Cool, compact, cuddly: the dune buggy still inspires enthusiasm. But what constitutes this very special buggy feeling?
A cloud of dust floats up behind us while the frog green dune buggy climbs the next hill. More dust swirls up into the air, while going around the curve two wheels lift off the desert floor and we nearly tip over. Mike laughs uproariously, steps even harder on the gas, the engine howls, and we land back on all fours again and charge up the hill. From that vantage point, Mike Dario, head of the Manx Club, has a good view of the Hungry Valley, an outdoor driving park located about an hour north of Los Angeles, California. The air shimmers in the heat, the white blossoms of the agave plants reach up to the sky. It’s said that there are also rattlesnakes out there somewhere.
Wind in your face
“I love this,” says Mike and gazes at the brownish green landscape with a smile. “This feeling of freedom, fresh air, the wind in my face. No matter how tough your day was, no matter how stressed you are, ten minutes in the buggy and you feel great again. Driving therapy, so to speak.” And it’s true. Only by exerting a huge amount of effort can you buzz around in a dune buggy and not smile like a kid in a candy store. It’s much too much fun for that – the instant acceleration, the feeling of being close to nature, the jolting and sliding in the curves. And, well, you just have to say it: the buggies also simply look like colorful toy cars designed by a nice hippie whose top priority was to have fun driving.
Bruce Meyers – father of the dune buggy
Which is precisely the case. It was the hippie, surfer and tinkerer Bruce Meyers who built the very first buggy in California back in 1963. “Bruce is the father of the dune buggy,” Mike Dario says. “It wouldn’t exist without him.” Meyers took a Volkswagen Beetle, removed the original body, mounted his own creation made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, carried out a few other modifications, such as tuning the four-cylinder boxer engine – and voilà, the first dune buggy, christened “Meyer’s Manx,” was born. Doors, a roof, window panes – none of those were needed, but a roll bar was added instead. Just in case.
The buggy goes electric
The buggy, the little Beetle, was thus slimmed down, and made faster and wilder as a result, more exposed to wind and weather. It was a hit. Up into the 1980s, around 250,000 individual vehicles based on the Beetle were produced worldwide in limited series and as one-of-a-kind models: from the Beetle convertible to special and custom-built bodies made by companies like Hebmüller and Rometsch, and also that famous, completely open Meyers Manx buggy. Back then Bruce Meyers not only started a trend that continues to today, but also a company that sold dune-buggy building kits for the small budget. After some problems in the interim, the Meyers Manx company is back again.
Volkswagen has now introduced something brand new with its own ID.BUGGY1 – a buggy with an electric drive that promises an equal amount of fun whether driven on the beach or on city streets. “The ID. BUGGY’s puristic design is the modern, retro-free interpretation of an icon. It’s unmistakably a buggy. Yet it’s been completely re-imagined,” says Volkswagen Chief Designer Klaus Bischoff. The ID. BUGGY’s interior is indestructible and minimalistic in design; a conscious decision was made here as well to forgo a fixed roof and doors. The modern interpretation ties in with the cult concept of the 1960s California dune buggies – and has already won the audience award for its successful design at the Concourse d’Elegance Chantilly.
“People smile at you”
Back in the California desert, Mike pats the frog green buggy that belongs to his wife. She is at least equally as enthusiastic about dune buggies as he is. “She got this one because she constantly wanted to drive mine – we happen to both like driving them! In the meantime we have three buggies in the garage, and one in the yard that I’m still tinkering with.” Working on them is an integral part of the hobby, according to Mike. It doesn’t really take that much effort – and you learn an awful lot in the process, he says. Mike also used to drive motorcycles, but he was often fearful about being overlooked by other drivers in traffic – which can quickly become fatal. “Everyone sees you when you’re in a dune buggy. Buggies make people happy, kids marvel, you smile and wave, and they smile and wave back.”
The fastest time for a dune buggy
The first buggies were all based on Volkswagen Beetles. But why, actually? Mike Dario explains: Volkswagen Beetles were cheap, easily available, had a simple and therefore easy-to-modify design and were easy to handle. In addition, their high wheel suspension, practical air cooling system and a rear engine that was suitable from a center of gravity perspective, made them great for off-road driving in the desert and on the beach. The 4-wheel drive vehicles typical of the time were often too heavy for that purpose. The light-weight buggy also promptly broke records, like the Baja 1000 in 1967, which entailed driving between 1,000 and ,300 miles through the Mexican desert. Bruce Meyers beat the then record – which had been set by a motorcycle – by more than five hours with his “Old Red.”
When the engine hums along quietly
What does Mike think of the ID. BUGGY? “A buggy with an electric drive? I like the idea, this new version. And when you’re on the go out in nature and the e-engine is just humming quietly, that’s probably really great!” Mike caught the buggy bug through his father: “It started when I was a child. My dad brought home a Volkswagen Beetle, took off the body and put it in the yard. I played ‘driving a car’ in it and watched him build a dune buggy. I grew up with it. It was terrific to drive it in the desert together or in the dunes at the beach.”
“If it involves the buggies, then it is only all about the buggies”
“Every dune buggy is individual, there are no two that are exactly alike,” he says. That’s the reason why they exist in so many colors and forms. Most buggy devotees still build their own vehicles and invest a lot of love doing it. “Some are more skilled technically, they make everything themselves; others seek out help or buy partially built buggies. It’s all okay. It also doesn’t matter how much money you have or what you do for a living. If it involves the buggies, then it is only all about the buggies,” says Mike. The Manx Club is one of many dune buggy clubs, but it is the biggest and most important one. Bruce Meyers himself founded it. Meanwhile the club has 5,400 members around the world who get together at events to talk shop, meet up with friends and, naturally, to drive – sometimes longer distances across the United States all the way into New York state. “The path is the goal,” Mike says as he climbs back into the buggy. And adds: “It’s just more fun if you do it together.”
1 Concept car