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Chrome homme

A Los Angeles car collector's garage is his castle

July 17, 2005|Christian M. Chensvold | Christian M. Chensvold last wrote for the magazine about vintage men's clothing.

Bruce Meyer's garage is many things: a museum of Americana, a menagerie of push-rod beasts, a refuge from the world of work and worry. A custom addition/expansion to his Los Angeles home, it is an overflowing homage to one man's lifelong obsession with things that roll, the kind of deeply personal aesthetic no home-makeover guru could ever replicate, the chronicle of a life devoted to a single pursuit.

"Friends bring their wives over to my garage to show them it could be worse," says the sixtysomething real estate investor. "I guess I'm the poster boy for someone who's got the bug real bad."

Paintings, books, models, engines, warped metal signs and a vintage gas pump are thrown together in a manner Meyer calls "decorating"--with quotation marks. There's the first-place trophy from Pebble Beach he won for his Doane Spencer hot rod after a 15-year effort to persuade the Concours d'Elegance grandees to allow "this misunderstood automobile art form." There's a set of Hot Wheels miniatures called the Bruce Meyer Collection, and a photo of Meyer with Indy racing legends Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and Roger Ward.

Despite the expensive cars and memorabilia, Meyer doesn't kid himself that he's created a museum. To the unpretentious Meyer, his garage is a combination den, party room, rec room and sanctum sanctorum. "At the end of the day, I'll pop a beer and just come in here, hang out and unwind around my cars," he says.

The urge to collect manifested itself early. In Meyer's baby book, under the heading First Observations, his mother wrote, "Bruce loves anything with wheels." His youth was spent building model cars and go-carts. At UC Berkeley, Meyer took out a one-year, no-interest student loan, fixed up a '50 Mercury two-door coupe, then sold it at the end of the year to pay off the loan. Inspired, he spent the rest of his college years restoring and reselling motorcycles, which he repainted on his apartment roof.

Today, his collection includes "probably more cars than a person needs," only a few of which fit in his garage. A former chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Meyer's stockpile is regarded as among the top half a dozen in Southern California--no small distinction in the car capital of the world. For his collection and advocacy of American hot rods, Meyer received the Meguiar's Award in 1999 (a distinction he shares with friend and fellow car collector Jay Leno), which he calls "the highest award a hobbyist can win."

Like any true enthusiast, Meyer believes in driving his cars as much as displaying them in museums and at the annual Concours d'Elegance on Rodeo Drive. His garage holds 10, which are brought out of storage and put into rotation to get the oil flowing. The current roster includes a 1961 250GT Ferrari SWB Berlinetta that won its class at Le Mans; a 1929 Duesenberg Murphy convertible coupe made for Col. Robert McCormick, publisher and editor of the Chicago Tribune; a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300 Sc that belonged to Clark Gable; and a 1960 Corvette, the first ever to race at Le Mans.

Oldies from the '50s and '60s, piped through unseen speakers, provide the inevitable soundtrack to this personal space, and you half expect a waitress to skate over with a chocolate shake. A class of '59 high school graduate, Meyer's time capsule is not just the record of one man's lifetime of collecting and camaraderie, but the chronicle of a magical moment that drag-raced down the Main Street of American history.

"I was born at exactly the right time," Meyer says. His coming of age was the stuff of Beach Boys songs--cruising, surfing and girls. The result is a life intimately intertwined with that of automobiles. Meyer calls his car obsession "a mutant gene." Had fate plopped him in Mongolia, "I would've had a really cool ox cart."

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