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The incredible story of the Meyers Manx dune buggy

Volkswagen is getting a lot of buzz for its electric ID. Buggy concept, a modern interpretation of the original dune buggy. With its retro-chic styling and an electric powertrain with outputs of 150kW and 309Nm sending drive to the rear wheels, the ID. Buggy is part of VW’s push into an electric mobility future. A concept only at this stage, Volkswagen has however stated it is actively seeking partners to build the ID. Buggy, with German company e.Go the leading contender to turn the cool concept into a production vehicle. We can only hope…

But, what was the inspiration for the ID. Buggy? For the answer to that, we have to go back to California in 1962, where a young surfer and boatbuilder called Bruce F Meyers thought he could build a better beach buggy than the home-made off-roaders then cruising Southern California’s beaches and dunes.

As he recalled in a 2009 interview, Meyers noted “they were made of old Fords and Chevys and Dodges and so forth, and they had an engine and a transmission bolted right up against the rear axle. And they always had straight pipes because that’s more fun, far more noisy and far more macho, and here we are boys, let’s make more noise.”

But amongst the classic American metal, Meyers noted a handful of naked VW Beetle chassis and how their simple flat floor, trailing arm suspension, light weight and rear-engine layout allowed them to skim over the sand with ease in a way their heavy American counterparts couldn’t.

Meyers was inspired. Using his boatbuilding knowledge (and in particular fibreglass fabrication skills), Meyers utilised a shortened Volkswagen Beetle chassis, draped in his own-design reinforced fibreglass unibody, designed to resemble the hull of a boat, providing not only structural integrity, but also its now-iconic look. While Meyers retained the engine and transmission of the donor car, he uprated the Beetle’s rear suspension, using the rear trailing arms from an old Chevy pick-up.

Meyers named the original ‘Old Red’ and described his inspiration for the design in a 2012 interview.

“I’m an artist and I wanted to bring a sense of movement and gesture to the Manx. Dune buggies have a message: fun. They’re playful to drive and should look like it. Nothing did at the time.

“So, I looked at it and took care of the knowns. 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. Then I added all the line and feminine form and Mickey Mouse adventure I could.”

Meyers copyrighted the design and set up shop as B.F. Meyers & Co and started selling his dune buggy in kit form for the princely sum of US$985, bring your own Beetle. But the kit proved overly complicated and fitting it to the donor car required a level of skill and mechanical know-how beyond most weekend warriors.

Only 12 examples were made so in order to appeal to a broader customer base, Meyers redesigned the kit to bolt directly onto a Beetle chassis. The new kit was not only easier to build, but also cheaper at just US$535. The Meyers Manx became a hit.

In 1966, Meyers conceived of putting his original Manx to the ultimate off-road test. In Mexico. It was something of a renegade (and unsanctioned) test, people covering the 952.7 miles (1533.2km) from Tijuana to La Paz in the fastest time possible. The journey covered vast swathes of desert, a gruelling journey of almost 1000 miles testing the limits of human and machine.

The unofficial ‘record’ belonged to Americans Dave Ekins and Billy Robertson Jnr who completed the run in 1962 on their Honda CL72 motorcycles in a time of 39 hours, 56 minutes. But this was no ramshackle adventure for a couple of renegade bikers. No, this was a publicity stunt conceived in the boardrooms of the US’s importer for Honda motorcycles. Honda had been experiencing difficulty having their bikes taken seriously in the lucrative American market, where Japanese product (of any kind) was seen as cheap and disposable, not at all durable.

Ekin and Robertson Jnr took a touch over 39 hours to disprove that notion and the resultant publicity proved a boon for Honda in the US, something not lost on the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well inside Meyers. As an aside, Ekin would go on to ‘fame’ the following year, acting as Steve McQueen’s motorcycle riding stunt double in The Great Escape, and it was he who actually performed the now legendary motorcycle jump in the movie.

Back to Meyers, who packed up his ‘Old Red’ with 65 gallons of fuel and along with co-driver Ted Mangels set off from Tijuana at 10:00pm on 19 April, 1967. Just 34 hours and 45 minutes later, they arrived in La Paz, besting the time set by Ekin and Robertson Jnr by more than five hours. But Meyers real masterstroke was having respected US auto magazine Road & Track verify the record, who promptly publicised Meyers’ achievement. Suddenly, the Meyers Manx was a household name and demand for the affordable and cute dune buggy soared.

As an historical footnote, such was the publicity generated by Meyers’ Tijuana to La Paz record-run, just a few months later the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) was born and in October, 1967, the new body sanctioned the first official race over the course. It’s a race still running today, better known as the Baja 1000.

Barely able to keep up with demand for his now iconic buggies, Meyers made his first mistake when he rejected a partnership with EMPI, the largest VW aftermarket parts company in the US. EMPI jumped on board the idea anyway, and by 1968 had released their own version of the Meyers Manx, called the Imp. Like Meyers’ creation, the Imp was based on a Volkswagen Beetle and took its visual styling cues from the Manx. It was, in other words, a blatant rip-off.

Meyers sued EMPI, but the case was dismissed signalling the beginning of the end for B.F. Meyers & Co. With mounting legal costs and stiff competition from a host of other companies which had started manufacturing and selling kits following the court’s landmark decision, Meyers closed the doors of his business in 1971. Meyers had made and sold around 6000 of his now iconic dune buggies, which had become the epitome of SoCal cool in the 1970s. Celebrities were spotted in Meyers’ creations, with Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley notable stars to get behind the wheel of the oh-so-funky buggies.

But that number pales in comparison to the estimated 300,000 dune buggies made by a swathe of copycat manufacturers.

Meyers though, didn’t give up and in 2000 formed Meyers Manx, Inc, based in California. As well as manufacturing continuation kits for the original Meyers Manx, the company expanded its range, including the delicious Manxster 2+2, a four-seater buggy, based on a full-length VW Beetle chassis.

Today, Meyers, aged in his 90s, can bask in his legacy, a legacy that includes triumph and heartbreak, a legacy that will continue to live on in the Volkswagen ID. Buggy.

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