Meyers Manx, the Beetle-based cure for summertime blues

Ancient alchemists tried in vain to make gold from base metals. In 1964, modern alchemist Bruce Meyers discovered how to make freedom from fibreglass.

I wanted something better to look at than boxy steel shapes from welded parts.

Consequently, his Meyers Manx dune buggy stands among the most recognisable pieces of 20th Century industrial design.

“People just love that car and love the idea of its freedom and its freshness,” its maker says.

Meyers is a polymath, having attended art school, served as a gunner during World War II aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (which was nearly sunk by kamikaze attacks at Okinawa), sailed a square-rigged ship to the Cook Islands and built fibreglass sailboats for Jensen Marine in southern California. Perhaps only a person with such a maverick biography could dream up something as unorthodox as the Manx.

Though it does not have the name recognition of a Mustang or a Corvette, any questions about the Manx’s legacy should be settled in this, its jubilee year. In March, at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in northern Florida, the Manx was featured in an exhibition of beach cars, and on 3-4 May, the Historic Vehicles Association (HVA) toasted Meyers and the Manx at its inaugural Cars at the Capital historic show in Washington DC.

Meyers, 88, (equal to the number of keys on a piano, he notes in conversation) accompanied “Old Red”, the very first Meyers Manx, to both events.

The Manx and its maker were in the US capital for another reason. The Manx became just the second car to enter the Historic American Engineering Record of the US’s Library of Congress, joining the 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe. The HVA recently dedicated an episode of This Car Matters, its online video series, to the vehicle.

Manx mania is hardly limited to the upper reaches of the collector hobby. “When you drive one, kids getting out of school are screaming at you like you’re Batman,” said Derek Jenkins, design director of Mazda’s North American operations, who drives a modernised Manx tribute. “It is one of those cars that makes people smile,” he added. “Essentially the car is a two-piece body. The simplicity of that idea – I can’t even point to any other example that is that pure since.”

That distilled, pure character is no accident. “Simplicity is what every great writer has done,” Meyers said. “And every great painter.”

The Manx – which derived its name from its tail-high stance, which Meyers said reminded him of a Manx cat – was essentially a single piece of fibreglass, popped from its mould and bolted atop the shortened floorpan of the Volkswagen Beetle. The “people’s car” was swiftly becoming a fixture of North American roadways by 1964, and Beetle platforms could neatly support the buggy’s suspension, steering and drivetrain. In effect, it was possible to drive the car body-less. Meyers recalled that he witnessed someone do just that at the beach one day, where he produced surfboards and palled around with Hobie Alter, the recently deceased inventor of the Hobie Cat sailboat.

Meyers chafes at the title “father of the dune buggy”. He notes that before the Manx, friends built rough buggies of their own using the heavy frames and water-cooled engines from American cars. “They were horribly ugly, but they were a lot of fun,” he said. The advent of the Beetle, with its lightweight, rear-engine, air-cooled setup, gave subsequent machines supreme agility on the sand.

Some of Meyers’ cohort began building buggies using VW components, but these were graceless, homely welded-steel contraptions. “I wanted something better to look at than boxy steel shapes from welded parts,” he said. “It should be something sculptural and artistic to look at.”

In this, he surely succeeded. “The car has such a neat dynamic,” Jenkins noted. “It is designed to have smaller front wheels and larger rear wheels, so it is inherently kind of hot-rod like.”

There was another, perhaps unexpected, influence. As a boy, Meyers loved the balloon-tire jalopies piloted by his favourite Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The cartoonish Manx, with its fat tires and animalistic mien, is a distinct homage to those childhood inspirations.

“You have to imbue it with a sense of movement, called ‘gesture,’” Meyers said. “I spent all my educational time in art schools drawing, so I can draw very well.”

Between 1964 and 1970, Meyers sold about 7,000 Manx kits to hobbyists. The design’s simplicity, however, led to a rash of shoddily fabricated clone kits, which undercut Meyers’ prices. Nearly 300,000 Manx copies are known to have been built and sold, to Meyers’ 7,000. But today, Meyers is back, selling new Manx kits and supporting owners from his website.

If clones prevented Meyers from spinning his fibreglass into gold, he has long since reconciled himself to his greater success of minting pure motoring joy. “Whenever you ride in one, you get waves and you get smiles,” he said. “My life is most wonderful right now.”

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