AlphaLuxe Interviews Bruce Meyer, Founding Chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum

12/29/2019
Lance Abraham

When Bruce Meyer graduated from UC Berkeley, we aren’t sure he imagined being where he is today – more than once in our conversation, he mentioned embracing the surprises in life without expectations.  But after helping to make Gearys (the family business) one of the most sought-after destinations in Beverly Hills, he’s living the dream today.  He’s one of the most influential car enthusiasts in the world.  His collection includes cars that are featured at the Petersen Automotive Museum (where he is the Founding Chairman) as well as on film (in the recently released Ford v Ferrari).  While his accomplishments, connections, and collection are quite impressive, his most striking characteristic seems to be his accessibility – well, that and his daily driver.

Bruce Meyer portrait

Photo: Petersen Automotive Museum

ALX:  You’ve mentioned that when you were young, observing G.I.’s in hot rods made a heavy impression on your love for cars.  Was that where it started?

BM:  It actually started with my DNA.  I was born with that mutant gene – my parents and their families weren’t interested in cars at all.  In my baby book, my mother wrote that I just loved wheels – it was part of my makeup even though my family discouraged it.  My elementary school was right across the street from The Art Center School.  It specialized in automotive design, and many of the students drove custom cars and hot rods.  Seeing them come and go piqued my interest, and I began dreaming of having a hot rod.

 

ALX:  What is the earliest car you remember loving?

BM:  Early on – I leaned towards early 50s Fords – they had a V8 and stick shift.  It wasn’t a dream car – I wasn’t really thinking about those at the time, but I thought when I turn 16 I’d like to have a ‘32 Ford or a ‘40 Ford.  These cars were all within reach, about $100-200.  I always had a lot of jobs, and I saved my money.  So by 12 or 13, I got into motor scooters and motorcycles, which I could hide in my friends’ garages.  My parents didn’t find out I had been riding until I was in my late 20s, after someone had seen me at a race.  Motorcycles were a big part of my early life; and when I turned 16, I changed to Chevrolet.  The 55-57 Bel Airs really got my attention with their design and overhead valve V8.  I never did buy one though.

 

ALX:  What was the first car you bought when you became a man of means, and why?

BM:  My father said he would help me buy my first car by matching funds.  That was in 1960 or so when I was 20 years old.  I was looking at this Chevy Biscayne, stripped down with the largest engine and a four-speed.  I spec’d the car out, but over the years I was starting to admire “these little foreign cars” and took a liking to Porsche.

Petersen Automotive Museum Reopening Ribbon Cutting

Petersen Automotive Museum grand reopening ribbon cutting ceremony in early December ’19 – Bruce Meyer (wearing orange necktie in center) [press photo]

ALX:  That’s interesting because Porsches didn’t seem very popular at the time.

BM:  There were very few of them.  Right up the street from me was a Porsche dealer called Competition Motors – John von Neumann.  I went in there out of curiosity and found out I could get a new Porsche, delivered in Europe, for $2,700.  My Chevrolet was going to be $2,500.  So I convinced my father that instead of a 200hp Chevrolet, I was going to get a 60hp Porsche.  He was fine with that; and from that point on, I have been driving Porsches.  If there was a marque that I am pretty loyal to, that would be it.

 

ALX:  Coming from a world of American V8s and hot rods, what was it like going to the Porsche?

BM:  I took an instant liking to them.  They just didn’t have many in the US back then.  In 1961, I was, to my knowledge, the only student at Berkeley that had a Porsche.  Mine was a bright red car, and it was quite a thing.  When I graduated and took a job in Michigan, it came with me and was the only Porsche there too.  They were very much a California thing – cool back then but very esoteric.

 

ALX:  You’re considered an enthusiast as opposed to a collector.  Tell us a little bit about how your enthusiasm for cars has changed, and how has it stayed the same over the years.

BM:  I say I’m enthusiast driven.  I only bought cars that I related to, cars that were appealing to drive, and that’s still very much the case today.  I’ve been fortunate in business – in the new car world, I can probably buy what I like, but I only buy what I see myself driving.  My daily car is a 25 year old Chevy Suburban which I bought brand new in 1995.

 

ALX:  Bruce, a Suburban?  You are the man.

BM:  (laughs) My daily cars have been Suburbans since 1980.  Over the years, certain cars just appeal to me and my senses.  I’m not really a seller…I’ve sold very few cars.  I sold a Porsche Speedster back to Steve McQueen, a D-Type to a very good friend of mine, and a Gullwing to a fraternity brother in 1965.

Petersen Automotive Museum

Petersen Automotive Museum exterior [press photo]

ALX:  Talk to us about how you got involved at the Petersen Museum.

BM:  Robert E. Petersen published Hot Rod magazine – we lived near each other, belonged to the same professional group, and served on the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles board.  We became good friends.  Robert actually found the [Petersen Museum] building and thought a car museum would be a great idea.  I was in it from the very beginning, and I’m very involved with it to this day.  I love the staff and the founders (who are great friends).  I get the chance to meet my heroes like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan – all the guys who really meant a lot to me growing up, and I’m still so impressed with all of them.

 

ALX:  What do you remember most about being a friend of Carroll Shelby?

BM:  He was 75% salesman – and he focused the rest of his abilities around finding, building, and motivating a team.  He was a great storyteller, very approachable, attractive, fun, and very bright.  You don’t become Carroll Shelby by accident – he worked very hard to become the man that he is.  He’s a one-of-a-kind guy.

 

ALX:  The Winning Numbers exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum showcases 10 cars, a couple of which I instantly recognize.  I’m sure all of them have a special place in your heart, but are there a couple that stand head-and-shoulders above the others, and why?

BM:  The Ferrari 250 SWB is a world-class car, and it’s in all likelihood the most important car in the exhibit.  It was a dream car for me – my fraternity advisor in college had one, so I’ve always loved those cars.  To me, the prettiest car is the Ferrari Testa Rossa – it’s gorgeous.  And if I could only have one, it would probably be the Shelby Cobra.

Winning Numbers Exhibition - Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer at the “Winning Numbers” Exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum [press photo]

ALX:  Saying that you would take the Cobra home and having a Suburban as your daily driver puts the stamp on you being an enthusiast over a collector.  Is there something other than your personal connection to Carroll that prompts you to take the Cobra over the others?

BM:  It’s historically significant as the first production Shelby Cobra – it’s a 1 of 1.  I love the look, the sound, and the drive!  It’s also an iconic car – people recognize and appreciate it.

 

ALX:  Other than weather, what prompts you to leave the Suburban at home and take one of the more valuable cars out for a drive?

BM:  When you have some of these cars, there’s a responsibility to share them.  Some people want to lock them away, and I think they’re missing a lot of the joy in ownership.  I drive them every chance I get – it’s usually on the weekends, when there’s less traffic.  I’ll take the Winning Numbers cars to events, and there are other cars (like the early Porsches) that need to be driven.  So when it’s a good-weather day, I’ll take those; and if there’s bad weather or simple tasks, I’ll take the Suburban.

 

ALX:  Never lift – where did the saying come from?

BM:  I do a fair amount of track time – and I’ve run Bonneville for years.  In certain cars you never lift off the gas, and that’s how I live my life.  I’m always busy, always overbook my schedule, and run from one meeting (or event) to the next.  My family just laughs because I walk fast, eat fast, move fast, and drive fast.

 


Author Biography: Lance Abraham

Lance has been into cars for as long as he and his parents can remember.  He won the spelling bee in the 2nd grade, so he is an authentic Indian-American.  Since finishing college, Lance has owned over 40 different enthusiast cars.  He considers himself a generalist that dabbles in everything, researches heavily, and leans on experts for depth.  He favors good design and balanced performance over outright speed, but can be convinced to drive a fast ugly car.  When he’s not around automobiles, Lance enjoys serving his community, traveling, good food, and good people.

He can be found at @insidetherim and at @launchcontrolcars, where he hosts a car-centric podcast with his good friend Steve.

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