Truly there is nothing in this world more awesome than a dune buggy. I would like to believe that there is nothing more awesome than my dune buggy, but I'd admit I'm probably being partial - there are some other nice ones out there too.
The original "dune buggies" such as the Empi Sportster, were big, heavy beasts with metal bodies and didn't do too good of a job gliding over the sand. That was until boat builder, Bruce Meyers created the Meyers Manx (seen above); the first fiberglass dune buggy and the second car inducted into the national automobile registry - creating an industry that survives to this day.
Webster’s defines a dune buggy as “an off-road motor vehicle with oversize tires for use especially on sand.” And that is partially true. Dune buggies are most commonly used in the sand and mud, and they’ve often been called mud buggies when not set up specifically for sand. But they can also be used on highways if they conform to state laws and can be registered and plated nearly anywhere in the world. Although a dune buggy can be made of anything (like the following beast found on YouTube - built on a shortened RV chassis and powered by a Dodge 440), the term generally applies to Volkswagen-based cars.
There are two main types of dune buggies: sandrails and fiberglass buggies. The first fiberglass dune buggy (as seen above), created by a former boat builder named Bruce Meyers, was the second car inducted into the national automobile registry and created an industry that survives to this day. What Bruce did was to remove the body from a Volkswagen Beetle and then cut 14½” off the frame. He then proceeded to install a topless fiberglass tub in place of the body. Prior to Bruce’s creation, “dune buggies,” such as the Empi Sportster, were big, heavy beasts with metal bodies that didn’t do too good of a job gliding over the sand. Today’s sandrails are also metal bodies, but are lighter and more streamlined. Sandrails are generally not shortened from the original Beetle frame and, in fact, some are up to 15” longer than a standard Beetle. Owners of sandrails generally equip them with paddle tires for use on the sand.
There was a time when dune buggies were all the rage. They were found everywhere: streets, dunes, mountains, racing, camping, interstates… Their popularity peaked in the 1970s and then politicians began banning them from dunes and sometimes even streets. Although there will probably never be such a wide-open range for buggies to roam as there once was, the sport is making a comeback.
There are many advantages to dune buggies. They are fun and you can build them as wild (or as mild) as you can handle. They are ready for adventure and can be driven through sand, mud, gravel and even asphalt. Their power-to-weight ratio means that they can be extremely sporty little two-seat convertibles or four-seat family cars. You can even take the kids out to the grocery store in your dune buggy if that’s what you want. They can be taken on a slow cruise down the beach or raced on any type of terrain. Best of all, nearly anyone can build them, work on them, modify them, etc.
In fact, it’s easier to R&R the engine and transmission on a fiberglass dune buggy than to change the windshield wiper transmission! Tune ups and valve adjustments (which you will do often) are a breeze.
There are very few negatives about dune buggies. One is that they are generally two wheel drive, which means that, unlike Jeeps and other SUVs, they are rarely allowed on the dunes (I have the ticket to prove this). A second problem is that they can be hard to register and the biggest issue is that they can be difficult to find or get the parts to build.
Where there are problems, there are solutions. For instance, a buggy can be registered in most states with varying degrees of difficulty. Many other countries, especially islands, such as the U.K., Australia and the Caribbean islands, make it much easier to register a specially modified sand vehicle. For more information on how to register dune buggies by state, try this link.
In their heyday, dozens of companies copied Bruce Meyers’ concept and built fiberglass bodied buggies, but now there are just a few that remain. The good news is that fiberglass manufacturing techniques have improved greatly in the past 50 years and those companies can now crank out orders of higher quality machines like never before. The bad news is that, because air-cooled Beetles haven’t been sold in the USA for decades, it’s not as easy to buy a really cheap Beetle, knock out 14 ½” and create a pan for a fiberglass tub to fit. Beetles are becoming more collectible and their value makes it very difficult to justify doing such permanent alterations. Fortunately, there are solutions to that problem, as well.
There are a few companies that still manufacture complete frames. Most of them also manufacture bodies and other components. You can also buy a complete, brand new buggy, but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun – nor as helpful if you break down in the desert – as doing your own build. Interested? Check out manufacturers such as Dave Barrett, The Buggy Shop, Berrien Buggy by Acme and Bruce Meyers (watch the video below to find out a little more). Building a dune buggy of your own provideson and off-road fun!
What do you drive? Leave a comment below!