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A dune buggy is a recreational vehicle with big wheels and tires designed for use on sand dunes or beaches, especially a light vehicle with a modified engine mounted on an open chassis. They are also called beach buggies and those with an open frame chassis are called sandrails.


Dune buggies are usually created using two to three different methods.

The first involves alteration of an existing vehicle, most notable the older Volkswagen Type One (Beetle, or Bug). The VW Bug was preferred for a variety of reasons. Most notable are: the rear mounted engine which with removal of bodywork transfers a high proportion of the weight to the rear drive wheels for extra traction; the engine is air cooled, simplifying engine modification, and the absence of a radiator, eliminating a source of failure; the low price; robustness of the front suspension; and the sizable quantity of spare parts from other VW Bugs and buses. This is a possible candidate for the origin of the term "buggy". Corvair engines are also a popular upgrade to a 6 cylinder and sometimes turbo with up to 180 hp. For example, one such conversion was a 1970 Manx 2 on a 1961 VW chassis. It was fitted with a 180 HP turbo corvair engine, with reverse rotation, mated to a VW transaxle.

The second method involves construction of a vehicle frame from steel tubing formed and welded together. The advantage of this method is the fabricator can change fundamental parts of the vehicle (usually the suspension and adding a built-in roll cage). Buggies of this type are called sandrails because of the rail frame. Rails, as with the VW Bug, often have the engine located behind the driver. Sizes can vary from a one seat all-terrain vehicle (ATV) sized go-cart to a 4 seat, 8+ cylinder sized vehicle. Sandrails can have panels or custom shaped body coverings over the rails and tubing that compose the vehicle, though many are left bare.

The third is only a temporary fix. These dune buggies represent mixes of the above two design philosophies, typically after a converted vehicle sustains damage from age, hard use, or accidents and spare parts are not available or affordable. This type of creation is called The Boston-Murphy style.

Rear axle styles

There are 3 styles of buggies to choose from:

Swing arms have axles with inner constant-velocity joints. The CV joint allows up and down movement of the axle, while the outer ends of the axles are fixed to the wheel drums. This causes the wheel not to sit perpendicular to the ground at the extremes of travel, but does give a smoother ride on rougher terrain and riprap.

IRS (independent rear suspension) has both inner and outer CV joints on each axle. The outer CV joint allows the camber of the wheel to stay perpendicular to the ground. This gives a wide footprint that is better for traction and is also good for scrambling up bumpy hills because the wheels will fill the holes beneath them giving the tire better traction.

Bus axles have a reduction gear attached to the wheel drums. They act like an offset axle with a small gear inside the boxes that actually lifts the car up 3-4 inches under acceleration. The transaxles are typically lower geared and make for good hill climbers.

All these axle styles and can be attached to the Beetle transaxle (a transaxle is transmission with the axles attached.)


Initially dune buggies were designed for navigating desert or beaches (hence the word "dune"). However, dune buggies have become more diversified in terms of the terrain they can handle and are being built for more generic off road tasks, such as CORR / SCORE indoor track racing. Some are even built for and used as on-road vehicles. Typically the function is determined before the buggy is created in order to maximize the comfort or abilities of the vehicle.

Building a dune buggy

Although dune buggies can be bought (as a kit), many drivers make their own. This is done by separately buying chassis, engine, tires, steering wheel, and axles. Some builders make their own chassis, which creates a special, customized vehicle.

A 1961 or later Volkswagen sedan is the preferred donor to create a Dune Buggy. Also, alarge gokart is a good donor car for parts of a dune buggy and the creation of a sand rail. The VW bus, truck, or Karmann-Ghia, do not make good donor cars, however the engine, transaxle, wheels, and instruments can be used from these models.

Other parts that can be salvaged from a donor VW for use in a Dune Buggy include the front axle and suspension, frame, pedal assembly, shock absorbers, seats, battery, fuel tank (1961 or later), steering column, brakes, instruments and switches, windshield wiper, horn and emergency flasher unit.

Military buggies

Because of the obvious advantages a buggy can afford on some terrain, they are also used by the military. The buggies built for the US military are called Desert Patrol Vehicles (or DPV). They were previously called Fast Attack Vehicles or FAV and are used by US Navy Seals. The DPVs are built by Chenowth Racing Products Inc., a San Diego based company. As with most military material, they are not sold outside the government.

Tube Framed Buggies

Over time Buggies have been altered to allow maximum recreational use. They are now available in varying sizes.

The most common form of non-racing buggy consists of a 'tube frame' which is simple to construct and sturdy. If the frame bends or breaks it is simple to fix. Steel tubing is preferred to "pipe" as pipe is rolled and welded, tubing is mandrel drawn, making it stronger and with consistent wall thickness.

Engine size varies depending on the suspension, frame strength and performance needs. Most buggies are equipped with a 4-stroke engine to allow large amounts of torque. Very few are equipped with 2-stroke engines. Dune buggies may be equipped with automatic or manual transmissions, but manual transmissions are usually employed.

Engine size may vary from 50 cc for small light buggies to large V8 engines designed for professional racing.

Fiberglass Dune Buggies

Fiberglass dune buggies come in many shapes and sizes. The most popular are those seen on TV like Wonderbug and Speed Buggy. These types of dune buggies are known as "clones". They are an attempt to copy the original fiberglass dune buggy the "Meyers Manx" built by Bruce Meyers. Many companies, worldwide, have copied the Manx.

Some fiberglass dune buggies resemble production, modified or prototype cars. For instance: American Fiberglass Product’s “Humbug” has similar features to a Hummer Berry’s “Mini-T” was a nod to the Ford Model T, or BMB Automotive’s “Surviver” is a scaled down version of the Lamborghini Countach.

Dune buggies in fiction/movies

  • In Half-Life 2, the protagonist Gordon Freeman was able to drive a dune buggy.
  • Dune buggies were especially made popular by movies such as Mad Max.
  • A buggy is used on the animated Lilo and Stitch: The Series.
  • For a brief time in the mid-1970s, Spider-Man used a modified dune buggy as his "Spider-Mobile".
  • The 1973 cartoon series Speed Buggy featured an anthopomorphic dune buggy, voiced by Mel Blanc.
  • In the lego Dino Attack series the urban avenger is an appearance of a dune buggy.
  • In the The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 film), Steve McQueen's character drives a dune buggy along the beach.
  • In the 19-2000 Music Video by the Gorillaz. The band drives around in a Meyers Manx Dune Buggy.
  • In the Drake and Josh episode Dune Buggy, Drake has an accident while driving a dune buggy.

See also

External links