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How Dune Buggies Work


Sand Rails
Steve Nickell, far left, and Terry Howe look over a dune buggy during a sunset cook-out on Nov. 22, 2002, at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area near Glamis, Calif.
Steve Nickell, far left, and Terry Howe look over a dune buggy during a sunset cook-out on Nov. 22, 2002, at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area near Glamis, Calif.
AP Photo/Tim Tadder

Dune buggies are also called sand rails by some enthusiasts, but technically both names describe the same thing: a bare-bones vehicle designed to traverse sand dunes and beaches where ordinary cars cannot.

Sand rails describe a broad category of vehicle that comes in all shapes and sizes. In a way, some of them look like oversized go-karts -- a big frame with an engine often placed in the rear of the vehicle. They can be 4x4s for extra traction, or simply rear-wheel drive.

One of the original designs for sand rails was the EMPI Sportster, an angular, sheet metal vehicle built on a stripped-down VW Beetle platform. It was offered for $500, and was popular among California beach bums who realized Beetles were better at maneuvering on sand than the 4x4 Jeeps of the time [source: Webster].

Another famous design was the Meyers Manx. With its swooping fiberglass body panels and rounded headlights, the Manx is the image that comes to mind when many of us hear the word "dune buggy." Bruce Meyers began building them in California in the mid-1960s using a fiberglass body that bolted onto the Beetle frame. As Car and Driver puts it, Meyers worked to "create a vehicle that embodied the carefree beach culture of the 1960s" [source: Webster].

Today's dune buggies can still be simple affairs like the Meyers Manx. Lots of times, they consist of seats, a frame, a roll cage (a vital part for safety reasons) and an exposed engine. They can be built with all manner of parts, and some even use turbochargers or other high-performance parts to get across the dunes quickly.

Then there are the more elaborate, often custom-built sand rails, which can feature windows, roofs, lights, seating for four or more people, automatic transmissions, huge V-8 engines and elaborate bodywork. These can retail for as much as $100,000 or more.

Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever to build your own off-roading sand rail. Many Web sites offer plans that explain how to build dune buggies and sell parts [source: Dune Buggy Plans]. Custom built sand rails can be ordered online as well. As long as there's sand to drive on, it doesn't look like the sand rail is going anywhere anytime soon.

In this next section, we'll go from California to Florida in order to explain how swamp buggies take off-road driving to new levels.


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