How Dune Buggies Work

By: Patrick E. George

Image Gallery: Off-Roading Susan Archer makes adjustments at the display of a 1964 VW Dune Buggy during the Bay Area 15th Annual Monumental Bug Bash at San Jacinto Monument State Park in La Porte, Texas, on May 15, 2005. See more off-roading pictures.
AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Melissa Phillip

Imagine blasting over a California sand dune, an engine roaring behind you. You're exposed to the elements, the salty Pacific Ocean wind blowing through your hair. You downshift and climb a hill, and briefly, the vehicle goes airborne before you bounce in your seat as it hits the ground.

Does this sound like fun? If you think so, consider investing in a dune buggy. For decades now, thrill seekers have been transforming ordinary Volkswagen Beetles (the original, rear-engine model) into extreme off-roading monsters capable of taking on any terrain. Today, they're not just limited to old Beetles, but come as custom-built kits or are made from other types of donor cars.


Dune buggying has been around since at least the 1950s, when beach-goers would strip cars down to their frames and put on larger, off-road driving tires for extra traction [source: Dune Buggy Archives]. Soon, intrepid builders were converting Beetles and other small cars into buggies, and companies began selling custom kits of their own -- some consisting of aluminum or fiberglass frames, an engine and little else.

And, like all automobiles, drivers quickly found ways to race them competitively, sometimes legally and sometimes not. Dune buggies reached their peak of popularity in the late 1960s, but they remain popular in coastal areas across the United States, including the Gulf of Mexico.

But in addition to providing fun for beach off-roading enthusiasts, dune buggies have a practical purpose as well. They allow for exploration of areas with otherwise impassible terrain when something like an ordinary 4x4 vehicle just won't cut it. A variation on the dune buggy, built for watery exploration, is known as a swamp buggy -- and these vehicles have been called a vital tool for living in the Florida everglades.

In this article, we'll take a look at what makes both dune buggies and swamp buggies tick -- and what it takes to build them, if you have the time and know-how.


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.


Swamp Buggies

A sunken swamp buggy at the Florida Sports Park in Naples, Fla.
A sunken swamp buggy at the Florida Sports Park in Naples, Fla.
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter

How do you get across alligator-filled, marshy wetlands where the water can be 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep in some places? It's easy. You just need something like a dune buggy -- only much bigger. There's off-roading, and then there's going in places where roads can never exist -- that's what swamp buggying is all about.

A swamp buggy is typically a huge vehicle with big, balloon tires and raised passenger seats that's designed to drive (or race) through swampy areas. Like dune buggies and sand rails, they come in all shapes and sizes, but they usually feature open-air, tank-like bodies with platforms on top. Sometimes a 4x4 truck simply won't cut it -- a swamp buggy is the only way to get across the wetlands.


Swamp buggies originated in the 1930s and 1940s and became popular for exploration and hunting purposes. Built with balloon tires, gun racks and crazy names, these buggies were often the only way to traverse the boggy mires of the Florida swampland [source: Swamp Buggy Races]. Some buggies have several seats up top and are used to tour areas like the Everglades.

Similar to sand rails, swamp buggies are custom built, typically with an existing car or truck engine and a specially constructed frame [source: Four Wheeler].

Of course, like all vehicles, someone quickly found a way to race swamp buggies. Three times a year, the Swamp Buggy Races are held at the Florida Sports Park in Naples, Fla. Since the early 1940s, the races have drawn crowds from across the country to watch the buggies blast across an off-road driving track called the "Mile o' Mud."

A variety of swamp buggy classes compete in the race, from four-cylinder Jeeps to custom-built, Chevy V-8-powered creations that top 1,000 horsepower! [source: Swamp Buggy Races] It's one of the most unique events in motorsports.

Up next, dune and swamp buggies are good for getting where you need to go, but how do you get the vehicles there in the first place?


Transporting Dune Buggies

Craig Kinsman rides his dune buggy at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area near Glamis, Calif., on Nov. 22, 2002.
Craig Kinsman rides his dune buggy at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area near Glamis, Calif., on Nov. 22, 2002.
AP Photo/Tim Tadder

If you're buying or building a dune buggy for off-road driving, you need to think about how you're going to get to the dunes in one. Some buggies are street legal, and can simply be driven from place to place. Those that aren't require a truck with the proper towing equipment.

The laws that allow an off-roading vehicle to be street legal vary from state to state. In general, this means you'll need things like windshield wipers, headlights, seat belts, turn signals, proper brakes, a speedometer and a license plate. Obviously, it's probably easier to make a street-legal dune buggy out of an existing vehicle rather than custom-build one from the ground up. The buggy must also be titled and insured [source:].


If you have to tow your buggy, make sure you have the right towing equipment. The buggy may need to be equipped with tow bars and hooks, which isn't a bad idea anyway -- just in case it also gets stuck in the mud, snow or sand. The buggy can be towed on a dolly or on a trailer. And if it's somehow small enough, you may even be able to transport it in the bed of a truck. A 4x4 truck can be extra helpful for this. Just remember to check your vehicle's owner's manual for the proper towing procedures.

For more information about dune buggies and other related topics, follow the link s on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • "Making Your Buggy Street Legal." (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Dune Buggy Archives. "Dune Buggy History." (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Dune Buggy Plans. "Dune Buggy Plans." (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Four Wheeler. "Swamp Buggy Anatomy." February 2009. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Swamp Buggy Races. "Swamp Buggy History." (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Webster, Larry. "The Father of the Dune Buggy Rides Again." Car and Driver. June 2006. (Jan. 26, 2010)