If I ask you to picture a “dune buggy” in your head, what image comes to mind? Most likely you’ve pictured the shape of a Meyers Manx without even realizing it. When sailor, surfer, and fiberglass boat-builder Bruce Meyers formed the first Manx, he had no idea that he was creating an entirely new type of vehicle — one that would become a ’60s vehicular icon of freedom and fun, cemented in cool by the likes of Steve McQueen, pulling massive jumps at the beach with a lady by his side in The Thomas Crown Affair. When Bruce crafted that first dune buggy, he was only thinking of simplicity and lightness; of building a better mousetrap.
Off-road buggies existed in the Arizona deserts and West Coast beaches going back to the early ’50s. The October ’54 issue of Rod & Custom refers to these pioneering examples as “Dune Bugs,” which were primarily cut-down Model A and Model T Ford roadsters, crudely built and heavy. These were the archaic “water-pumpers,” named for their usually water-cooled engines; Bruce first encountered them on Pismo Beach in the early ’60s, and they inspired him to think differently. He knew that starting with a used Volkswagen Beetle for the donor car was ideal. The inexpensive VW was air-cooled (i.e. light), simple, and best of all, easy to source, as nearly a million had already been imported to the U.S. by that point. The Bug had a flat steel floor pan, which allowed the car to be operated without a body in place, and the wheelbase could be shortened without compromising structural integrity. This low, blank canvas could accommodate many different monocoque body styles, which saved crucial weight, and Meyers already had extensive experience building fiberglass boats.
First hatched from his home garage in 1964, the final design was eventually dubbed the “Manx,” a name first given to an epochal Norton racing motorcycle in homage to the Isle of Man TT race, and now given to an incredibly lithe and agile dune buggy which would become the dominant off-road racing vehicle. His first Manx had the nickname Old Red, and Meyers was soon shattering time records at the Ensenada to La Paz run. Another early Manx took first place at the grueling 1967 Mexican 1000 race, later known as the infamous Baja 1000.
The Meyers Manx made such an impact within the off-roading community that magazines like Hot Rod and Car & Driver took notice. The press coverage led to hundreds of orders for the fiberglass wonder buggy flooding in overnight, far beyond what B. F. Meyers & Co. could ever hope to produce. As a result of this sudden and massive demand, dozens of other manufacturers — like Empi, Autodynamics, and even Sears — sprang up with similarly shaped Manx imitations to ride the late ’60s dune buggy wave, and subsequently produced hundreds of thousands of kits and complete cars of varying floor pan lengths to fill the buggy void that Meyers could not. Bruce did his best to combat these clones in court, claiming copyright infringement, but sadly, because he had built Old Red a year before filing his first patent, the judge ruled Meyers’ iconic design was “public use” and the case was thrown out. By 1970, Bruce had grown tired of fighting the hundreds of imitations, the failed litigation, taxes, company politics, and personal matters, and left the company named after him. By 1971, B. F. Meyers & Co. shut its doors for good.
Another early Manx took first place at the grueling 1967 Mexican 1000 race, later known as the infamous Baja 1000.
Three decades later, in the early aughts, Bruce returned to his love of the Manx by founding Meyers Manx, Inc., selling a limited run of the Manx and reigniting an interest in the brand.Before his passing in 2021 at the age of 94, Bruce knew it was time to turn the company over to the next generation. Enter an old friend of mine, former Audi TT and VW New Beetle designer — and a true air-cooled aficionado — Freeman Thomas. Along with venture capitalist and lifelong gearhead, Phillip Sarofim, the duo has carried the Meyers Manx torch into the future. I sat down with them both for a brief interview about taking on the Meyers Manx brand, breathing new life into it, and creating something new (and electric!) while hanging onto the heritage that makes the Manx so special.
JAY WARD: What first attracted you to the Meyers Manx?
PHILLIP SAROFIM: Bruce [Meyers] was really cautious about where the Manx brand could potentially go, and this is something he shared with Freeman and me. Initially, when we went to see him, it was just for social reasons, but we quickly realized that the Meyers Manx is a part of California’s history and heritage that is so prized, and so important. The shape of the Manx body, the significance of its design, is akin to the importance of the shape of the original Coca-Cola bottle; it’s a part of history that we didn’t want to lose. It represents a vignette of California culture in the 1960s. Meyers Manx really only existed truly as a company in that period of California car culture. It’s about Steve McQueen, it’s about Mulholland, it’s about Meyers Manx as much as it is about the beach and going to the dunes and Pismo. In a funny way, it’s just about the hope of a better tomorrow, and doing something better in the world.
FREEMAN THOMAS: It makes me think about the 1960s as a period of disruption and innovation — especially around the world — but California had a special recipe for it. So many innovations came out of southern California in that time period, from Hobie to the aerospace industry to the film industry. The Meyers Manx was really Bruce’s way of looking at something that was fun to do, especially in some place like Pismo. He created an endearing quality to the dune buggy — artistic, durable, capable, but most important, it was something you fell in love with. And that attraction to its shape made the technical part more fun because you’re surrounded in metal flake, wrapped in these amazing shapes. The Manx was a chameleon that could get dirty at Pismo or Malibu or even Newport Beach, but it could also be a glamorous ride in Hollywood, in Europe, and around the world. Everyone was smitten by this unique vehicle that Bruce created.
WARD: And why is the Manx still relevant today?
THOMAS: Well, for me personally, it’s been a part of my life in Southern California and this kind of Volkswagen and Porsche culture that started off with the air-cooled engine. [Editor’s note: Freeman co-founded the legendary Porsche R Gruppe in 1999]. Utilizing this simple, durable Volkswagen platform is brilliant. Despite having very little horsepower, it could tackle Baja and win. As for why it’s still relevant, even though it’s powered by this vintage Volkswagen engine and chassis, the Manx is most importantly defined by its shape and its mojo. I think that’s why Steve McQueen used it in The Thomas Crown Affair: it was non-threatening. It was fun and playful. But in competition, it could be — and still is — very serious.
SAROFIM: Again, it’s odd. It’s bold. It’s irreverent and reverent. You’re in the elements and a part of the world in a real way.
THOMAS: Yes, I call it a “vessel of freedom.”
WARD: How does all of this translate to Manx today, both as a product and a brand?
THOMAS: Well, we’ve done a lot of thinking behind the scenes and we’re just now ready to tap the Genie’s bottle in terms of this brand’s potential. We’ve divided the mindset of the company into two distinct parts, Manx Classic Remastered and Manx 2.0, and yet within those two areas, there remains a great overlap. When you see this new electric version coming from the 2.0 group, you’ll say, “Well, that’s a Meyers Manx.” You’ll know exactly what it is. The Meyers Manx isn’t like any other car, in the sense that the original air-cooled personality transitions into electrification so beautifully. Of course, there’s always going to be the Manx diehard that says, “I only want that traditional, air-cooled motor and platform,” but then there’s the new customer, a broader customer, that says, “I want a better type of modern, clean technology. I want it quiet. I want it to operate seamlessly. I want to be able to put this thing in the garage and then have it ready to go when I’m ready to go.”
The Manx was a chameleon that could get dirty at Pismo or Malibu or even Newport Beach, but it could also be a glamorous ride in Hollywood, in Europe, and around the world.
The Manx 2.0, this electric version based on the original Meyers Manx, is exactly that, except that 100 percent of it is brand new, from the platform to the integration to the way that we’ve used modern fitments that are seamless inside, treating each component with a sense that everything matters. I’m not that designer that simply slaps a modern digital gauge cluster up on the dash and things like that. I’m just not that guy. I reverse-engineered what Bruce had created back in his garage in 1964. Even traditionalists that we have working here, they have 100 percent embraced this new Manx 2.0 version because it’s 100 percent authentic.
SAROFIM: That’s part of Meyers Manx history because foundationally, it has always been the Switzerland of cars: agnostic to the platform and agnostic to power plants. So you could have a Corvair-powered, Ford-powered, or Volkswagen-powered Manx — and now this EV version. I mean really, it’s up to the artist to decide. And that’s the beauty of the Manx.
WARD: What’s powering this new model and will you keep the rear-wheel-drive platform to stay true to the DNA of the Manx?
THOMAS: Well, right now, the Manx 2.0 is rear-wheel-drive. So, it’s exactly the same size as the original. We have two versions: a 20.0 kWh version, and we have a 40.0 kWh version. The 20.0 kWh motor and battery system does not weigh any more than the original Volkswagen engine and gearbox. And it has a range of 150 miles. So with the upgraded 40.0 kWh model, we’re expecting 300 miles of range, and that has about a 150-pound weight penalty upon it.
WARD: New vehicle standards are different now than they were in the ’60s, when you could put anything on the road with headlights and turn signals. Is the new Manx 2.0 an “off-road use” only vehicle?
SAROFIM: The Manx 2.0 is entirely street legal, and because it’s electrified, it automatically meets EPA. We’ll make 325 turnkey vehicles per year, and so long as it’s a replica of a vintage car’s shape essentially, it falls under a new DOT law. It also has front and rear crash zones. We’ve gone back to a monocoque tub instead of a tube frame surround, and then the front windshield frame is an integrated roll bar. And the rear bar is now a fully functional roll bar, where the one on the original Manx was mainly just for show.
THOMAS: We’re being really conscientious about the way it is all hidden. As Phillip mentioned, if I didn’t tell you the front roll bar was integrated, you would not even know it was there. Imagine a Meyers Manx that went through finishing school. It’s so minimal — down to the bolts, and the washers, all of which are designed simply with “B. F. Meyers and Company 1964” engraved into them. And there’s the way the body and the chassis come together; the whole assembly has a visual simplicity about it. When you sit inside the new Manx, there are no sharp lines. It’s like sitting in a boat. It is just absolutely seamless. There’s no tunnel so there is a lot of room inside it. We’ve really maximized the space. The instrument panel is a combination of analog and digital with just a single gauge in the middle and simple chrome bars that are actually switches. Think of it as a smartwatch in the way that it will give you range, speed, tell you if a call is coming in, it’ll have navigation, and it’ll be integrated with all of the things that we need today.
When you sit inside the new Manx, there are no sharp lines. It’s like sitting in a boat. It is just absolutely seamless.
WARD: Where do you take Meyers Manx from here?
THOMAS: Electrification is a journey. So what you see is Phase One. We’re going to be a disruptor in the industry by really having the first lightweight street legal electric vehicle. But most important, what brought Phillip and I together initially was that passion for this brand. And as we transition into Manx 2.0, it goes back to the core of the Manx brand and why Bruce created it in the first place. As Phillip mentioned, it’s an agnostic brand, yet it’s powerful. It means something to a lot of people besides us, because it’s so authentic — it’s so California. The Meyers Manx brand and history is so rich, there’s an authenticity that runs deep and so wide with both Manx Classic and now, 2.0. And that’s what we’re tapping into: deep authenticity while growing the entire brand in a meaningful way. n
Jay Ward is Creative Director of Franchise for PIXAR Animation Studios and oversees the Cars franchise. Jay is an honorary judge at Pebble Beach and is an avid motorcyclist and automobile aficionado.