timberland cheap boots and a drug smuggler’s Testarossa
Before Bruce Meyer was a founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, before he made his fortune in Beverly Hills, before he snapped up fabulous machines spanning a century of automotive exoticism, vehicles rich in history and provenance, before that, he was just a freshman at Berkeley trying to hide his motorcycle from his father.
“My father hated motorcycles,” he explained. “Hated them. I used to race a Matchless in TT Scrambles, which predated motocross. Very casual. There were no safety requirements. You had to wear a helmet. ‘Course, I wore a jacket. Most people just had Levis and t shirts.”
“There was a Berkeley/USC football game before one of my races on Sunday. My friends and I, we’d all go to the motorcycle race after the game. A family friend saw me there and said to my parents, ‘It was real nice to see Bruce at the race!’ I’ll never forget that call, when he found out. He couldn’t speak, he was so livid. But I was 21, he couldn’t do anything about it.”
Now Meyer has a wall full of motorcycles. Not many people can tell him to do anything anymore, because he just does.
We at Autoweek really dig Meyer. It’s hard not to like someone as enthusiastic as him; someone who manages to be friendly and unpretentious, someone who even resembles Henry Winkler slightly. We love his boat: Miss Daytona, a 1929 hydroplane with a supercharged Miller engine that he bought in Michigan and shipped excuse the pun to California. We enjoy what he’s done to promote this sometimes bizarre hobby of ours: his nomination as an “Automotive Icon” certainly helped, but his boosterism of the Petersen Automotive Museum was a step toward opening the door for our own enthusiasm. We admire any guy who goes 200 mph at Bonneville. We like that he’s done Milles Italian and Californian. We like that his motto is “never lift.” We like his teeth.
But most importantly, we applaud his taste in cars.
To understand that taste in cars, we first have to find his garage. It’s a seemingly nondescript two story office building in the heart of Beverly Hills. From the outside, you’d never guess an oasis of car culture is tucked away on the second floor. Walk past the coffee shops. Go down the alley, past the parking garages. There is what looks like an aging brick facade with solid steel doors get in close, and you’ll see a perfect patina. The delivery drivers never give it a second glance. The tourists just walk on by.
The tourists have been walking on by for nearly a century; the collection inside is only the latest thing to occupy the building. In 1926, it was the first parking garage built in Beverly Hills. After World War II it was converted into a shoe warehouse, where Oxfords were stocked along side cap toes until 1968 when it was cleared out to serve the first of Meyer’s enterprises. It became a mail room and office, humming with Teletype machines and mail orders. At some point it was a call center, Teletypes chucked out for phone banks. Three years ago, Meyer turned the building back into a garage, celebrating his 70th birthday with a present to himself. He tends to do that.
“We obviously cleared everything out,” said Meyer. “I figured I’d be here six months. Well, long story short talked to my insurance guy and he asks me, ‘well, you got a sprinkler, right? You get one car that starts on fire, then the rest will catch on fire, and you’re done.’ I’m like, ‘you’re kidding me!’ Then, I figure I’d just get a Backyard Buddy, a simple two car lift or something. But then I realized, I’m bringing up 5,000 pound Duesenbergs.” He pointed to the lift, where a 1936 Bugatti Type 57 was perched. “That’s the top of a five story stack from New York City. I had to wait six months for them to build it. It looks diabolic. It’s serious structural stuff.”
Meyer initially wanted to keep his garage hidden, but over the last few months it has served as the backdrop for shows, interviews with enthusiasts like Jay Leno and Adam Carolla, and other affairs mostly auto related, but some otherwise. “Jeff Beck came in here a few weeks ago and he starts going like this,” said Meyer, and he started clapping, slowly, “And he goes, ‘my God, the acoustics in here are perfect! Can I record a song in here?'” He will be stopping by next month, recording a rendition of “Danny Boy.”
Bruce Meyer poses by his 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre,:Bruce Meyer poses by his 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre, which he rallied with the Louis Vuitton Classic. Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
Meyer’s garage has a minimalist aesthetic to it, almost as if it was an art gallery on Melrose. “People get so involved with clutter that you can’t even see the cars,” he said. “We made the commitment not to put anything on here. I see people come in, they go right for the bookshelf! They get so fixated on the crap on the walls.”
Visitors ignore the cars at their own peril. Because look at the cars! There’s a 1929 Duesenberg Model J, the one that Meyer waited six months for; it’s parked across from the 41 Porsche 935 K3 of Kremer Racing, which won Le Mans in 1979. Behind is another Porsche, a 356 Outlaw from before they were called “Outlaws.” Its 100 hp Porsche 912 engine has provided 12,000 worry free rallying miles. (Meyer’s first new car was a 356 as well, a 356B with chrome wheels in Signal Red. He paid $2,700 for it. This car? Worth a bit more.)
The number 14 Ferrari 250 GT SWB is a winner it won Le Mans, it won Monza, it came in second at Spa. Meyer bought it 12 years ago, when he turned 60 another birthday gift to himself. Meyer once said, “If you look at that wrong, it dents.” He doesn’t even want to think about how much it’s worth now.
Meyer is a hot rod kind of guy. He couldn’t turn down a 1932 Ford Hi Boy coupe, especially when it had a Gurney Weslake engine out of a GT40, which Meyer claimed was bought from ol’ Dan himself. Surprisingly, it’s here in Beverly Hills instead of at the Petersen’s hot rod collection that bears his name alongside another of his cars, the legendary Doane Spencer Roadster. That car came in first place in Pebble Beach’s inaugural hot rod class, helping disrupt Pebble Beach history forever when the fools decided to let the rodders in.
The Bentley, the 1929 4 Litre, is not a supercharged model, Meyer insisted. And it’s the real deal, too. “The blowers never won Le Mans. These won Le Mans. There’s so many replicas, they’re like Cobras: you just assume it’s a replica.” He’s owned it for three years, where it mostly spent time in Europe and participated in a 1,000 mile classic rally with Louis Vuitton. Then, he shipped it to Boston and completed a 600 mile tour. It runs like a top, said Meyer, a sentiment supported by his co driver and right hand man. Hell, they drove it to Pasadena just 10 days ago.
“I just happened to call on the exact right moment at the exact right day. They were about to sell it to this other guy, who just got too tricky. He over negotiated. The seller said, ‘It’s not for sale. Goodbye.'” Instead, Meyer bought it, sight unseen: “I sometimes find it easier to just go. You don’t negotiate.”
Bruce’s Testa Rossa was owned by Porsche dealer Jo:Bruce’s Testa Rossa was owned by Porsche dealer John von Neumann. Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
That doggedness led Meyer to acquire the gem of his collection: the 1957 Ferrari 250 TRC Testa Rossa, which to quote Hemmings is “one of the most successful privately campaigned Ferraris in history.” It had been driven by the likes of Richie Ginther, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, and Jack Nethercutt. It was first owned by John von Neumann a race car driver and Ferrari’s top dealer in California who pulled the strings in Maranello to get the sonorous 2.5 liter V12 enlarged to 3.0 liters. Von Neumann’s hot rod, if you will. “So anything that’s called a hot rod has my attention,” said Meyer.
Meyer chased the Testa Rossa for 10 years. “I had every broker in Europe looking. Everyone was getting close, but they couldn’t find it. So after 10 years, I kinda gave up.”
As it turned out, the car had belonged to a drug dealer in the Netherlands.
Charles Zwolsman was more talented at smuggling hash from Morocco than he was at race car driving. When he was arrested in 1993, INTERPOL seized the car and stashed it away in an inflatable garage. Meyer thought he had the tip of a lifetime: “I’m on my way to Goodwood, 2001. And a friend of mine says, ‘The government’s doing an auction, and I think they’re gonna auction off that Testarossa.’ It was a sealed bid auction. It wasn’t nuts. I thought I was in the know, and I’m the only one who knows this car, so I’m gonna steal this thing.
“I’m leaving Thursday morning, and I say to Martin [Meyer’s attorney and broker] ‘Will you check the car for me?’ thinking I’m the only one who’s going to buy it. And I’m at Goodwood, and all of a sudden the word comes out. There’s a group of 15 cars with the Testarossa, and I’m like, ‘oh shit.’
“I tell Martin, you gotta add more money to it. I don’t want it to go away. At the auction, I see a note on the car from Martin, he says, ‘Empty your bank account, you’ve won the car.'”
Meyer had no idea how much he lucked out until he ran into another collector, who went up to him and immediately said, “You’ve won the Testarossa! You wanna sell it?” No, Meyer said, understandably. The collector replied, “Well, we were the underbidders.” Turns out, Meyer had only outbid him by $50,000 peanuts, really, at this rarefied level. “I ended up paying fair market value on it, which was a relief.”
If anything, the dogged pursuit of the Ferrari as well as the other cars, his home garage, the various awards scattered on his office walls, this entire space relates to Meyer’s favorite expression, which he informs us with a cheeky grin, is: “You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.”
Pretty good, Bruce, but we have a better one. A line that sums up this entire endeavor, his lifelong enthusiasm. On the corner of the bar inside Meyer’s garage lies a curved glass ashtray with a quote inscribed upon it that has been attributed to actress Mae West. It reads: “If a little is great, and a lot is better, way too much is just about right.”
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