Legendary Collector Bruce Meyer On The Art Of Selling Candles And Winning Concours
Photography by Ted Gushue
The first thing you notice when you meet Bruce Meyer is his eye contact: strong, direct, and paternal. The second is his handshake: firm, confident, and sage. He stands a little over six feet tall with boots on, hair parted to the side. You’d be forgiven for confusing him with someone who’s played a U.S. President in a Hollywood blockbuster, right up until he busts into a silly, childish grin as he waves his arm in the direction of his car collection, almost as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
I was lucky to spend an evening at Bruce’s private space in Beverly Hills, and through the conversation you’ll read below came to the conclusion that few people are having as much fun collecting cars, and living life, as Bruce Meyer is. He genuinely feels like someone who appreciates just how much good fortune and luck have played a factor in his career, and has dedicated the rest of it to giving back to his beloved community through various partnerships with institutions, like The Petersen Museum.
Ted Gushue: Bruce, tell me, what was the first car that you ever remembering driving?
Bruce Meyer: Well, the first car that I ever remember driving was a 12 year old Chrysler that was my parent’s car, that I took out at two in the morning at age 13. That was the first car I drove, and you know, obviously didn’t have a driver’s license, but it was just too compelling. They were out of town, so I just decided to take it for a ride. I mean as far as memorable ride, a neighbor of mine had an Allard—a 1952 J2X—and he also had a Jaguar XK120, and I just lusted for those cars, and one day he gave me ride in it, which was memorable.
BM: That was probably the first sports car experience I ever had.
TG: And this was still prior to having a driver’s license?
BM: This was prior.
TG: What was the first car your owned as a legal driver?
BM: The first car that I bought myself was a 1950 Mercury two door, and I bought it with a tuition loan. My father had given me the money to pay my school tuition, I had to earn the rest, and when I was going through orientation, I found I could get a tuition loan—as long as I paid it back at the end of the school year—interest free. I took the money and I bought a ’50 Mercury and a ’53 BSA motorcycle. Those were the first rides that I actually bought for myself.
TG: What do you remember about the Mercury?
BM: It wasn’t a memorable ride, it was just a way to haul girls around and feel cool, and I mean this was in, you know, 1959. It wasn’t life changing for me because my dream car was a ’58 or ’59, or ’60 Chevrolet with a four-speed and a big engine.
I mean I was full tilt Americana at that point and that was my dream car, and then I started to discover, reading magazines and discover foreign cars and I found out that I could buy a Porsche for the same price as a Chevrolet, so I bought a Porsche in 1960, took delivery to ’61 for $2,700, which was about the price of a hot rod Chevrolet in period.
Then I just diverted, and I never went back to the muscle cars or any of the American cars at that point. I went right off into the world of Porsche and Mercedes, and whatnot.
TG: So you graduated college, and spent $2,700 buy a Porsche, which was the 1600 Super?
BM: Normal. Yeah, I didn’t have the money for the Super. No radio, you know, the only extras were signal red paint and chrome wheels.
TG: Describe where you are in life at this point.
BM: Sure, so I actually bought the Porsche my Junior year of college, so I drove it my last two years of college at Berkeley. I took a job as a bartender out of college in Lake Tahoe and I drove the car, obviously that was my only car, to Lake Tahoe, and there I came across a 300 Gullwing, which to me just was like the coolest thing. I sold everything in 1964 and I bought the Gullwing. Now this Gullwing was a bit of a hot rod that someone had dropped a 327 Chevy engine into. I thought that was like the answer, you know, you got all the power and under the hood, it wasn’t a foreign engine, wasn’t complex. You know, easy to service, and so I had that car for a year, then I sold it to a fraternity brother of mine because every time I’d open [the hood], people’d go, “Oh no”…
You know, I thought they’d think it was so cool, like I did, but they didn’t. When people realize that you know, you had a beautiful 300 Gullwing that didn’t have that beautiful German engineered engine…they start to look at you a little funny.
TG: Of course.
BM: I put in this Chevy engine, and people just didn’t get it. But at the time, I could beat the pants off of a Cobra or any other car of its day, but it was just, it wasn’t so well-accepted, and then the more purer I got in my taste I eventually had to sell it to buy a 300 SL Roadster with a stock engine in it.
TG: The reason I was asking was more that, even back then, people were concerned with having an impure example of a car that at that point was only 10 years old? They knew how important the car was going to be?
BM: Maybe that had a big impact on me too, because I just don’t modify anything anymore, I don’t change wheels, unless it was factory, you know.
TG: Sure. Do you think that 300SL is still out there?
BM: I sold it to my fraternity brother in 1965 and he still has it today.
TG: With the engine?
BM: With the engine, and he loves it.
TG: I bet it’s a scream to drive.
BM: It is, I took it to the drag strip, went 113, the car still hauls the mail, I mean, it’s just as quick today, and it sounds just like stock because he runs it through a big pipe, just like I did, and it has Rudge wheels, rare factory Rudge wheels.
TG: Fantastic. So from there you buy the Roadster.
BM: I bought the Roadster in ’65, and at the same time I decided to travel, I was bartendering in ’64, late ’64, then I decided that I was going to go and spend time in Europe, so I ordered a ’65 356 SC, I want to say it was probably the end of ’64, and just before I was leaving—I want to say in February. Right before I was leaving for Europe I got a telegram from the Porsche factory saying they were discontinuing the 356 and that if I wanted to, I could order the new 911, which I did. I took the delivery of the 911 in early May of ’65 and when I got there, it wasn’t ready, so I bought a Volkswagen. I toured a little bit of Europe, I came back like in the end of May, my car was ready.
TG: Wait, so Porsche were just like, “Sorry, we’re actually not quite ready yet…”?
TG: That’s probably the least German thing you could ever have happen to you.
BM: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Then I brought it back here and it was the first 911 really in the area, kind of mid ’65, and I took a job in Michigan.
TG: What was the job?
BM: It was in a department store, unit control supervisor, it was just a stupid job.
TG: At this point, you’re still kind of post-collegiate and just working around, picking up girls in your Porsche looking to have a good time?
BM: Oh yeah. I mean that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do was have a good time. I mean not that I’m not afraid of hard work, but I mean having a good time was always a big part of why I did anything.
TG: At this point you’re not quite a savvy real estate investor, right?
BM: Oh my god no. I don’t even think I’m that way today, I think I just hit with the right part of the curve, just got lucky.
BM: I got into it by selling my 911 to my neighbor, and bought a 356 which I had in Michigan for a while. I had it back there for about a year and then came back to California in the kind of, I think this was probably in Summer ’66, and started to work in our family business, which had a retail store just down the street. In ’68, I moved into this building, so I’ve been here for 40, how many years, 48 years? ’68, so I moved in ’68—yeah, for 48 years, I’ve been in this building.
TG: Describe the building as when you found it.
BM: You have to understand in ’68 I had a Frank Zappa mustache, shoulder-length hair and whatnot, and so I thought the cool concept would be to open a candle shop, so I opened a candle shop downstairs. So in ’68, I was 27 years old. Now, I say your late ’20s are about as smart as you’ll ever be in your life because you think you know everything. Anyways, I opened a candle shop and actually it turned out to be something of a hit, I had it for 30 years, I mean it really developed, I had it, I opened it in ’68 and closed it in ’97, and it evolved from a candle shop to a bit of an art gallery.
TG: I don’t see a single candle here today, I have to point out.
BM: No, we got a couple here around here. But not many.
TG: Were you making the candles here?
BM: No, buying them all really exotic candles, it was really cool, I mean there’s a candle back there that says, ‘Fuck’ on it [points towards bar]
TG: I see.
BM: We had those under the counter, I mean the local news, if it was a slow news day, they’d come in here, all the networks would come in here and see what I was up, to because they thought our merchandise was so fun and so entertaining. I remember one candle, it was Nixon’s head, it was a Nixon head candle.
TG: Did they call you, “Bruce Meyer, Master of Fire”?
BM: Should’ve done that. Anyways, we always had fun candles and real artsy stuff.
TG: Outside of maybe like, Yankee Candle, you’d never think of a candle business being a big deal.
BM: Yankee’s done well. Shit, they just killed me.
TG: They’re everywhere.
BM: The guy that owned it, I mean he was a big car guy too, I think.
TG: Was there ever a point where you thought of potentially franchising or taking your candles outside of LA?
BM: No, never.
TG: It was more of a niche business?
BM: Oh yeah, it was a fun thing, it was fun. I mean we sold candles to every rock star, you know, Elton John came in, I mean we, then we got a little bit into the arts, and I remember Elton came in, there was an artist, a French artist named Folon, F-O-L-O-N, I don’t even know if he’s still around, and Elton liked that art and he bought a piece, and he actually used it on one of his album covers. We had Ozzy Osborne, I mean everybody, this was the hot spot for just unusual crazy shit, and then upstairs here was a shoe warehouse and then they moved out and I decided to go into the mail order business, because it looked easy, why not?
TG: [Laughs] Right, why not?
BM: I rented this thing up here and we started a mail order catalog.
TG: For candles?
BM: No, for gifts. Because we had a gift shop down the street.
BM: That lasted for 30 years too, I got out of that in ’97, ’97, I kind of said that’s it, my kids weren’t interested, they’d.
TG: You couldn’t pass them the torch, so to speak?
BM: No, and they were smart enough not to take it
TG: Unpack that a little bit thought at this point, you accidentally—or through your business and through just being there at the right time,—start acquiring property?
BM: No, the property thing came completely separate. My parent’s generation liked the stock market because you know, it’s very liquid and you know, you buy good quality stocks, have a nice little investment, whatever. But I always liked stuff that I could merchandise.
In the early ’70s, I hadn’t bought any commercial property, but in the early ’70s, my landlord here, I always said, if you ever sell this building you got to sell it to me. I had no idea where I was going to get the money, but he came to me and he said somebody had made him an offer that he just couldn’t refuse, and he was going to sell the building, but if I wanted it, he’d sell it to me.
I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, but I got it paid for, somehow, I borrowed money from the family, I sold stuff, and I got it done, so this was really kind of the start of my real estate career. So then the landlord kind of took a liking to me and in the early days of Beverly Hills, this was like a good old boys club, you know, to be on the Chamber board or on the Rotary Club, you had to be born into it, which I wasn’t.
He kind of took me along and just introduced me to all the right people, and then people were selling buildings and I just was kind of like, “Sure, I’ll buy that!” So I’d buy some of it by myself, some of it with partners, little buildings around town. It wasn’t like I’m such a genius, just was in the right place at the right time. My son, who is a genius in real estate, he’s classically trained, he knows how to analyze, I don’t know how to fucking analyze anything, so if I see a car or a property I like, I know I like it, not sure why, but I do, and then I buy it.
TG: At what point during all of this did you start collecting in a way beyond just having a couple cars sitting around?
BM: I don’t even think of myself as a collector necessarily, I think of myself as an enthusiast.
TG: You’re on the board of the largest auto museum in America, and have a world renown collection. Come on.
BM: Yeah, but you see, I think a collector is somebody that says I’m going to collect sports cars, so they start putting together a collection with some theme. I’m much more sporadic. Everything in here, we drive, everything, everything in here we race, everything in here we rally, and I try not to sell any of it. I’ve made a few mistakes selling cars, somebody talks me out of something, but I’m kind of over that now. I’ve been very careful what I buy, so my first car that I still have today is that [Ferrari] 275 GTB, that yellow 4-cam in the back. I bought that in 1970. That was my only car at the time and it was two years old, I bought it from a friend of mine, I said, if you ever sell that car, you got to let me know—he did.
Then somebody kind of bumped the nose of it and I thought, you know what, maybe I shouldn’t be driving this every day, so I bought a different car to drive daily. I’ve had that car 46 years and love it. Then I bought a [Ford] Model A Roadster pickup truck, I bought that in ’68 and I had it until ’97, so I had that 30 years. Then I started getting into classics, I bought a ’32 Cadillac and bought a ’32 Buick, then a Pierce Arrow, I kind of like the classics. The only car I kept hold of all those years was that 4-cam.
Then I would say in the early ’80s, I bought the Clark Gable car, the 300 SC, I bought that in ’81, I think I’ve had that 35 years. Trying to think if I had any other cars—I always liked Cobras, I’ve always had Cobras, a Cobra, sometimes Cobras. I sold most of them, I kept that small block there, that’s—do you know what car that is? That’s the black one? [Points to the Black Cobra]
TG: I do, actually.
BM: That’s CSX 2001, 2-0-0-1, that’s the first production Cobra ever made, and I knew Carroll Shelby, he was a very close friend, so I love that car. Then I kind of started focusing on Le Mans, or motorcycles. So when I was growing up, my parents hated cars. The only thing that I could kind of fulfill my need for speed with was on motorcycles, because I could hide those at friends’ houses. I never had insurance on anything. It’s just amazing that I got away with all this, in hindsight.
I always had motorcycles, since I was like 14, my parents never even knew about it until in my early 20s, I was racing motorcycles and somebody went to a race and saw me, and reported back to my parents and they said, “That’s not Bruce, he doesn’t have a motorcycle”. That was a traumatic moments for my parents. I stopped riding bikes this year because I just don’t want to get hit by people who are driving and texting.
TG: Yeah, it’s dangerous.
BM: It’s ridiculously dangerous, but I still have motorcycles, I still love them. I bought a motorcycle just last week, I don’t know if you saw that one, that Bobby Sirkegian one…
TG: Yeah, I just saw that.
BM: Yeah, at age 13, he ran Bonneville. Then I guess in the late ’70s, early ’80s, I started getting back into hot rodding. I had a couple ’32 high boys. Then in the late ’80s, I started buying historic hot rods and that went into the early ’90s, I still have some of those, you know, The McGee car, The Pierson Brothers’ coupe, and I liked the idea of buying old hot rods where the builders were still around and restoring them, with their help, restoring the hot rods with their help and putting them back in the spotlight because I mean the early years of hot rodding, that was—
TG: Can you give me an example of one of those?
BM: Yeah, the Pierson Brothers’ coupe.
TG: What was that like for him to touch something that he had made so long ago?
BM: Both brothers were alive, and they were relatively unknown until we got the car and then we kind of brought them out, and then they went everywhere the car went, they were celebrated as heroes.
TG: What about the So-Cal belly tank?
BM: We restored that next. Alex Xidias is still alive today, but he proudly worked in the restoration of that piece with Pete Chapouris, so Pete had a little restoration shop and after working with Alex in restoring the belly tank,he decided to change the name of his restoration shop to the So-Cal Speed Shop.
It was my introducing him to Alex and restoring that car that he really energized and re-branded and rebuilt the So-Cal Speed Shop. Doane Spencer was still alive when we were restoring the Doane Spencer car and Bob McGee, and Doyle Gammell were still alive, so it was great fun restoring these old hot rods and reuniting the guys and bringing them back in the spotlight. Unfortunately now so many of them are passing. I think Alex and Ed are the only real pioneers that I can think of that [I think] are still with us. Those guys are all in their ’80s and ’90s.
TG: Who else have you worked with that you’ve really admired working with?
BM: Well Doane Spencer built the holy grail of hot rodding. There isn’t a more important hot rod in the world than the Doane Spencer roadster, that’s on display at the Peterson, have you been to the Peterson?
TG: Of course.
BM: That’s the oldest hot rod in the world, it won Pebble Beach, you know. For 10 years, I begged the committee there to let us show hot rods. I showed my Duesenbergs and classic cars at Pebble Beach and I kept saying to the organizers, “You got to do hot rods!” and they’re kept saying, “No way, we’re not dumbing down our show for hot rods, over our dead body”.
Finally, I think I just wore them out, ten years of begging and sending them articles and I’ve got pictures over here of Dan Gurney and his chopped ’32 5 window and Bob Bondurant with his ’32 and Parnelli raced a ’32. I explained to them that even Phil Hill loved hot rods, so this is really important, and I think they, just to appease me, did hot rods at Pebble Beach ’97 and it was such a huge success—they’ve done them every other year since ’97.
Bringing hot rods back into the limelight, bringing the builders back into the limelight, I think if I’m known for anything, it’s the appreciation and the exposing of hot rods to the general public. Before, everyone thought Hot Rod culture was just kind of like fat guys in T-Shirts and people just didn’t understand them or care, but these were fat guys in T-Shirts who could build really cool shit.
TG: Does that ever bother you about the concours community? The way that they look down their nose at certain things?
BM: Well, I think they’re changing now. They’re really realizing it’s not all about ’32 Packards and Duesenbergs and Pierce Arrows, you know? I think that was a real eye opener. Bill Warner in Florida, you know, Amelia Island, he’s always been very open to new ideas and said some great classes outside of the old stuff. Even Motor Trend cover cars and just cool stuff, you know. He’s really a smart guy.
TG: If you had to choose between a concours and a rallies, what would it be.
BM: Rallies all the way.
TG: Yeah, you’re more of a rally guy?
BM: Totally, I love concours, we go to concours, we show our cars there, most of the time just for display only. I produce a show in Rodeo Drive every year, which is a non-judge show. I’m big for non-judge shows. The only judge show that I think they have true experts at is Pebble Beach.
TG: What about Villa d’Este?
BM: Yeah, I don’t know who all judges there, I’ve never been.
BM: I think it’s more of a beauty contest. It’s fine, I mean I’m just not big on judge shows, I’d rather have people come out, enjoy the show, you know, drive a cool car, have no expectations or no disappointments, you know, just come and enjoy the stuff, and that’s why the Cars and Coffee events are such a big thing now, because people love bringing their cars out, they don’t need to have somebody tell them the screw heads are wrong, or the generator’s not dated or whatever.
TG: What Cars and Coffees do you frequent?
BM: Well, I used to go to the one in Newport Beach but that’s now at the Ford Design Center, so it’s no longer. Now I go to the Donut Derelicts, which is one of the early, early car meetups, and that’s down in Huntington Beach. We go to Super Car Sunday out in the Valley, the first Sunday of the month. There’s also one in Malibu first Sunday of the month at Trancas. I go to as many as I can, I love them. To me the best part is the drive, I drive everything, Testarossa, Cobra, Bentley, you name it. The driving events are what really excites me now, and we do, we’ve done Tourado, the Colorado Grand, the Mille Miglia, Copperstate, California Mille, I love them all. That’s where the fun is for me.
TG: Like you said, you drive all your cars, are there any cars that you really had to either work to get drivable?
BM: Well, all the cars, the cars that we restore, you have to work to get drivable, there’s very few cars that you restore and you just get in and drive it off. I mean it’s always, that kind of fiddling and debugging, but everything in here we now drive. We’re doing up an Alfa Romeo TZ now and will be taking it out for the long drives. They really help you because you find out things need to be worked on. I did a rally from Budapest to Prague in my Cobra and I shipped it back over here and restored it, and then after I restored it, we had three DNFs, you know? You can’t predict stuff with these old cars.
The rotor broke one time, the fuel pump went out one time, one of the hubs on the rear end wasn’t tightened down—so now that car I could drive it to New York tomorrow—but they all take work. Corvette, we just did the fuel injection on, that Lightweight Jaguar, we’ve worked on that. The Bentley we, other than a tiny fuel pressure issue, it runs great.
I know what we’re doing now, we’re doing this type ’57 Bugatti, we just can’t seem to get one of the hubs to tighten down properly, so we’ve been out three times and that, we just can’t figure out what’s going on with that; but it’s just, you know it takes a lot of time to get a car up to our standard you know, mechanically.
TG: As far as acquiring, are there any cars that stand out as having notable acquisition stories?
BM: I keep saying I’m done acquiring, I’ve so exceeded my expectations, largely because cars have kind of found their way to me, the Cobra, I was over in France at Rétromobile, just bumped into that, I mean the idea of getting the first Cobra ever made just, I mean, come on, that was serendipity. Corvette, we wanted a good race Corvette, so I was fortunate enough to be able to buy one of the Cunningham cars and we also bought the C6R that won Le Mans. Anything that connects to Le Mans is real important to me. We have five Le Mans winners and I just love that, that’s the race. That’s the World Series, Olympic games, and Super Bowl of motor sport, Le Mans.
TG: Why are you done acquiring?
BM: I say that I am, but like I bought this Bonneville motorcycle last two weeks ago. It just, I’m not looking for anything, I mean, you know, I mean sure something will come along, I’m still young.
BM: It’s not a collection, I mean it’s not like I have one of every such and such car. I think they all need to be passed on to the next enthusiast, let them have some fun with it, I think it’s real important. None of them have to be kept together. I’m just the custodian, I’m the caretaker for these cars, and I just feel fortunate to you know had the luxury of enjoying them while I’m around, because we don’t hang out forever.
TG: Do you feel like you’ll be passing the baton on to your children someday?
BM: You know, my middle son has some interest, but truthfully, I just told my wife and my kids, if something happens to me, just put them all up to auction.
TG: What would you say is the most memorable drive you’ve ever had?
BM: It would have to be the time I joined the 200MPH Club.
TG: What does the 200MPH Club membership entail?
BM: People think all it takes is to drive over 200MPH on the Bonneville Salt Flats. But that’s far, far away from what it actually is. In order to get in the 200MPH club, you must break an existing land speed record, and then back it up by running it twice.
TG: What was the record you broke to join the club?
BM: I personally broke a record that stood for many many years at 196MPH, and I went 206, so I broke it by 10 miles an hour. I used a 1983 Camaro.
TG: How are the records broken down? Are they done by marque? Specific model?
BM: They’re broken down by marque, style, and engine size. Even though I originally went 222 Miles An Hour with a bigger engine in the Camaro, that didn’t break an existing record. My friend Jack Rogers, who owns the Camaro, changed the engine size so that we could attack the 196mph record. That’s what got me into the 200MPH Club.
TG: How many people are in the 200MPH Club?
BM: I’d say low hundreds, it’s a really big deal in the world of hotrodding. A friend of mine told me that there are less people in the 200MPH club than have climbed Everest.