Bruce Meyers, who used his skills as a boat builder to invent the first fiberglass dune buggy, igniting the late-1960s craze for off-road riding, and thrived until copycats flooded the market, died on Feb. 19 at his home in Valley Center, Calif. He was 94.
The cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood cancer, said his wife, Winnifred (Baxter) Meyers.
Mr. Meyers’s invention got a big promotional boost after he and a friend drove the Meyers Manx (named for the cat with a stub of a tail) to a time record over nearly 1,000 miles of the rough roads of the Baja California Peninsula in 1967. The victory proved the vehicle’s viability and made an aging beach boy the darling of off-road devotees.
“Go back to the lifestyle I lived when I came into this thing,” he said in a 2017 interview with Motorward, an automotive website. “It wasn’t about higher learning or education, but just about having fun.”
Mr. Meyers was a surfer in Southern California with a fine-arts education who in the late 1950s and early ’60s watched four-wheel-drive Jeeps struggle for traction on sand dunes.
But he saw better expressions of the freedom of off-road riding in modified Volkswagen Beetles, which were more effective at navigating dunes because their engine weight was in the rear. At the time, enthusiasts were retrofitting the Beetles by cutting away the body to make them even lighter and adding wide tires.
Something about those vehicles reminded Mr. Meyers of his childhood.
“All those characters — Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse — all drove little dinky cars with big fat tires,” he told The National, an newspaper in Abu Dhabi, in 2012. “Maybe my instincts when I was creating the dune buggy were guided by my memories.”
For 18 months, he worked in his small garage in Newport Beach to create the Meyers Manx. He removed a Beetle’s body, shortened its floor section, then bolted on a one-piece fiberglass shell (with fenders, sides and a front hood area) that was moldable and lightweight but sturdy.
He completed the Beetle-turned-Manx in 1964, making it light and quick, with a shorter turning radius and greater traction than the dune buggies that preceded his. He named his creation Old Red for its paint job.
He began selling kits that would let others convert their Beetles. But sales did not perk up until 1967, when he and a friend, Ted Mangels, an engineer, drove the Meyers Manx from La Paz, Mexico, north to Tijuana in only 34 hours and 45 minutes — breaking the previous record, which had been held by two motorcyclists, by about five hours.
A cover article in Road & Track, which chronicled the wild Baja adventure, jump-started orders for the kits. But demand eventually overwhelmed the ability of Mr. Meyers’s company to produce the kits —- he insisted that he was not a businessman — and rivals made knockoffs of his design.
Mr. Meyers turned out more than 5,000 kits, but it was estimated that at least 20 times as many faux Meyers Manxes were produced. He lost a legal fight against a copycat manufacturer to uphold his patent on a “sand vehicle.” In 1971, he shut down B.F. Meyers & Company.
“It took 10 years before I could hear the words ‘dune buggy’ and not get furious,” he told Car and Driver in 2006.
And almost three decades before he returned to the business.
Bruce Franklin Meyers was born in Los Angeles on March 12, 1926. His father, John, helped set up car dealerships for Henry Ford. His mother, Peggy, was a song plugger.
Mr. Meyers dropped out of high school to join the merchant marine and volunteered for the Navy during World War II. He was serving aboard the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill when it was attacked by two Japanese kamikaze aircraft on May 11, 1945, near Okinawa. He recalled jumping into the water as the burning carrier started to sink; he gave a sailor his life jacket and helped a badly burned pilot until they were rescued by a destroyer hours later.
In the carnage, 346 sailors and airmen died, 264 were wounded and 43 were missing.
“I spent almost a month coming back with a skeleton crew, pulling the dead men out of the ship,” Mr. Meyers told The National.
After the war he returned to the merchant marine, spending time in Tahiti. He then attended art schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles for six years, specializing in portraiture.
He worked for several years at Jensen Marine on fiberglass sailboats — experience that helped him build his revolutionary dune buggy.
In the nearly 30 years after he shuttered his company, Mr. Meyers had various jobs, among them working for a boat manufacturer.
Then, in the late 1990s, he returned fully to the dune buggy world. With Winnie Meyers, his sixth wife, he started the Manx Club and then produced a limited-edition Meyers Manx kit identical to the original. He also developed several other kits, like the Manx 2+2 and the Manx SR.
The couple sold the company in November to Trousdale Ventures, an investment firm.
“He was 94,” Winnie Meyers said by phone, “and I had to stop.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Meyers is survived by a daughter, Julie Meyers; five grandchildren; and a brother, Richard. Another daughter, Georgia Meyers, and a son, Tim, died in recent years.
In 2014, the Meyers Manx was the second significant car, motorcycle or truck (after the 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe CSX2287) inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register, an eight-year-old project detailing the historic and cultural significance of American vehicles. The register is a collaboration between the Historic Vehicle Association, an owner group, and the Department of the Interior.
In a nod to Mr. Meyers’s ingenuity and his business woes, the register said the Meyers Manx was “the inspiration for over 250,000 similar cars manufactured by other companies, and is thus the most replicated car in history.”