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Band of buggies cruises into town

There’s a tidal wave of dune buggies in Buffalo this weekend, driven by their owners in caravans from as far away as California, Arizona, Montreal and North Carolina.

The reason Buffalo was chosen to host this four-day club event has everything to do with a 19-year-old sailor and his rescue by the USS Sullivans during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.

That sailor ended up inventing the dune buggy.

On Saturday afternoon, Bruce Meyers, the sailor-turned-beach-boy, will be honored with a color guard on the deck of the ship that came to his rescue 70 years ago.

“I was aboard the USS Bunker Hill, and the Kamikazis finally got us, killing almost 400 men,” Meyers said Friday. “I went over the side and went ‘swimming’ for several hours. I was picked up by the destroyer Sullivans, and I have not seen the ship since.”

Meyers, in his turbo-charged fiberglass Manx, was one of the last Meyers Manx club members to arrive at Front Park Friday morning as the dune buggies assembled. There was no mistaking the growl of his engine as he parked his vehicle. Driving in a caravan of buggies from Southern California, Meyers arrived Thursday at the Holiday Inn on Delaware Avenue.

Participants called the week-long journey – averaging 380 to 430 miles each day – the Shuffle Off to Buffalo Tour. It included a trip through Zion National Park in Utah and a tour along the Million Dollar Highway in western Colorado north of Durango.

With the buggies averaging 20 miles per gallon, stops for gasoline were made every 140 miles, said Mike Dario of Simi Valley, Calif.

“When you get in a regular car and drive, it’s about the destination,” said Dario, who turned 54 on Friday. “When you get in a dune buggy, it’s about the journey. It’s not like we’re vain or anything. A car is just a reflection of your personality.”

Amazingly, Dario’s metal-flaked vehicle did not stand out in the sea of neon-colored dune buggies. Many of the owners took pride in building their buggies from kits that average $6,000. The little beach car born on the West Coast in the free-wheeling 1960s boasted a body crafted from a shortened Volkswagen chassis and powered by a VW engine.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than building your car hour after hour for days and days and when it’s finished, getting in and going 70 mph down the freeway and it works,” said Robert Baumgartner, who drove with his wife, Dianne, from Newman, Calif. “You have a personal relationship with your car because you know every nut and bolt in it.”

The Baumgartners, both 66, follow Meyers on the longer trips “because he’s the greatest guy on earth. We left California with 14 buggies, and by the time we got here, we were 40 strong,” said Robert Baumgartner. “We met the West Coast bunch in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. The object is to get together with the people you love in the cars we love and then sharing that wonderful disease called ‘buggy butt’ which happens after sitting in your car for hundreds of miles.”

The events that transpired to bring the Meyers Manx dune buggy club to Buffalo began six years ago when Marc Frisicaro attended his first dune buggy event in Outer Banks, N.C. The owner of Frizzy’s Bar on Allen Street now has five buggies.

“When I first met Meyers and he found out I was from Buffalo, he asked about the Sullivans,” said Frisicaro, 50. “From the moment I struck up a friendship with him, I wanted to get him to see the ship again, so I planned to have an event to showcase our town. I thought Niagara Falls would be a great draw to bring club members from all over the country.”

On Friday afternoon, the group took a buggy cruise to Niagara Falls where they rode on the Maid of the Mist. On Saturday, a “Show and Shine” event at Front Park from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. will be open to the public and allow children to sit in the buggies. Meyers will attend and food trucks will be on hand.

Frisicaro rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles before he discovered the fun of driving a dune buggy.

“A dune buggy takes you back to your childhood,” Frisicaro said. “I always wanted one as a kid. I liked the sparkle. Everybody waves and smiles when you’re driving one.”

France Rousseau and Vincent Parisien, who built their buggy three years ago, drove from Montreal. Donna and Mark Landon, 58, traveled from Bullhead City, Ariz. And Richard “Bud” Zeller, 57, drove his buggy from Wilmington, N.C.

Zeller’s metal-flake aqua buggy has a wind deflector in the back “because you tend to get beat up by the wind while you’re driving,” he said. Zeller, like other drivers who traveled more than 1,000 miles to attend an event, will receive the “Long Haul” pin.

After the Navy, Meyers studied fine arts, and worked building fiberglass sailboats.

“I didn’t build the boats themselves, but made the tools that built the boats,” he said Friday as he stood with one arm tightly around his daughter Julie. “That taught me all about fiberglass. It was the late ’50s, and I was living in a very loose time in my life. I was a surfer and a beach boy. In Southern California, life on the beach is like that.”

When it came to inventing the Manx dune buggy (named after the cat with the stubby tail) Meyers said he had no idea what he was doing.

“All this stuff came together,” he said. “If I had studied car design, there wouldn’t be any dune buggy. My very innocence allowed the freedom.

“The car has a message and it says fun,” Meyers said. “Drive it and you feel better. It makes you feel young. Old guys still clinging to youth, they love them. It’s a fun vehicle that brings you back to the best part of your life – your youth.”