Model Rewind: The Dune Buggy

Later today, Volkswagen unveils its latest MEB-based concept at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show: an all-electric dune buggy. As we wait for the first photos and the press release, let’s take a look back at the history of this unique auto, a true icon of the southern California lifestyle.

Before we get into it, we should note that Volkswagen never built their own dune buggy (more on this below), but the dune buggy as we know it today owes its history to Volkswagen. We also never would have had these dune hoppers if it weren’t for Bruce Meyers, the designer of the Meyers Manx. But Bruce didn’t invent the dune buggy. Nope. Around the country, and probably the world, everyday people were cutting apart and reassembling all kinds of old cars and trucks to take on adventures to beaches and sand dunes.

Beetle Born

One car that stood out above all the rest was the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle. Some owners took off the body, shortened the chassis, and welded up some pipe framing to make very basic beach buggies. The combination of the lightweight chassis, featherweight engine, and trailing arm rear suspension allowed the car to easily zip over loose sand.

In the 60s, the aftermarket VW performance part company EMPI took notice of these Beetle-based buggies and began producing bodies made of sheet metal that bolted to a shortened Bug chassis. It was called the Sportster (and later the Imp). They sold a few turn-key models out of their California shop, but the bulk were DIY kits that people could build at home.

EMPI-IMP buggy

The Sportster was a fantastic idea, but the execution was lacking. To start, these early dune buggy bodies were made from steel. Steel is heavy, and heavy cars and sand do not go well together. On top of that, Sportsters are not very attractive. You could say their style is that they lack style. They look like something someone made in their backyard with only the most basic of tools. Which is probably exactly how they were made. Bruce Meyers saw these homely little runabouts and knew he could improve on them.

Enter the Artist

Meyers is an interesting dude. He is a Navy veteran, he’s built boats, shaped surfboards, and is an artist. He saw the potential of a Beetle-based buggy, and he created the iconic design now associated with dune buggies. Using his knowledge of fiberglass, he created 12 “monocoques” – models where the VW mechanicals and suspension bolted directly to a fiberglass shell. The shells were difficult and expensive to produce, which led him to create two-piece kits that bolt to a VW platform shortened by 14.”

Using his artistic skills, he drew up a body with curves and flares. The shapes Meyers used are quite unique. The high sides and fender lip that extends down the side of each Manx protects riders from spraying sand, and they rise and flow like waves in the ocean. He credits some of the design to Mickey Mouse: in the comics, the little rodent cartoon drove small cars with big wheels, and a young Bruce wanted to drive those cars “right off the page.” He knew the design needed to be happy and fun, just like a day at the beach.

His design was an instant success. He had trouble keeping up with demand, and a race injury one year in hampered production even further. On top of that, he started to notice more and more dune buggies on the roads. More than he had produced. Other companies saw how popular the Manx was and literally copied it. The fiberglassing process made it easy: buy one Manx kit, create a mold using that kit, then start making them yourself. Unfortunately, Meyers hadn’t thought to get the body design trademarked. He did sue one manufacturer but lost.

Clones popped up all over the world, and by some estimates, there may have been as many as 300 different dune buggy kits offered. Today, genuine Meyers Manx dune buggies demand a premium over the other models. There’s an active Meyers Manx Fan Club. And most excitingly, the Meyers Manx company is still making and selling their iconic kits, as well as some new ones.

The Dune Buggy Invades Pop Culture

The popularity of these little cars extended beyond beach communities. Barbie had a dune buggy. Steve McQueen drove one in the original Thomas Crown Affair. Hanna Barbera created a short-lived cartoon in 1973; Speed Buggy and his three human friends competed in races and solved mysteries. It was strikingly similar to Scooby Doo, with a talking orange dune buggy replacing the dog, as well as a very Shaggy-esque mechanic. It only lasted one season, but played in syndication for years. On a personal note, it was my favorite cartoon as a kid in the late 70s, and it’s the basis for my username in many internet forums/social media sites. There was also Wonderbug; part of the Krofft Supershow.

Volkswagen and the Dune Buggy

As mentioned above, Volkswagen never made their own dune buggy, despite the strong connections. There was, of course, the Volkswagen Type 181. Also known as the VW Thing, it rode on a modified Karmann Ghia platform, had reduction boxes from the Type 2 Bus, and had a squared off 4-door body with vinyl side windows, and a vinyl convertible top.

In 2004, at the North American International Auto Show, Volkswagen showed the Concept T. The car combined the elements of a sports car with the offroad ability of a dune buggy. You can clearly see the Manx influences on the side view of the car.

More recently, in 2011, VW showed another dune buggy concept based on the Up! microcar. It featured an open body like the Manx, no doors, a curvy body, and, unlike the Manx, a waterproof interior. The Up! Buggy was never produced but was reported to have been granted a U.S. patent.

Lastly, there was the Beetle Dune. Volkswagen first showed a New Beetle Dune concept way back in the late 90s/early 2000s. It was never offered in showrooms. They showed another Beetle Dune concept based on the 2012+ model, and this time it did make it to dealers. The 2016 Beetle Dune had a lifted suspension, rough-and-tumble body cladding, a custom interior, and that’s about it. It was offered in coupe and convertible body styles. It was not offered with all-wheel-drive or with a manual transmission.

There may have been more dune buggy-ish concepts in VW’s rich history, but those are the highlights. This new MEB-based dune buggy is an interesting idea, and I’ll try to remain open-minded prior to its reveal. But it’s a bit of stretch to think that there’s a chance a car like this will see production. If nothing else, the concept will be a fun peek “over the dunes” at the types of cars that could be part of our electric future.