By Drew Hardin
Pete Condos and the Manx-Vair
Ask anyone about the history of the dune buggy and the first name most likely to come up will be Bruce Meyers and his famous Volkswagen-powered Meyers Manx. Yet there’s another branch of the Manx family tree with yet another famous off-roader’s name attached to it.
That would be Pete Condos, seen here standing in the Con-Ferr booth at the second SEMA Show in Anaheim. Next to him is a Corvair-powered dune buggy chassis that was the foundation for a vehicle that came to be known as the Manx-Vair.
While Condos had co-founded Con-Ferr just a few years before in 1961, he had already made a lasting imprint on the burgeoning four-wheel-drive industry by the time Eric Rickman took this photo in January 1968.
Condos’ roots in high performance were put down when he was a hot-rodding teenager in his native Chicago before World War II. After mustering out of the Navy, he moved to Southern California, where, among other jobs, he worked as a fabricator for Earl “Madman” Muntz.
An avid hunter, Condos bought an International Harvester Scout in the early ’60s to use for his hunting trips. It was during those excursions that Condos thought about accessories he could add to the Scout to make it perform better in the backcountry. He saw an opportunity to provide those accessories to other Scout (and Jeep) owners and launched Con-Ferr with Frank Ferro.
Condos grew the business substantially when he became a dealer for a 4x4 new to the American market, the Toyota Land Cruiser. He sold them at a dealership in Burbank while fabricating accessories for them nearby. One of his Land Cruiser accessory customers was Ed Pearlman, a four-wheeling enthusiast who was fascinated by the time trials that motorcycle racers were running down Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
Pearlman wanted to make a similar run in his Land Cruiser. He talked some friends into going with him, and Condos helped prep the vehicles for the journey. That trip led Condos and Pearlman to form the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA), which held the first organized off-road race in Baja, then called the Mexican 1000 Rally, in October 1967. That first Mexican 1000 was won by Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels driving—yep—a Meyers Manx dune buggy.
Condos contributed to the Meyers Manx phenomenon by building the Corvair-powered chassis on display in his SEMA booth. Meyers’ advertising in the mid-’60s touted the Corvair’s components as “less expensive to obtain” while offering “more than twice the cubic-inch displacement and horsepower available from a VW, at very little increase in weight. Stock Corvair engines offer up to 180 hp, while moderately modified Corvairs can produce more than 200 hp. Corvair six torque, of course, is also twice that of the Volkswagen four-cylinder engine.”
The Manx-Vair got a big promotional boost when Steve McQueen contracted with Condos to build a souped-up version for McQueen’s 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair. That buggy, dubbed the Queen Manx, recently returned to the public eye (much like the Mustang McQueen drove in another of his 1968 films, Bullitt) and is being restored. But unlike the iconic Mustang, there were very few Manx-Vairs produced. Meyers Manx collectors put the number at 50, though Condos indicated he sold quite a few more of the Corvair-powered chassis for buggies other than the Manx.
SEMA named Condos “Off-Road Man of the Year” in 1979–1980, and he is an inductee in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. Condos stayed active in Con-Ferr’s business until he sold it and retired in 1998. He passed away in 2009.