The Dune Buggy is arguably one of the most iconic vehicles of the 20th Century. But in spite of its notoriety, plenty of confusion still swirls around about it, with people assuming that it’s a Volkswagen—it’s not, it just borrows the engine from VW–or that “dune buggy” is actually the name smeared on its hood.
In fact, the vehicle’s official name is the Meyers Manx. And in part because of its success, creator Bruce Meyers has risen to the status of legend—a man who can arguably be credited with being the godfather of purpose-built recreational off-roaders. In the years since Meyers built the first Manx, it’s risen to cult status, playing a part in The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, conceptually fathering the modern side-by-side, and in 2019, serving as the inspiration for VW’s all-electric ID Buggy concept.
We sat down with Meyers at the New York Auto Show to pick his brain about how he originally came up with the idea for the dune buggy, what he thinks about VW’s new iteration, and hear what he has to say about today’s recreational off-roading scene.
Q: What was your inspiration for the original Meyers Manx?
A: There’s a little sense of the Model T in the front. That windshield, it’s so blatant, and those pop-up headlights, they seemed to be thumbing its nose at tradition. I had a bunch of characters around me in those days, crazy kids—they were my dear friends—college kids without the college, [who] wanted to leave their mark. And I brought a sense of that to the buggy.
I love cars and I love art. I spent many years at art school drawing, especially figure drawing and portraiture. The thing about portraiture is you have to be very accurate, and the thing about figure drawing is you have to have a sense of movement and life and gesture. Learning to draw with a lot of gesture, movement, a sense of life, as though the figure is going to get up and walk away any minute is key. So a good figure drawing is the best essence of the dune buggy.
The Manx was also inspired by Mickey Mouse, the funny papers, in that any little dinky car with big wheels screams fun—it’s cartoonish. Of course, it also says adventure. There’s no doors and windows, so a lot of people come over and talk and ask you about it. The simplicity of it is, of course, the only way I could do it…but doing it simply leads to the best character.
Q: When did you know you had a hit on your hands?
A: It came slowly. I just did it in the beginning without realizing what the hell I was doing. I built one car a month, by myself. And everything I put into it. Nobody seemed to give a good goddamn, they just liked the look of it. But in the second year, 1968, the Manx was on the cover of Car and Driver and then we had 300 orders all at once. I started staying overnight, making new molds [for the body]. I got a crew together, moved into a bigger facility, and we were able to build up to 25 kits a day.
Soon after, I took Lincoln Industries to court for copying my design. We wound up losing the patent, and I realized judges and lawyers don’t know anything about art or anything about what drove the dune buggy’s success. When the press learned about the Manx losing the patent, that was it. We went from 25 kits a day, to 20, to 15, 10, then shut the doors and went out of business in ‘70. I was so upset, I didn’t want to hear the words “dune buggy,” and went back to tooling sailboats and restoring cars.
I’ve never been terribly interested in a lot of money, it’s more of what I do that brings me pleasure in my life. We were invited to France in 1994 by the publisher of Super VW Magazine and he said “I’ve got 1,1000 VWs and we’re going to have a parade around a race track, the first 200-300 are fiberglass dune buggies and we want you to lead them.” So I took a look at the cars and saw they weren’t mine. So I told him, “I’m not going to lead those fuckers anywhere. They put me out of business.” He said, “Wait a minute, you’re still mad? That was 24 years ago. Don’t you know half of the people who screwed you over are dead, and the other half don’t give a damn? You have to stop and think of the two smiling faces in the dune buggy. Every dune buggy has a pair of smiling faces and you put them there.”
So I started thinking about the smiling faces again. I started a club, the Meyers Manx Club, which has now has 5,400 members. It was a rearrangement of my mind—thinking about happiness instead of drudgeries, worrying about nothing more than smiling faces and getting a club started.
Q: What do you think of when you see the ID Buggy?
A: It’s beautifully styled. The surfaces and all those lovely shapes, they’re not at all like the Manx, they’re another rendition—but I think they’re very beautiful.
I question the size of the car. I suppose there’re some problems with the packaging with the batteries underneath the floor, which may be the reason for the size, but I like the thing. To me, it’s just a little too large.
Q: Do feel any sense of ownership of where side-by-sides and recreational off-roading are now as a culture?
A: It looks to me like a profit-oriented thing. They probably said, “Those dune buggies are getting pretty popular; we should start doing something about that.”
Unfortunately, in most places, they have to tow them in a truck and can’t drive them on the road. You can go to a store and put some money down and have one—that’s something we never had. In a way, it kind of reminds me of when I was copied so much. But, we still go off-roading and see them and it’s great.
Q: If you had an electric platform to play with, what would you design?
A: I don’t know how to design a car like the [ID Buggy]. I have a picture of a car in my head that’s different than the Manx, but if it were electric, I think that’d be good. I don’t have that technology, so I’d have to turn to others, but it’d look like a modern Manx. It might even have doors, a built-in roll cage and probably have a roof, but we could do something.
It’s easy to make something complex. To make it really simple—get rid of this, get rid of that—and have it still work, that’s hard. But I like it, it’s fun.