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Herding Cats

Posted in Features on September 25, 2017
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Photographers: Paige Helms

Today’s dirt sports owe so much to the Meyers Manx and to its designer Bruce Meyers. After all, he was the first to break the Baja dirt-bike record in “Old Red,” the first Manx ever built. This feat ushered in an era of off-road racing and the immense popularity of the Baja 1000, along with the formation of NORRA. Many would follow in Meyers’ footsteps, but he was a trail-breaking pioneer for dirt sports.

The beginning of the Meyers Manx is an oft-repeated tale, but bears revisiting, as it took place several decades ago. It happened in 1963 when Meyers and a few friends were mired in the sand at Pismo Beach, California, in a chopped-down V-8-powered Plymouth sedan. He spotted a Beetle floorpan with no body, just an engine, seat, and rollbar, effortlessly whipping all over the sand with hardly a care.

“What if that rig had a sleek, lightweight fiberglass body?” Meyers mused. It would be far more comfortable and still just as capable in the dirt. Drawing on his artistic and boatbuilding skills, he crafted a monocoque chassis with a fiberglass body and VW Beetle suspension. His inspiration for the shape is somewhat unclear, however. Commenting on the design of the original Manx, Meyers admits that, “I don’t know why I did what I did; it’s a mystery to me. I just followed my instincts.”

Bruce Meyers proudly shows off Old Red near the Mexican border. This first-ever Manx is considered an invaluable piece of off-road history.

Only a dozen Manx models had this early chassis design, as it proved to be too expensive to produce. Later production models used a shortened VW pan. Meyers went on to produce more than 6,000 vehicles—not exactly a huge number by modern standards, but that doesn’t include all the imitation dune buggies. Some estimates run as high as quarter of a million copycats. The Manx’s trendy shape grabbed the attention not only of HOT ROD magazine, but also Car and Driver, which graced the cover three separate times.

As the Mac Daddy of all dune buggies, Meyers is arguably one of the most significant designers in recent automotive history. The Meyers Manx captured the imagination of countless dune-chasing off-roaders. It’s far more than just a VW-based sandrail. It’s iconic, a cultural waypoint of the ’60s that captures the feel and look of a generation, a vehicular version of Beatles music and Peter Max art.

Today, what’s old is new again, and he has come full circle with his Manxter, neo/retro variant built for both street and off-road use. He made sure to preserve the feel of his initial design. “To me the aesthetic is very, very important,” he says. “To project that sense of freedom and fun—that’s the essence of the Manxter.”

The Manxter’s longer chassis has a couple of key benefits. “The basic premise of the Manxter is that it’s a four-place car for mom, dad, and the kids,” he explains. “The extra seats give it accessibility, and you can use a full-length VW chassis without having to shorten it.”

In addition, a modern, water-cooled, turbocharged Subaru WRX engine hangs off the back end. (Of course there are still many diehard VW fans who prefer to stick with air-cooled power.) The Subbie boxster is typically mated to an upgraded VW Type 1 transaxle or a stock Type II with a Kennedy adapter.

The green Manxter shown here, however, was built by Mendeola Transaxles and fitted with this company’s MD5 five-speed unit for a 330hp 3.0L Subaru engine. Other features include Mendeola custom tie-rods with Heim joints, Woods king, and links with spindles, disc brakes, Fox Racing shocks with hyper coil springs.

Capable of ripping it up, the Manxter is as fun in the desert as it is in the rough (golf course rough, that is …).

Given all the low-mile JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) powerplants imported stateside, this engine choice makes a lot of sense. By comparison, the old-school, 1,600cc air-cooled VW engine, punched out to 2.3 liters, can deliver about 135 horses, while the Subaru engine isn’t even stressed at this level. With a just few upgrades on the turbo, you can achieve anywhere from 300 to over 450 horsepower. Even though the Manxter is a tad heavier, with so much more power on tap, there’s a quantum leap in performance over the VW-powered Manx.

The exhaust note doesn’t have that flatulent, air-cooled braaap-braaap sound anymore though. It’s still loud, but in a more guttural, authoritative note. The turbocharger muffles the sound enough so all that’s needed is a straight pipe for an exhaust. This gives the engine a nice growl that turns into mean a bark under hard throttle. It’s a very distinctive sound.

Since the Subaru engine is liquid-cooled, installing an effective heating system is much easier than with air-cooled VW engines. Add a set of side curtains, and the Manxter S becomes a viable alternative as a daily driver.

The fronts feature Mendeola custom tie-rods with Heim joints, and Fox Racing shocks.

The Manxter not only takes the Manx to a new level of performance, but also gets rid of some old problems, such as the bolted-down hood that sealed the gas tank. But for dirt sports enthusiasts, the real appeal is the long-arm off-road suspension on the DualSport model. True to its name, this model is for the serious off-road enthusiast, but with street-legal amenities.

Inspired by the Manxter Baja 1000 Racer, the DualSport features an optional Tube Chassis, and its roof-support system and body have been modified to accommodate long-travel shocks. Suspension travel is increased to a full foot in the front and over 15 inches in the rear. Custom 3x3-inch trailing arms in the rear and a coilover long-travel front trailing arm system mounted on a custom tubular subframe results in a 100-inch wheelbase, 6 inches longer than a standard VW chassis.

The result is a smoother, more stable ride in rough terrain, less skittish and more predictable than the early Manx. The Manxter is still one wild cat, but bigger and stronger now.

With classic style and modern-day suspension, the new Manxter is off-road evolution at its finest.
A MOMO rim and Speedhut’s green-faced stepper gauges dress up an otherwise basic cockpit.
The 330hp 3.0L Subaru engine funnels power through a Mendeola MD5 five-speed transaxle.
The Al’s headers are custom-built, and the injection is a Redline Weber setup.
Fox Racing Shox with reservoirs dampen the jounce on bumpy terrain.
With 330 horses on tap, a Subbie delivers way more performance than an old-school air-cooled VW Type 1.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Their Tow’d Is A Family Heirloom From Dad That Keeps His Memory Alive

What you see here is not just another dune buggy. No, this Meyers Tow’d has been reborn in a couple different ways, both by the renowned Bruce Meyers, its original manufacturer, and its current owner Eric Amberson. First we’ll share some history from Bruce and then reveal a touching story about Eric’s involvement with this sporty little rig.

Back in the late ’60s, when Bruce’s Manx was becoming hugely popular, he was also into dirt bikes. He recalls that female family members and friends wanted to join the fun, but he didn’t want them falling down in the dirt and getting hurt. So he created the Tow’d: “The simplest statement of attaching a VW front end to a VW rearend,” as he describes it. “The frame was one big hairpin, made from 2 1/4-inch tubing, with a hammock in between the ends and a place for beer in the back.”

Obviously the initial design was very bare bones, strictly for off-road adventuring, and designed to be towed (hence the name) to the trailhead. But it was so frisky and appealing that many customers begged Bruce to make a street version.

“Begrudgingly, I added a hood, windshield, and fenders, and then sold nearly a 1,000 of them,” he laughs (including a customized one to Ford prez Bunkie Knudsen).

That sales number was a mere fraction of the number of Manx’s ever sold (not counting copycats), but today they’ve become a collectible of sorts. Not surprisingly, the ever-creative Bruce is working on a revised, longer and wider version of the Tow’d, which we hope to report on in an upcoming issue.

In the meantime, we can gaze admiringly at the slick Tow’d shown here, owned by Eric Amberson. He has many fond memories of the car when growing up, camping in the Sierras with his father Rex, a car builder and drag racer from Reno, who purchased it from Fibercraft back in the Seventies. Eric pays tribute to him in a number of ways, but especially in reference to his Tow’d. “I got my love of cars from him no doubt,” Eric notes. Sadly Rex died all too soon at the age of 50. “My uncle called me after my father’s funeral and asked that I come by his house, as he had a couple things of my Dad’s that he thought I should have. I arrived, and there it was under the breezeway—the car that had brought my Dad so much enjoyment, and the car I learned to drive in—this buggy.”

It was pretty beat up from the years of them thrashing through the mountains on so many off-road excursions, but it was still there. This little buggy would serve as an ongoing connection to his father in the coming years, and also as an emotional outlet, as is the case with so many car builders. In other words, it’s a personal treasure for Eric.

As if a normal Manx couldn’t be less, the Meyers Tow’d reflects Bruce Myers at his minimalistic best.

“That little car taught me how to do things right—by doing it wrong first, most of the time,” he admits. “And how to build parts that I couldn’t afford to buy new, or maybe they just weren’t around anymore.” So he had to learn fiberglass repair, painting, machining, suspension modification, engine building, and so on—the whole gamut. By the way, the engine is a 2180cc VW Type 1, fitted with a Jaguar SU carb that’s force-fed air by a vintage RayJay turbo.

Eric’s project car hasn’t been totally a solo deal, though. When he decided to build it for the last time, he had Vance Robison design and build a new rollcage and chassis reinforcment for the car. He also gives loving credit to his wife Traci Amberson, “For being my support and my rock all of these years, and never letting me sell the car,” he shares. “She has always known—better than me at times—what this car meant to me and our family.” He also thanks his Uncle Dave for saving what is his most prized possession and greatest memories of his dad. And Steve (Stevo) BroBerg as well, not only for expertly handling the body and paint.

Most important of all, Eric dedicates this reborn ride to his father.

Supposedly it took some coaxing to get Meyers to even add the fenders and hood.
A stock VW IFS provides the cushion up front.
“Adjustable” shocks add resistance to the torsion bar-equipped front end.
A host of Auto Meter gauges connect the driver to the engine’s machinations. One thing missing is a speedo though, where in the “Old Red” and the original Manx’s that’s all there was.
No rear cage on this ride as the 2,180cc VW Type 1 engine is seemingly hanging unprotected out in the breeze.
Fitted with a Jaguar SU carb that’s force-fed air by a vintage RayJay turbo, the 2180 produces plenty of power for this very light car.
Bigs ’n’ littles adorn the Tow’d as Maxxis Bighorn tires are mounted to CenterLine wheels.

Book Review: Call To Baja

Bruce Meyers’ Fond Look Back At His Early Baja Adventures In His Manx

Bruce Meyers is not only a famous car designer; he’s also an author. He just released his long-anticipated first book, Call to Baja, an autobiography about his lively exploits on the Baja peninsula.

Starting in the 1950s, Meyers and his friends began by exploring the region’s many mines and churches, backbones of the culture of Baja California, Mexico. Through the years, Meyers came to know Baja as though it was home.

It’s not merely a travelogue, though. There are some gritty competition stories included as well. He recounts the early Elapsed Time records standing in Baja, and explains how it came to be that, in 1967, he and codriver Ted Mangels made a record-breaking run from La Paz to Tijuana in Old Red, the world’s first Meyers Manx and fiberglass dune buggy. What followed that historic 34 hours and 45 minutes would forever change the landscape of Baja and jolt the entire world into a fever of off-road racing, pioneering the NORRA Mexican 1000 and culminating finally in the race known today around the globe: SCORE’s Baja 1000.

Some intriguing details come to light, such as why Old Red’s record-breaking run was actually much quicker than the official time. Also, how Road & Track Magazine had a secret financial stake in Meyers’ company, and Volkwagen’s surprising initial reaction to the Beetle-based Manx as an off-road racer. And there are some harrowing accounts of breakdowns and crashes that he endured in his escapades south of border. This book is a must-read for all dirt-sport fans.

Like the Meyers Manx itself, the read of the book is light and fun, an entertaining tome that reveals the personality and talents of a talented artist and car builder, one of the most impactful automotive designers in history.

Copies sell for $25 each and can be bought online at meyersmanx.com. Customers can have Bruce sign the book for $5 through online transactions or can have the book signed for free at Manx Club events and book signings that will be announced throughout the year.

The ever-creative Bruce Meyers with a copy of his first book, Call to Baja.
The back cover shot of Bruce Meyers’ new book shows a tankless “Old Red.”
The Meyers Manx logo on the hood features, of course, a wild Manx cat, but it’s brandishing a sword, indicating the car’s combative character—especially when running the Baja 1000.
Nearly five and half decades since its creation the original Meyers Manx, and Myers himself, are still capable in the dirt.
This license plate says it all. The real question is, if not for this “dune buggy,” would we have off-road racing as we know it?
A cockpit doesn’t get much simpler than this one, but it got the job done on those 1,000-mile runs on the Baja.
If this old VW engine could talk, imagine the tales it would tell about heading down Mexico way.
Modified oxygen tanks served as improvised reserve fuel tanks for the long haul on the Baja.
The lineage from the first Manx to four-seater street version of the Manxter is clearly evident. What’s old is new again.
The Manx’s enduring popularity doesn’t come as a surprise to Meyers. “When you create something with an original thought, and grace, and a sense of balance in its form and function, it’s timeless.”

Sources

Auto Meter
Sycamore, IL 60178
866-248-6356
www.autometer.com
Center Line Wheels
Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670
800-345-8671
www.centerlinewheels.com
Fox Racing Shox
Watsonville, CA 95076
800-369-7469
www.ridefox.com
Baja Designs
San Marcos, CA 92069
760-560-2252
www.bajadesigns.com
MOMO
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688
949-380-7556
http://www.momousa.com
Meyers Manx
Valley Center, CA 92082
(760) 749-6321
www.meyersmanx.com
Mendeola Transaxles
San Diego, CA
www.mendeolatransaxles.com

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