump into the water. Not needing it, he pulled his life jacket off to give to a floundering sailor; he subsequently grabbed a badly burned pilot in the water, and swam the man to a nearby destroyer for rescue.
After the war, Meyers--who was handy with tools--was hired as part of a construction crew to build a trading post in the South Pacific. While living in Tahiti, he got a gig as a ukulele player with the local music radio station. He also mastered the sailing of the outrigger boats used by the natives.
Upon his return to California a couple years later, he began building his own catamarans, which were eventually spotted by a fellow named Jack Jensen.
Learning to Use a Fancy New Material
Jensen was the founder of Jensen Marine, a major manufacturer of sailboats. After spotting Meyers' work, "Jack said 'I need somebody that can do tooling,'" Meyers recalled. "He says 'Why don't you come work for me?'"
Meyers took the job, and soon began producing boats for Jensen. But these weren't shaped from wood, like most sailboats. Jensen Marine, formed in 1957, was using a newfangled material known as glass-fiber reinforced plastic. Lightweight, yet stronger than a lot of metals, this material could be molded into virtually any shape one desired. Commercially it was referred to as "fiberglass" and it could be shaped in molds, yielding repeatability.
Meyers learned to work the material, becoming a master--a "genius," Automobile Magazinewould later write--with fiberglass. On the side he began using it to create his own surfboards and, eventually, a 42-foot catamaran of his own, with the plan of sailing it back to Tahiti. But the boat would take two people to sail, and Meyers didn't yet know that the guy who promised to make the trip with him would eventually flake out.
As we'll see, Meyers would subsequently find another project to sink his time into.
Enter the Beetle
In the 1950s, Fords and Chevys ruled the day. The roads were covered with running models, the junkyards well-stocked with crashed ones waiting to donate parts. For anyone building a dune buggy, the availability of Ford and Chevy parts made them a go-to. They were the cars of the masses.
But another sort of people's car had begun making inroads in 1950s America. It was a quirky little car from Germany called a Volkswagen Beetle.
In 1950, just 328 Beetles had been sold.
In 1954, 8,086 units.
in 1957, an incredible 50,059 units, and the numbers would continue to climb.
"There is no longer any doubt about it," wrote Road & Track in October of 1956. "Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's little 'people's car' has done what no other [import] has ever been able to do: it has gained an unmistakable wheel-hold in the garages and hearts of the American car-buying public….
"…The Volkswagen fulfills a need which Detroit had forgotten…a car that is cheap to buy and run, small and compact, light and maneuverable yet solidly constructed, and perhaps above all, utterly dependable and trouble-free."
The car still wasn't cool, particularly if you looked at one alongside a 1957 Chevy.
The Beetle was weird. It was shaped like, well, a bug. It was tiny. It was slow. The engine was in the back, for chrissakes, where Americans liked to have a trunk. But in 1960, helped along by a self-deprecating advertising campaign by New York ad agency Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, VW sold 117,868 of these uncool cars in the 'States.
As Beetles proliferated on American roads, one person who took notice was Scott McKenzie, a brilliant race driver and car fabricator based in San Fernando, California. While most would laugh at the idea of a Beetle being involved in any kind of performance driving, McKenzie saw that it would be the perfect dune buggy underpinning. Small. Lightweight. Well-built. Engine in the back, putting the bulk of the weight over the drive wheels. And the Beetle was so cheap--$1,565 in 1960 dollars, about $13,500 today--that buying a brand-new one and stripping it down was a reasonable alternative to crawling around in a junkyard looking for parts to cobble together.
No one had used a Beetle to make a dune buggy before, so McKenzie, a pioneer, became the first (though he did replace VW's engine with one that GM used in the Corvair).
Scott McKenzie's skinless, modified Beetle....
...could go just about anywhere.
In the surest sign that McKenzie's concept was sound, others began copying him. Beetle-based dune buggies started to proliferate off-road, just as the unmodified ones had on-road. So it was that Bruce Meyers, watching dune buggies on the beach one day, had an epiphany. Most of the vehicles he saw "spat flames and were a lot of fun, but I knew they were inefficient," he told Top Gear.
"Then I saw someone driving a Beetle floorpan. It skimmed around like a mosquito across water, even with 35bhp [horsepower] and four-inch tires. All the weight over the rear end made a lot of sense in the desert. It was why the Mexicans drove around with 50-gallon drums of water in the back of their pickups - the driven wheels got the best chance of traction, because they're getting pushed down and onto the loose surface."
No Design Considerations
As the Beetle conversions grew in popularity, EMPI (Engineered Motor Products Incorporated), an L.A.-based VW dealership, saw an opportunity to capitalize on them. In the early 1960s they began selling the Sportster, a converted dune buggy Beetle that could be ordered in turnkey or kit form.
The EMPI Sportster
So here we come to a phenomenon that roughly divides human beings into non-design-appreciators versus design-appreciators (or stylists, some might say, with some malice). The first group will look at the EMPI Sportster and say "Hey, cool dune buggy." The second group will think "That thing is hideously ugly." And I'm not talking just about the proportions, I'm talking about the execution.
The EMPI Sportster
Look at the seemingly-random lines on the car.
The EMPI Sportster
Look at the way the flat pieces of sheet metal are assembled.
The EMPI Sportster
The EMPI Sportster
It's utilitarian, sure, but utilitarian doesn't mean it has to be so artless. Jonathan Ward's ICON vehicles, for instance, are both utilitarian and beautiful.
Nevertheless, the EMPI Sportster sold enough models that you can still find surviving ones at auctions. But Bruce Meyers wouldn't be caught dead in one. Instead, in 1963 the beach-not-a-bum resolved to build his own, and correct what he saw as the aesthetic flaws of all Bug-based buggies.
Plenty of Design Considerations (Including Beer)
"I'm an artist and I wanted to bring a sense of movement and gesture to the [form]," Meyers told Top Gear. "Dune buggies have a message: fun. They're playful to drive and should look like it. Nothing did at the time."
"Meyers wanted to combine the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen's high fenders and short wheelbase, the Volkswagen Kubelwagen's stand-up headlamps and simplicity, the open design of Italian beach cars, and the wide wheels and tires he experimented with on his own Volkswagen Type 2, 'all added together with a fine artistic sense of style.'"
Volkswagen Kubelwagen. Image credit: By Darkone - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Meyers then combined those inspirations with his own wants:
"The top of the front fenders had to be flat to hold a couple of beers, the sides had to come up high enough to keep the mud and sand out of your eyes, it had to be compatible with Beetle mechanicals and you had to be able to build it yourself."
What Meyers was not going to do was make the car out of sheet metal. Instead, he turned to his then-rare skillset--forming gigantic pieces of fiberglass--and designed a then-revolutionary monocoque.
He then set about fabricating the first version in his one-car garage.
"I added all the line and feminine form and Mickey Mouse adventure I could," Meyers said of the shape. He completed his prototype in 1964, and it came to be known as "Old Red:"
Meyers' unibody design jettisoned the Beetle's floorpan altogether. He designed and molded attachment points directly into the fiberglass for the suspension components and engine. Not yet aware of just how strong his design was, "I carried mats, skins and resin [to repair it] because I thought I'd be left on my ass when it snapped on the street," he told Top Gear. "But it was a tough little car, and I got more confident with it. I took it to the dunes, jumped it, and gave that thing a pounding."
One of fiberglass' benefits is that it comes out of a mold. Meyers used his mold set-up to crank out a dozen shells, to sell to dune buggy fans in kit form; he figured he could use the proceeds to cover his initial development costs. Or continuing development costs; Meyers continued regularly whipping the car around to see what it was capable of.
It Looks Good--But Can It Perform?
While giving Old Red an off-road workout at Big Bear Lake, Meyers and his friend Ted Mangels encountered a bunch of motorcyclists. In the mid-'60s it was widely accepted that off-road motorcycles were the fastest way to travel long distances off-road. Meyers disagreed.
A debate ensued with the bikers, and Meyers figured out how to settle it. At the time, dedicated off-roaders would time themselves on drives from Tijuana to La Paz, Mexico. Covering virtually all of Baja, this was an 832-mile route of challenging off-road terrain, and motorcycles could blow away any four-wheel-drive vehicle; the fastest motorcycle had done it in 39 hours.
Meyers said his car--which didn't even have four-wheel-drive--could beat that.
To prove it, Meyers and Mangels, his co-driver, brought the car to Tijuana. They had attached three oxygen bottles to the outside of Old Red, to carry extra fuel. He and Mangels then filled a series of milk bottles with yet more gasoline, which they carried between their legs. If they were going to lose this race, it wouldn't be because they were waiting for a gas station to open somewhere along the route.
It took Meyers and Mangels a total of 34 hours and 45 minutes of bouncing, jostling and zooming across the Baja desert before they crossed the finish line at La Paz. They had broken the motorcycle record by nearly four hours.
The Manx Craze
After Meyers' triumphant return home his wife, Shirley, who worked in the advertising department for Road & Track, began writing letters to car magazines describing Bruce's feat. She also asked fellow Road & Track employees what they thought the car ought be named.
Several present said the car reminded them of a manx, a breed of cat with a stubby tail. Elaine Bond, who ran the magazine with her husband John, agreed and went a step further, saying it should be called the "Meyers Manx." Elaine also put out a press release titled "Buggy Beats Bikes in Baja!"
The car was subsequently featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine:
As the Baja story went viral, orders began flooding in for the newly-christened Meyers Manx. Bruce subsequently figured out that if he retained the Beetle's floorpan but shortened the chassis by 14.25 inches, he could reduce the price of the kit by nearly two-thirds. He now had a hot seller on his hands.
Partially inspired by the Manx's Baja victory, off-road enthusiasts Ed Pearlman and Don Francisco formed the National Off-Road Racing Association, with the idea of formalizing the Tijuana-to-La-Paz route into an official race. They asked Meyers to help; he was too busy producing Manxes to participate directly, but he fielded several of them for the race.
The first Mexico 1000, as NORRA called it (today it's called the Baja 1000) was held in 1967. The winner? At 27 hours and 38 minutes, Ted Mangels, driving a Manx.
The car's reputation grew. Steve McQueen drove a modified Meyers Manx in 1968's "The Thomas Crown Affair," which didn't exactly hurt sales.
As orders came piling in, B.F. Meyers & Co. grew into a company of 70 employees furiously producing Manxes.
Undone by Thievery
EMPI, the L.A. VW dealer, approached Meyers with an offer: Let them get in on the action and help distribute the cars, in exchange for a cut. When Meyers turned them down, EMPI produced a very similar design and began selling them.
EMPI wasn't the only one. Earlier I wrote that the benefit of fiberglass bodies are that they come out of a mold. That's also their curse. Several unscrupulous companies bought a Manx, made a casting from the body, then started selling their own exact copies.
Meyers, who had had the foresight to patent his design, tried taking them to court. The judge presiding over the case, who was either hostile to or ignorant of design, ruled Meyers' creation unpatentable, and took the unusual step of rescinding his patent. With all legal obstacles to copying removed, the market now became flooded with copies.
All told, by 1971 B.F. Meyers & Co. had produced about 6,000 Meyers Manxes--versus roughly 250,000 to 350,000 knock-offs to the present day. The Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame writes that the Manx is "the most copied vehicle in history."
Meyers' company went bust in 1971, unable to weather the onslaught of copycats.
Meyers himself went on to invent the fiberglass hot tub and--fun fact!--that fiberglass children's bed that's shaped like a Can-Am racecar. However, embittered by the untold loss of revenue from countless dune buggy copycats, he avoided going back into the automotive sector.
Whatever Happened to Old Red?
After quitting the business, Meyers held on to Old Red for about a decade, then sold it to automotive executive Richard "Dick" Chrysler in 1982. Six years later, Chrysler sold the car to an employee of his.
In 1996 Chris Lewis, who was dating Meyers' stepdaughter at the time, managed to track Old Red down. He bought it himself, and returned it to Meyers as a present. What a mensch!
You can see Meyers and Old Red on this episode of "Jay Leno's Garage." The car looks better than ever.
Maybe it was seeing Old Red again, or maybe he realized that he had created something special that no amount of copying could take away from him. Meyers rebooted his company as Meyers Manx, Inc in 2000, and today they sell the classic Manx kit as well as "modern re-imaginings of the classic and iconic Meyers Manx."
It's worth noting that Meyers didn't start building Manxes as a young man; he turned 40 the year he broke the Tijuana-La-Paz record. Today he's in his 90s.
While Meyers never received the millions of dollars undoubtedly earned by his copycats, he did manage to create an iconic vehicle, and one that has put a smile on the faces of thousands. Not to mention, his own.