Livin' on the Edge

  • Shaun Tolson

It was nearing the end of the third day of the Southern California Timing Association’s 2012 Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah when ominous storm clouds began to linger above the summit of Graham Peak on the northern edge of the speedway. Bruce Meyer wasn’t worried. In fact, he barely noticed. Instead, the then-70-year-old auto enthusiast was focused on the run that he was about to make, and for good reason. It was his final chance to break the 200 mph barrier. In truth, Meyer had surpassed 200 mph two years earlier when, during his first pilgrimage to this Mecca of land speed records, he drove a 1983 Camaro to a top speed of 222 mph. But this run was different. This time, Meyer was behind the wheel of his custom-built, open-air, 1932-style roadster.

Meyer has loved vintage hot rods since he was a young boy—his first model car was a 1932 highboy roadster made out of balsa wood. Needless to say, when he was presented with the opportunity to aggressively drive a hot rod of his own on the same grounds that made those vintage roadsters famous during the 1930s and ’40s, he was determined to make the most of it. During his first run with the car two days before, Meyer peaked at 183 mph, and he tacked on 13 more mph to his top speed during his second run the following day. So as Meyer climbed into the almost-5,000-pound, number 747 roadster on that late Monday afternoon, he had to work hard to settle his nerves.

“When you go to the rodeo, there’s barrel racing and calf roping, but the bull riders are the real hombres; and for the most part, the roadster guys are the old-school bull riders at Bonneville,” he says. “There’s just something magical about going 200 miles per hour in an open roadster.”

As Meyer started his third run, the big-block Chevy 427 cc engine barked and growled, divulging evidence of the almost 1,000 hp that it was waiting to unleash. Unlike with the Camaro that he drove two years before, which belonged to Jack Rogers, Meyer knew all the idiosyncrasies of this ’32 roadster. The car was first built by the late Gary Brauer and Mike Cook more than 20 years ago. After Meyer acquired it in 2011, he brought it back to Cook, a Bonneville legend, who rebuilt it specifically for Meyer’s quest to surpass 200 mph on the salt flats.

At the quarter-mile mark of Meyer’s third run, the hot rod was sprinting at 187 mph, but the needle continued to rise. At this point, every subtle move that Meyer made in the car could drastically affect the run’s final outcome. The roadster’s engine was screaming at more than 8,000 rpm, but still Meyer kept the accelerator to the floor. He understood that even though he was the one behind the wheel, at that speed the car also had a say in which direction it would go. “This is not like racing slick tires on pavement. This is slick tires on packed salt; it’s like ice,” he explains. “The faster you go, the more the car wants to move around, so you don’t want to do anything quick with the gas or with the steering wheel. And if the car wants to go south to Arizona, you just have to let it go.”

After one mile of fearless driving, Meyer was less than 1 mph away from 200. Moments later, he eclipsed that mark, but he also knew the car could go faster still, so he pressed on. Almost three miles into the run and with two miles of track ahead of him, Meyer suddenly lost significant visibility. His visor turned a strange, fuzzy white and he immediately thought the worst: The car was on fire. Not wanting to take any chances, especially with the nearest firefighters miles away, Meyer backed off and concluded his run two miles earlier than originally planned. As it turned out, the 747 roadster was not on fire, it was simply blowing engine oil; but Meyer, who had very limited salt flats racing experience to rely on, had no way of knowing that.

Despite the false alarm—and the aborted attempt to attain an even greater top speed—Meyer achieved his goal. He drove a nostalgic, open-air hot rod more than 200 mph. “That was a dream I never thought I’d live,” he says, looking back on the experience. “Two hundred miles per hour in a hot rod . . . that’s something pretty darn special.”

Two months later, Meyer returned to Bonneville for what, at the time that this story went to press, he believed was his final visit. He didn’t bring that 747 roadster with him. Instead, he returned in the 1983 Camaro, the chariot that introduced him to the unique adrenaline rush that only salt flats racing can provide. By the end of that week, Meyer had earned a red Bonneville 200 MPH Club hat, which is bestowed only to those who surpass 200 mph and also break a land speed record while doing so. “The guys who wear those red hats, it’s like wearing the red badge of courage,” Meyer says. “It’s pretty cool.”

Meyer may cherish his red hat, but over the course of more than four decades of car collecting, it is his salt flats run in that 747 hot rod that remains his fondest experience. As Meyer reflects on a lifetime of classic-car appreciation, it becomes clear that he is no ordinary collector. In fact, the very term collector is one that he likes to avoid. In his opinion, Meyer is simply an enthusiast.

Regardless of the terminology, one thing is clear: Meyer’s collection of rare, high-performance automobiles—many of which come with meaningful racing pedigrees—is among the finest in the world. The Southern Californian has restored dozens of vehicles beyond compare, from Le Mans–winning racecars to historically significant hot rods, world-class mahogany speedboats, and important racing motorcycles, yet Meyer is most proud of his quest to legitimize hot-rodding, a task he took on during the late 1990s. That, he says, is his greatest contribution to the hobby.

s a young boy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Meyer loved classic cars, especially hot rods, and it showed in his reading material. Meyer subscribed to three magazines growing up—the Boy Scouts magazine Boys’ Life, Popular Mechanics, and Hot Rod. It’s hard to say what sparked Meyer’s strong affinity for those cars, but he knows it wasn’t his family. “My parents were products of the Depression,” he explains. “They could never understand how anyone would pay money for something old and outdated. So I didn’t grow up in a car-friendly home; hot rods were like forbidden fruit.”

So, too, were motorcycles, but that didn’t stop Meyer from owning them. Meyer raced a Matchless in TT scrambles during the late 1950s and early 1960s and kept the news from his parents. But then, it was easier to hide a motorcycle at a friend’s house than it was to conceal a full-size automobile. “I was always looking for and dreaming about hot rods since childhood,” he recalls. “When I was old enough to have a hot rod, my parents forbid it. I could never have the cars that I wanted.”

But as the saying goes, never say never. Meyer acquired his first high-performance automobile, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, in 1964. At 9 years old, the car was far from a classic. In fact, it was far from an authentic Mercedes-Benz. As Meyer recalls, the car had been modified with a Corvette engine, which he liked initially for its increased speed and ease of use, though he soon discovered that an original example was the better car to own.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Meyer, then in his late 30s, acquired his first hot rod, a 1932 Ford highboy roadster. That purchase essentially opened the floodgates, and before long Meyer’s collection included a stable of historically significant hot rods, many of which once appeared on the covers of the magazine that he had read religiously as a youngster. Today, Meyer estimates that 25 percent of the vehicles that he owns are hot rods, including cars like the 1932 Ford Doane Spencer roadster, two 1932 Ford Doyle Gammell coupes (one being a three-window variation),  a 1932 Ford deuce coupe, the So-Cal belly tank, the Frank Mack 1927 T roadster, the Pierson Brothers 1934 coupe, and the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster (the only car in his collection that Meyer doesn’t drive, and only because it would be illegal to do so).

By the late 1980s, Meyer had been restoring historic hot rods for years. At the same time, he had been showing his prewar classics and postwar racecars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for just as long. In his mind, historic hot rods had as much a place on the Pebble Beach lawn as did the Duesenbergs and Packards and Alfa Romeos that were claiming the Best of Show awards. “It’s a lifestyle,” Meyer says of hot-rodding. “It spreads beyond the cars into fashion and our social lives. There are still clubs and activities that revolve around hot-rodding—cruise-ins, long-distance tours, and, of course, racing. The more I reminisced, the more I remembered how underappreciated hot-rodding was and how underpublicized the real importance of hot-rodding is today.”

After that revelation, Meyer, who was (and still is) a member of the concours’ advisory board, proposed a hot rod class, but the idea was rejected immediately. Thus began a pattern that lasted a decade. Over time, Meyer’s requests grew more impassioned, but they only led to equally passionate rejections. Finally, in 1997, the committee agreed to a one-time-only hot rod class. “If it had been 10 feet farther away [from the rest of the concours], we would’ve been in Carmel Bay,” Meyer recalls with a chuckle. “But it was a real turning point for the appreciation, legitimacy, and acceptance of hot-rodding.”

Since that debut, a hot rod class has appeared on the Pebble Beach Concours program every other year, and as Meyer remarks, “it’s been hugely successful for all the right reasons.”

fter four decades of collecting, Meyer is content with the number and the quality of the cars that he owns, inasmuch as any collector is completely satisfied with the present state of his or her collection. “I’m not looking for any more,” he says. “Of course, I say that and I’ll turn right around and buy a car, but I’m not looking to buy anything. If something comes my way that fits my mission, I’d certainly be a buyer; but I barely have the time to enjoy the things that I have now.”

Part of Meyer’s decision to slow down stems from the amount of time that typically comes with the acquisition of a new car, specifically its restoration. Off the top of his head, Meyer ticks off four restoration projects that he undertook earlier in his life—his GT350 Mustang took three years to complete, as did his 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa and the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, while the Doane Spencer roadster required two years of work. “At my age, I don’t buy green bananas,” he jokes. That being said, if the right car did come along—like Stu Hilborn’s Lakester, which Meyer spent years searching for earlier in his life—Meyer acknowledges that he wouldn’t hesitate to buy it in any condition.

When asked to consider what knowledge he wishes he had at the start of his collecting career, Meyer’s answer has everything to do with historical significance and little to do with aesthetics. When Meyer was young, he bought cars that were beautiful, but he says he didn’t do enough research to understand which cars were important. The ultimate example—and one that still has Meyer kicking himself today—takes the form of a trade offer that Meyer turned down. For his part, Meyer would have parted ways with a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4, but he would have received a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO. Make no mistake, at $2 million today, a 275 GTB remains a valuable Ferrari, but it pales in comparison to the value of a GTO (according to news reports, one sold privately for $52 million in October).

Despite that missed opportunity, Meyer refuses to complain. As he explains, his love of classic cars—and collecting them—has led to lasting friendships with like-minded enthusiasts. Furthermore, as evidenced by his high-speed exploits at Bonneville, the hobby has afforded him some unforgettable opportunities. Meyer would be lying if he said that he hasn’t been tempted to return to the salt flats, but he also recognizes that he’s finished that chapter in his collecting story. “I’ll find other ways to scare myself,” he says. “I like being on the edge; it’s a fun place to be.”

Fittingly, Meyer’s collection is full of vehicles that can take him there. 

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