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Meet Bruce Meyer: Ultimate car collector

Michelin logoMichelin 11/14/2016
© Rex Features

Bruce Meyer is known throughout automotive circles as one of the most discerning car collectors on the planet. Yet the California-based property investor doesn’t consider himself a collector. “I am a car enthusiast,” says Meyer. “There is a difference.”

Meyer, who was the founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, defines a collector as somebody that has a vision and goes about amassing cars in line with it. “I don’t do that,” explains Meyer. “The only common factor in my collection is that every car is what ‘Bruce likes,’” admits the enthusiast. That, and Meyer’s willingness to drive some of the world’s best cars on the street, means there are no trailer queens in his garage. “Everything in my garage is driven. Raced or rallied. In the old days, I used to ship a car to local shows. Today, I drive them and take the long way to the show.” 

His garage is like an art gallery, filled with pristine examples of the cars that Meyer has always wanted to own and now does, including the first production Shelby Cobra ever built; a Mercedes-Benz 300 Sc Cabriolet that was once owned by the actor Clark Gable; a Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta, a 275 GTB/4 and a 1957 Testa Rossa; one of the Briggs Cunningham Corvettes entered in the 1960 Le Mans 24 Hours; and the Pebble Beach-winning 1932 Ford Doane Spencer Roadster. It also houses rarities from Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Bugatti and Duesenberg, to name just a few.

An active member of the international car community, Meyer is on the board of Pebble Beach and takes cars out to the world-famous concours most years to win medals. When not showcasing his restorations to an eager audience of fellow car enthusiasts, he can be found touring his classics on the roads of the U.S. and Europe.

© Bruce Meyer

We caught up with Meyer to talk about his enthusiasm for cars, where the passion comes from and what vehicles should be on a fledgling enthusiast's shopping list...

How did you get started amassing such an impressive collection of machines?

It’s in my DNA. My parents felt that automobiles were a dead-end passion. They didn’t like automobiles or motorcycles at all. They were forbidden fruit. My mother wrote in my baby book, “Bruce loves everything with wheels” when I was two years old. That has never changed. 

Nature over nurture, then?

Yes. It started when I was 12. That’s when I bought a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine to learn how engines worked. I built a car with it. Then I turned to motorcycles. It was the only way that I could satisfy my need for speed without my parents finding out. I could house the motorcycles at friends’ houses. But I didn’t have the time or money to develop my passion until I went off to college.

So, what was the first significant car you purchased?

The first “real” car was a 1961 Porsche 356D. It was Signal Red with chrome wheels. Otherwise, it was Spartan – no options. From that point on I was hooked. I drove the 356 when I was at college and then purchased a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” in 1964. It was a bit of a hot rod; someone had dropped a 327 Chevy engine in it. I thought that was the answer to the reliability and power issues that supposedly plagued foreign engines. It wasn't complex and was easy to service. I had that car for a year; then I sold it to a fraternity brother of mine to buy a pristine 300 SL Roadster. He still has it and loves it.

What do you look for in a car and why?

The car must speak to me. It must say something. That’s important. I look for cars that have had extraordinary owners, significant race provenances. Every car that I own has a great story.

© Bruce Meyer

Do you have a favorite car? 

That has got to be the Shelby Cobra. First, it has hot rod roots. Hot rods are a part of automotive culture that lit the flame for me. It’s a genre that was considered an outlaw for so long. Police hated them. Parents hated them. But the more you study who the top rodders were, the more you realize they were the pioneers in our industry. They are the innovators of our time. Innovators that built some really cool stuff. Carroll Shelby was a hot rodder. The CSX 2001 was the first production Cobra ever made. It also gives an exhilarating ride. It’s fast, it’s loud. It pushes every button for me. I’ve rallied from Budapest to Prague in it, and run the Colorado Grand. I drive it. It also has a great racing history, having raced in Europe alongside the factory Cobra Coupés and Ferrari GTOs.

How about a favorite story about a car you own?

ough question. Besides the Cobra? Maybe the Type 57 Ventoux that I’ve just brought to the Petersen for its Bugatti exposition. It’s not the rarest of the Bugatti breed, but it has an incredible story. It’s the 1935 Type 57 from the cover of the book “Sleeping Beauties.” All original. It was hoarded by an eccentric European collector, pulled out of a barn in France as a derelict in the 1980s and then restored by renowned Bugatti restoration expert Andre Lecoq in the early 1990s.

How come you don’t like to sell any?

I have made a couple of mistakes selling vehicles and I don’t like the regret. I like to savor and enjoy my vehicles. The first was selling my Jaguar D-Type. About 14 or 15 years ago, a friend talked me into selling it to him. I have regretted it every day since. There is a silver lining though: He really enjoys it.

© Bruce Meyer

The second is selling Steve McQueen’s 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster back to him in 1974. I owned it for 10 years. Steve called me and wanted to buy it back. We were friends, we’d done some motorcycle racing together. So I sold it back to him. His son Chad owns it today. 

You say your collection doesn’t have a theme, but it seems to include a lot of race cars and other sports cars?

Right now, I am going through a Le Mans 24 Hours phase. The most important race ever! More manufacturers have proved their mettle at Le Mans than at any other racing event. I have five Le Mans 24 Hours winners, including historic entries like the Bizzarrini, which captured the 5000cc and over class and placed ninth overall in 1965, and the 700-horsepower twin-turbo Porsche 935 K3, which was driven to an overall victory in the famed endurance race by Don and Bill Whittington and Klaus Ludwig in 1981.

© Rex Features

If you had to give one bit of advice to a person trying to become a collector, what would it be?

Supercars. Collect supercars. They are an area with a lot of upsides. Vehicles like the Lamborghini Miura or Countach; Ferrari F40; Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing; Porsche RS or Turbo S; McLaren P1; all cars that will continue to appreciate and be appreciated.

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