“Isn’t that race just bitchin’?” Meyers’ Baja adventure 950 miles in a buggy! The Meyers Tow’d was built to cover 1000 miles over inhospitable terrain – at speed. Mick Walsh relates its adventures on the Baja Peninsula. Photography Mick Walsh/Bruce Meyers.
Meyers’ big adventure. How buggies conquered the Baja. Kicking up the Californian dirt in the brilliant little Meyers Tow’d .
Beach buggy legend Bruce Meyers had no idea of the impact of his decision to challenge the motorcycle record run down the Baja Peninsula. Sitting in a cantina, road-weary from the recce south to La Paz in April 1967, Meyers and old school buddy Ted Mangels decided to race back against the clock in the prototype Manx buggy, ‘Old Red’. The aim was to beat Dave Ekins’ two-wheel best of 39 hours 51 mins over the wild 952-mile route to Tijuana.
Old oxygen tanks filled with extra fuel were strapped under the sides, and the ‘rolling bomb’ roared away from the La Paz telegraph office at 10pm on 19 April. The relentless attack over rocks and endless sand washes through the long dusty night took its toll on the 1500cc buggy, but despite delays to pinch a snapped brake line – they had only three-wheel braking for much of the trip – and strapping up the broken gearbox mounts with baling wire, they finally arrived at the border. Even after wasting an hour waiting for the Tijuana tourist office to open to clock in, they beat Ekins’ time by more than five hours.
Once word spread and the media picked up on the achievement, Meyers and his Manx became a sensation, proving the vehicle’s potential way beyond surfer’s fun transport and making it a serious off-road racer. Ed Pearlman was one of the many enthusiasts inspired by the run. This successful florist, like Meyers, was a WW2 Marine veteran who loved the Baja. Pearlman competed with a Jeep in small off-road races, but yearned for a greater driving challenge.
The news of Meyers’ record prompted Pearlman to start the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) and, in the summer of ’1967, he announced the maiden Mexican 1000. Open to two- and four-wheelers, this thrilling adventure required entrants to visit five checkpoints between Ensenada and La Paz, but the rest was flat-out through desolate, open territory.
The motley group of 68 teams that assembled in the car park of the Tijuana bullring spanned Ford Broncos to Swedish rally champs in a Saab 96. Meyers entered four factory dune buggies, while Ekins headed a determined pack of ’bikers. The cars set the pace out of Ensenada, but the two-wheelers hauled in the Jeeps and buggies once the event reached the barren Baja desert and the punishing rocks. Although highly competitive, many entrants stopped to help stricken crews across the relentless terrain.
Planning checkpoints in Mexico proved to be a constant headache for Pearlman’s team. The fifth and final stop at Ciudad Constitución was typical of this tough point-to-point race. With only 130 miles to the end, the leading motorcyclist John Barnes arrived in the main square just after sunrise with a 15-minute lead, but the tired rider couldn’t find anyone to stamp his timecard. Another ’biker soon arrived, but, before they located the NORRA officials having breakfast in a local bar, the distinctive flat-four was heard blasting into town and the Meyers Manx of Vic Wilson and Mangels slithered to a dusty halt. The helpers said that they hadn’t expected any competitors to arrive for at least another hour, and frantically punched the timecards before a climactic dash to the finish in La Paz.
Due to poor radio communications, an impatient Pearlman – waiting up the road – had no idea who was leading and enlisted a small plane to retrace the course. Flying north, they finally spotted the two leading ’bikers and the red buggy chasing along, kicking up a long trail of dust. As a salute to the front-runners, Pearlman buzzed the three machines with a low pass that scared the living daylights out of the crews.
When the leaders reached the last tarmac stretch, the buggy edged ahead of the frustrated ’bikers, and Wilson flashed under the finishing banner with a record time of 27 hours 38 mins. JN Roberts’ 360 Husqvarna took second, with the consolation that he had clipped an amazing 11 hours off Ekins’ old best. George Haddock and Jimmy Smith came fourth in another Meyers Manx, but 2 hours 16 mins behind the winners.
Only 31 starters completed this pioneering marathon, but, long after the last survivor had crossed the line, the bar stories continued with ever more colourful anecdotes. One ’1956 Chevy crew struggled with broken suspension to El Arco and, with no money, they stripped the car and traded parts for lodgings and transport home. Spence Murray, a pioneering Baja record breaker and editor of Rod & Custom, lasted only 30 minutes before losing control of his jacked-up American Rambler at 100mph. The car rolled several times before landing upside-down, the crew crawling out with broken bones.
But organiser/promoter Pearlman immediately knew that he was onto something big, and the second running attracted a diverse selection of adventure-seeking speed addicts, from racers to movie stars. James Garner was a Meyers customer and had ordered a Porsche-powered Manx for the Stardust 7-11 desert race.
The excitement was massive for the Mexican 1000 re-run, with 254 entrants including Bob Bondurant, Sam Posey, Parnelli Jones and even Dan Gurney on a 250 Montessa – although he later withdrew. Celebrities included Garner, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees and surfing legend Skip Newell. Interest was further fuelled when ABC Sports enlisted cult film-maker Bruce Brown (of Endless Summer and On Any Sunday fame) to cover the event, which enabled millions of TV viewers to follow the Baja epic.
The undoubted appeal of the Mexican 1000 lay in the diverse cross-section of contestants, from rich celebs in factory-prepared machines to eager enthusiasts running on a tight budget with whatever car, truck or motorcycle they could cobble together. ‘The race can be a ball for almost everyone,’ wrote journalist Tom Bates. There was no stopping Meyers. As his business boomed (in ’1969, it would gross $3.5million), he designed and built three new tube-framed enduro buggies. They were christened Tow’d, after the extendable bar in the nose that enabled the racer to be hitched directly to a truck and towed home without a trailer.
Vic Wilson, the ’1967 winner, was again signed up, while Meyers himself competed in a Ford V4-powered Tow’d. Even racer Bondurant was tempted to enter a Tow’d – with an innovative in-car camera fitted – although sadly the Shelby hotshoe didn’t last long. Earlier that summer, Chicago Manx dealer Bob Major had already proved the Tow’d prototype in the Stardust 7-11, on that occasion fitted with Porsche 356 power.
“Much of the course was real fine dust and the heavy V8 cars had to plough through it, but Tow’d just danced across the top,” said Major. “Other cars had to stop for railroad tracks – we just jumped them at full speed and kept on.” Frustratingly, electrical problems ended its debut, and that prototype never raced again.
Accidents would soon deter Major and Meyers from competing, however, leaving the competition to younger guns. On the Mexican 1000, just two hours out of Ensenada with co-driver Bill ‘Wheelo’ Anderson riding shotgun, Meyers spotted the Stroppe Bronco of Parnelli Jones up ahead. The chase was on and, despite the blinding dust, Meyers gunned his lightweight Tow’d across a large dry wash without lifting. “We hit the drop-off at about 60mph, and the car just flew 50 yards before we slammed into the other side,” the 90-year-old vividly recalls as if it was yesterday. “The front chassis wrapped around my legs. My feet stayed in the buggy while my body was laying outside. I was in a mess.”
With both legs fractured and a mangled left ankle, Meyers needed urgent medical care but the painful wait became a protracted saga. Manx team-mate Vic Wilson arrived and handed over a half-pint of tequila that he’d stashed under his seat cushion in the hope of easing the agony before a doctor arrived with morphine. Eventually, Meyers’ remote crash sight was spotted by a TV helicopter crew, who managed to land close by: “They loaded me onto a stretcher, and strapped me outside the skids. All I could see was the pilot’s face and cactus whizzing by my head.”
The endless trip to find a trusted specialist included a rough ride in the back of a Jeepster to Colonia Guerrero but, with bones sticking out of Meyers’ legs, the local doctor said that the injuries were too serious for him to help. Doped up on more morphine, Meyers finally arrived at San Diego hospital 24 hours after the accident – via a Piper Pacer, a taxi to Ensenada airport and a makeshift ambulance: “They put me in a ’1946 Ford panel van with a big red cross.”
The severe injuries required a stainless-steel replacement ankle that still causes Meyers to limp. Now, though, he can laugh about waking up after the operation with both feet in traction to discover fellow Tow’d driver Fritz Warren in the next bed: “He’d rolled his buggy and had a plaster cast around his waist, and his arm was suspended due to a dislocated shoulder. Despite the pain, Fritz looked over at me and said with a big smile, ‘Bruce, isn’t that race just bitchin’?’”
It was motorcycles that set the pace in the second event, with the Honda 350 of Larry Berquist and Gary Preston winning in 20 hours 38 mins, which smashed the record by 5½ hours.
First of the four-wheeled brigade was a Bill Stroppe-prepared Bronco driven by Don Bohannen and Al Rogers at 21 hours 11 mins, while Andy DeVercelly and Tom McClelland drove the first buggy home, in fourth at 22 hours 37 mins. Thanks to Meyers, the popularity of the buggy exploded, with imitators popping up across the States. Tow’d inspired a raft of bespoke machines, including the Funco Wampuskitty. Designed by drag-racer Gil George and Chuck Beck, this light, tube-framed vehicle boasted a single-wishbone front end for extra wheel travel. The Funco never quite matched the Tow’d on the Mexican 1000, but it became the grandaddy template for unlimited open-wheel off-roaders.
It would be two years before a buggy again won the Mexican 1000, but – in contrast to Tow’d – it took a very specialist tool. In just five weeks, former Meyers employee Drino Miller designed a potent beast with a tubular frame wrapped in a neat aluminium body. It was powered by a hot 1900cc VW motor with special cylinder heads and roller-bearing crankshaft.
With Vic Wilson and Miller sharing the driving, the exposed single-seater set a staggering time of 16 hours 7 mins. In just four years, Meyers’ 1967 record run had been more than cut in half. The original Tow’d prototype remained stashed away in Chicago storage for decades until an approach from Jacky Morel, a French beach-buggy fanatic, who convinced Major it was time to sell the timewarp desert racer. The hot Porsche 356 engine has long gone, replaced by a period VW unit, but the rest is fantastically original – right down to the drink flasks and oil bottles taped to the roll bar, flake finish and hand-painted names from the ’1967 Stardust race.
Tow’d 2 is now back in California thanks to Perry Margouleff, a music producer with Led Zeppelin among his impressive credits. A serious guitar collector, Margouleff also has a weakness for early buggies, and has built up a set of Meyers Manx designs. Star of the group is Tow’d, which he eventually convinced Morel to sell.
Margouleff has become good friends with Meyers, who has helped with restorations in his Valley Center shop. As with his vintage guitars, Margouleff likes to use his historic buggies and often drives to the studio in a ’1968 Manx complete with floral interior. More impressive are the convoys with Meyers in his original 1964 prototype Old Red, with Tow’d shadowing its creator. A favourite run is up Highway 1 to the Monterey classic week, where the buggy group is a popular feature of The Quail, the Little Car Show and the Carmel Concours on the Avenue.
The organisers of Pebble Beach turned down a buggy class to mark the Manx’s 50th anniversary, but Meyers and Margouleff aren’t bothered. “The most fun is driving around with Bruce and his wife Winnie, stopping at favourite restaurants to listen to his amazing stories,” says Margouleff. With the approaching half-century of NORRA’s first event, maybe they’ll head south of the border. Re-running the Mexican 1000 down to La Paz with Meyers in classic buggies – now that would be a dream road trip.
“ALL I COULD SEE WAS THE PILOT’S FACE AND CACTUS WHIZZING PAST MY HEAD,” RECALLS MEYERS
‘MAYBE THEY’LL HEAD SOUTH OF THE BORDER WITH A RE-RUN TO CELEBRATE THE HALF-CENTURY’