The humble Volkswagen Beetle was designed to go a lot of places when it came out, but off road surely wasn't one of them. But thanks to Bruce Meyers, a Southern California resident and World War II veteran, the little commuter found a new home in the dirt.
While catching rays on Pismo Beach in the early 1960s, Bruce became familiar with the rise of "dune buggies." Inspired, he set out to create his own, starting with a VW Kombi bus chassis and then designing a fiberglass body to go around it.
The next step was getting one of his fiberglass bodies to drop onto a Beetle's chassis and, voila, the Meyers Manx was born.
The original brochure stated: "If you crossed a Jeep with a Porsche, you wouldn't get a Josh or a Peep, you'd get a Manx … or the closest thing to it, because the Manx will out-handle Porsches and go where only Jeeps have tread."
On Oct. 31, 1967, that claim was put to the test. A new race was being held in a dusty stretch between Tijuana and La Paz, Mexico. It was called the Mexican 1000 and it was a grueling test of endurance and skill.
Of the 68 vehicles that started the first race, only 31 completed the 950-mile trek, with the winning drivers finishing in 27 hours and 38 minutes. There was no certified course -- just five checkpoints where the teams had to stop. How they navigated between checkpoints on the dirt roads and trails was up to them.
While motorcycles led much of the race, the victory went to Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels, driving a Meyers Manx dune buggy built by Bruce. The Meyers Manx sparked the rise of the Baja Bug, a Beetle modified for the harsh environment of desert racing.
That first race has continued on until today, with its 50th running taking place next month. Even though it's now called the SCORE Baja 1000, the spirit of thrashing vehicles off-road, lives on. The race now runs several VW-themed classes, including one for stock-engined, air-cooled Beetle vehicles.
In addition, other organizations, such as the Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts in California, run these Volkswagen racers, which are a popular and cheap way for many to get started into racing.
"The race (Mexican 1000) to me has become quite a surprise in that it's lasted so long," Bruce said in a recent video promoting the race's 50th anniversary. "You start to wonder why it's so popular, and you go back to the kind of lifestyle I lived when I came into the thing, it was pretty loose … it was just about having fun. Racing in the desert anywhere is a lot of fun.
"The cars that do it are made special … The better part is it opens the door to the young mind, the young boy who dreams of being something like a famous race driver. Well, being a famous race driver means you better have a lot of money to go to Indianapolis or Formula One and such things. Not in off-road racing. You can start with a Volkswagen Beetle, of all things -- the last thing in the world that would be considered any kind of a race car."
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