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'Dune buggy', or the more Australian 'beach buggy', is a pretty broad descriptor these days. As well as a new wave of recreational single-seater buggies and two-seat side-by-sides, there have been any number of home-made contraptions that have passed for a beach buggy over the years. Most of them have been crude, most have been fun machines and all of them have been dangerous.
But if you really want the cool looks and fun factor of a proper beach buggy, then we’re talking a fibreglass body (of sorts) on an air-cooled Volkswagen chassis.
Not only are these cartoonish machines the original interpretation of the idea of a go-anywhere, minimalist, hose-out form of transport, they’re also able to be legally driven on the roads in Australia. More or less.
The story starts back in the 1960s on the west coast of the USA where an inventor, tinkerer and hot-rodder by the name of Bruce Meyers was building fibreglass boats, among other things.
He realised that what the surf-culture world needed was a cheap, cheerful and practical car to get them to the beach and back and with that simple concept, the Meyers Manx dune buggy was invented.
The idea morphed form a one-off chassis fabricated by Meyers to adapt Volkswagen mechanicals, to a DIY kit that simply bolted to the entire VW platform, forming a fibreglass car with no doors, minimal weather protection, enough performance to be useful and more fun than the state fair. And petty much every VW-based dune or beach buggy since has been a riff on Meyers’ original concept.
The idea was that you bought a Manx kit (or any one of the brands that sprang up in competition at the time) found a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle, removed the old VW body, shortened the floorpan to make the proportions right and then bolted on the Manx kit which included the tub body, fenders, wheels and tyres and basic mechanical things like an exhaust system to suit the new body.
If you weren’t up to shortening the floorpan (the most exacting engineering part of the transformation) you could also buy the four-seater version which used the full-length VW pan.
Naturally enough, some dune buggy fans took things way too far with V8 engine transplants, high-lift suspension, huge wheels and tyres and a range of other modifications that reduced the simplicity and charm of the original concept.
The dune buggy has a cult following.
But left as Meyers intended, the dune buggy was light, quick, agile, capable on sand and a genuine ball of fun to drive anywhere. As long as it wasn’t snowing.
In Australia, the craze caught on in a fairly big way and the concept still has its admirers. In the hey-day of it all (the 1970s) a range of Australian companies were making buggy kits.
Some of the names are pretty obscure today, but buggy fans will know them. Astrum, Manta, Taipan were just some of the brands competing for business in the Aussie buggy scene.
Not that it would be your first choice for an interstate journey, but the thing that really makes the beach buggy practical fun is that it can be registered and driven on the road.
Well, that’s the theory, anyway, because as an amalgam of Volkswagen parts and an aftermarket plastic body, it’s never going to be that easy.
During the '70s, beach buggies were all the rage.
One hurdle you can remove if you’re building a new kit is to go for the four-seater model which uses the full-length VW platform.
By removing the need to shorten the chassis, you neatly sidestep a lot of work and one of the major engineering and certification hurdles you’re likely to come up against.
Some states won’t register a shortened buggy at all, while others demand serious engineering approval.
Which ever way you go, you need to check the requirements of your home state and territory and the best way to do that is to engage the services of a consulting engineer who will be needed to sign off on the end result before it can be registered.
Even once you’ve found an engineer who will listen to your plans, there are still some non-negotiable things they will probably insist upon.
If you’re using a more powerful engine, then the standard Beetle brakes won’t really be up to the job. Smart builders also fit some form of roll-over protection (a good idea in any open-top car) and modern fitments such as retractable seat-belts are a great addition.
Most, if not all dune buggies are based on VW Beetles. (image credit: Aussieveedubbers)
The absolute best advice is to find an engineer who believes your vision can be achieved and then stick with them and take their advice seriously.
And find that engineer before you’ve picked up the first spanner or spent the first dollar, because not all engineers interpret the rules and regulations the same as the next one.
Even once you’ve found an engineer who gives you the green light, be aware that you’ll need to jump through plenty of hoops to get the thing legally on the road, with everything from a laminated windscreen to meaningful mud-flaps being a requirement depending on where you live.
In the strictest cases, you may have to fit a lot of pollution control equipment and perhaps even engineer the result to run on unleaded fuel. It all gets pretty complicated.
That’s why the solution for a lot of buggy enthusiasts is to buy a second-hand vehicle that has already been registered (and listed on the registration authority’s records).
Called the Manta, the fiberglass body is shaped like a manta ray. (image credit: ClubVeeDub)
Things were a lot simpler back in the 1970s, and that meant it was much easier to register and engineer a vehicle like a beach buggy.
If you can find a second-hand buggy that is still registered, you’ll have even less hassle and should only need to provide a roadworthy certificate in most states and territories.
This, of course, is the reason the prices of second-hand beach buggies are so high. But, compared with the hassle and expense of starting from scratch, you might find it still works out cheaper.
And if you are scratch-building, start with a kit that includes the paperwork for the basic engineering clearances that the authorities will be able to tick off on the path to registration.
Any home mechanic with average skills and basic hand-tools should be able to assemble a buggy from a kit and a wrecked VW Beetle.
The Bugle Buggy, a fibre glass bodyshell mounted on a Volkswagen chassis and engine.
There’s nothing sophisticated or complicated about any of the parts that make up a beach buggy but, as with anything, taking your time and consulting people in the know is the smart way to tackle such a project.
If you do go down the second hand path, don’t be too concerned with the condition of the mechanical bits and pieces. The Beetle parts are strong and simple and easy to work on, and if you need to renew parts or improve any aspect of performance, there’s probably no better supported classic car than the humble VW.
The one mistake many people make is to assume that just because this is a plastic kit car with humble mechanicals it will be cheap to buy.
The reality is vastly different and the interest in classic cars of all sorts lately has pushed prices into uncharted territory.
It’s now possible to spend $40,000 or $50,000 on a second-hand, registered beach buggy, and even more if it’s a restored, genuine Meyers Manx.
Volkswagen had reportedly engaged a third-party company, e.Go, to build the unique chassis and bodies for a production run of the ID Buggy.
There are still some suppliers who continue to make the fibreglass bodies and accessories, although in Australia, the industry has a pretty piecemeal history as players have come and gone.
Without a doubt, the USA is the place to shop for buggy parts and accessories, but don’t rule out swap meets and online marketplaces.
One critical element of a buggy is that VW floorpan. These are prone to rusting (especially in a roofless car) so check under the seats and around the battery tray for signs of rot as this can kill a project unless you’re willing to commit to major repairs. Being fibreglass, the body itself is relatively easy to patch up and repair
The other thing to watch out for when shopping for second hand dune buggies these days is the quality of the workmanship.
Since these were designed as a build-your-own kit in the shed at home, the standard of work varies enormously, and that can have a huge affect on the vehicle’s dynamics and its safety.
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