Retrotechtacular: Build Your Own Dune Buggy, 1970s Style

The custom car phenomenon is as old as the second-hand car, yet somehow the decades which stick in the mind as their heyday are the 1960s and 1970s. If you didn’t have a dune buggy or a van with outrageously flared arches and an eye-hurting paint job you were nothing in those days — or at least that’s what those of us who were too young to possess such vehicles except as posters on our bedroom walls were led to believe. Periscope Films have put up a period guide from the early 1970s on how to build your own dune buggy, and can we just say it’s got us yearning to drive something just as outrageous?

Of course, auto salvage yards aren’t bursting with Beetles as donor cars in 2024, indeed the accident-damaged model used in the film would almost certainly now be lovingly restored instead of being torn apart to make a dune buggy. We’re taken through the process of stripping and shortening the Beetle floorpan, for which we’re thankful that in 2024 we have decent quality cutting disks, and watching the welder joining thin sheet metal with a stick welder gives us some serious respect for his skills.

Perhaps the part of this video most likely to raise a smile is how it portrays building a car as easy. Anyone who has ever hacked a car to pieces will tell you that’s the easy part, and it’s the building something from the pile of rusty parts which causes so many projects to fail. But given an accident damaged Beetle and a buggy kit in 1972 would we have dug in and given it a try? Of course!

We’ve touched on the Beetle’s hackability in the past, but some of us believe that the crown of most hackable car rests elsewhere.

21 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Build Your Own Dune Buggy, 1970s Style

  1. Would even be possible with a modern vehicle?

    Step 1: Jail-break your donor vehicle so that you can flash the control module with custom anti-lock braking firmware that will accept larger rear wheels and won’t complain that the automatic braking radar module has been removed…

    1. Step 1: go to the junkyard to buy a bare frame and suspension
      Step 2: order a crate engine
      You can still do it. It’s not affordable, but car stuff is usually a money pit hobby. Sure is fun though

    2. Define ‘modern’. Do you want to be able to street it in CA or some other ecofascist state? Title year will be a key decision, pre-1975 is _always_ the best choice.
      Buy a VIN plate and title from a junkyard. They’re not supposed to keep those, but they did before they were required to turn them in at the scrapper. Hint: They still keep some, the scrapper doesn’t really count cars, just weighs them. A VIN plate and title is a valuable asset.

      Modern sand rails are, more or less, the same as they were 50 years ago.
      The air cooled bug motor is gone, replaced by something better. A V8 if you’re smart.

      Dune buggies were always half assed. Baja Bugs even more so.
      Now the insane price of even a Mexican or Brazilian bug makes them non-starters.

      1. Bugs were built to 2000, some made it to us of a. The whole point to a bug was that the pan was structural and complete, the body was essentially decoration. You could actually assemble a brand new pan today from parts if you could get it licensed in your locale.

        1. Tooling was worn out. Nations building them not know for giving AF.

          I’ve owned a few bugs, back when German ones were cheap. Still own bug powered Italian silly thing.

          It’s a good idea to learn to identify nation of origin from VINs and never buy cars made in Mexico. Hondas, Fords, Fiats (aka mopars), all the same. Brazil? Don’t make me laugh. Not no…Hell no! Get a Yugo first.

    3. Or replace the ECU with an open source or aftermarket one.

      Worth checking out “Build your own sports car on a budget” or “build your own sports car for as little as £250” not sure if they’re still in print, but copies are available.

  2. Hehe. I had one with the same body kit, but it always went topless.
    The roll bars came in handy several times. Fortunately it’s a very easy thing to flip back over.
    Good times. Glad I survived them.

  3. There were lots of plans and companies making parts or the mods. Then there was the Brubaker Van made on the came chassis but looked years ahead in style, enough to make a brief scene in Soylent Green.

  4. A friend and I in high school wanted to build the gull wing Bradley GT. The donor bug was cheap but the fiberglass kit was too expensive for our high school kid budgets. We did fix and drive the bug around his dad’s farm. Fun times. My other friend had 2 bugs and a bus. Amazing how cheap they were in 1977.

  5. I’m amazed by all the old parts that are still available for really old cars. Think Model T. Model A. Even beetle parts are still available. They sell frames, bodies suspensions engines , whatever – you can even build a new one from the ground up.

    “The level of achieved popularity in the past continues on for many years/decades into the future.”

    My personal favorite is this guy who sells an electronic ignition kit to replace the buzz coils and breaker points in Model Ts.

    1. Having built/rebuilt a couple of model As this is true! Original parts are still readily available at swap meets too and like you say, mail order repro readily available for anything at all.
      Always an interesting questions during a restoration- resto-mod or bone stock? or fully hot rod it out. Beach Boys talked about little ‘deuce coupes for a reason so even making a hot rod is period correct!
      For us, we put in seat belts and got an aftermarket tranny with synchronized second and third gear to make it easier for people that aren’t me and dad to drive. I, for one, like double-clutching and stuff but no one else seems to for some reason haha.
      The real problem is that dudes my dad’s age that can, or even give a crap about, working on and fixing these cars are disappearing. Our neighbor just got a model A because no one else in his family wanted it. And at the model A club there are always elderly dudes selling their cars for very reasonable prices and having a really hard time funding buyers.
      I found all the above to also be true about my ’66 mustang, too, like 20 years ago. They made so many that parts and stuff were easy, and Ford hasn’t changed the small block V8 since then either so modern V8s and even transmissions are drop-in. In last 20 years though mustangs have become a lot more “desirable.”

  6. A kit car was “easy” when your donor car had body on frame/pan construction. Pop the original body off, and set the new fiberglass body in its place. Now that virtually every car/SUV is a unibody and dependent on the roof for rigidity, not so easy. Current kit cars are more involved, because the manufacturer needs to provide a frame, as well as the body, and you’ve got a raft of parts you need to strip from the donor.

    1. Workaround,
      Start with Saturn. Plastic panels have no strength, remove. Urea foam, hot wire sculpt, cover in fiberglass.
      If trying to impress, use final layer of carbon fiber cloth. Might impress morons.
      Install mouse.

  7. Look to cars commonly used for racing, such as the Mazda Miata. For the earlier 1990 versions, you can replace the ECU with a third party one. Of course you lose the air bags, but everything else works. Like sometime else said, there are parts available for these bodies, whether it’s suspension, drive train, or rear view mirrors.

  8. There are (were?) tons of body kits for VW bugs.
    We had a pair of fiberglass fenders and set of mail order plans for a woody wagon. You could basically mail order plans to build pretty much anything you wanted. Dune buggy, GT super car.
    There still exists a very active Formula V racing league that requires using all the mechanical guts from w VW bug but you rebody it to look like a pre-aerodynamic era F1 car. Since the motors don’t make a lot of power by modern standards, drafting and smooth driving are paramount, as is a race engine builder than can give you a couple of extra HP without breaking the rules.

    1. The early transaxles had swingarms with the axles as an integral part of the suspension. Very simple. formula V spins the transmission around (which is possible because the ring gear can be installed either side of the case, reversing the direction handily.)

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