Sand rail buggies

Sand rail buggies DEFAULT

1968 Volkswagen Rail Sand Buggy


Built by: Volkswagen

Engine: rear-mounted engine

Dune buggies — also known as rail or beach buggies — are recreational motor vehicles with large wheels and wide tires, designed for use on sand dunes and beaches. They were typically designed to be a roofless vehicle with a rear-mounted engine. Dune buggies are typically created by modifying an existing road vehicle, while sandrails are built from scratch as a custom vehicle.

For dune buggies built on the chassis of an existing vehicle, the Volkswagen Beetle was commonly used as the basis for the buggy, and also thus provided the nickname “buggy.” The Beetle rear engine layout improved traction, the air-cooled engine avoided the complexities and failure points associated with a water-cooled engine, the front suspension was considered cheap and robust and the spare parts from Volkswagen were cheap and readily available. Sandrails, built to maneuver on open sand, were usually built as a spaceframe by welding steel tubes together. The name sandrail is due to the frame “rails” present. The most famous of all dune buggies—the Meyers Manx, was created by Bruce Meyers in the 1960s, with a modified Beetle floor pan, as well as its engine and suspension. Meyers created the iconic, lightweight fiberglass body which could fit bigger flotation tires for tackling shifting sand. The resulting vehicle became an instant off-roading classic.


While similar in some respects to each other, there are key differences to be noted between the two recreational vehicles of the desert – the Dune Buggy and the Sand Rail. Often thought to be one and the same, here are some key differences between the two:

Dune Buggies are recreational vehicles that are used on beaches or sand dunes. Dune buggies are designed to deliver either more engine power, or a lighter frame, or even both in some cases, with an aim to increase the power-to-weight ratio. While dune buggies usually have an open chassis and large, wide tyres, they are often modified from an existing vehicle. The older Volkswagen Bug is a popular choice because it has a rear-mounted engine and a robust front suspension, suited to the specifications required.

Sand Rails, on the other hand, aren’t modified from existing vehicles, being built instead from a tubular, open-frame chassis that have an incorporated roll cage and “rails”, which lends to its name. You typically won’t find windows, doors, or even body panels on Sand Rails, and they almost always have rear-wheel drive, as opposed to the full-bodied nature of the dune buggy.
When it comes to steep sand dunes, most off-road vehicles, being top-heavy, would sink into the sand and get stuck. Sand Rails being lightweight in nature and have what is known as paddle tyres, which allow them to skim over the surface of the sand without getting stuck. Owing to its low centre of gravity and a mid-engine configuration which offer it balanced weight distribution and traction, Sand Rails can also make tight turns and can climb dunes with ease.

At Explorer Tours, our Desert Fox sandrails are built specifically for the sand dunes in the UAE, coming equipped with rear-wheel drive and tyres designed for operation in sandy terrain. As an alternative to the dune buggy in Dubai, our engineers have designed the Desert Fox so that the suspension, air filters the engine used is optimised for sandy terrain and deliver high-performance every time.

With all these extra modifications specifically meant for sand driving, Sand Rails perform better on the large dunes of the UAE than dune buggies do, and are relatively easier for amateur drivers to navigate.

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Sand Rail Basics: Barebones Dune Buggy Off-Road Fun For Pennies On The Dollar

You don't have to invest in a truck or an SUV to have fun off-road. A dune buggy, also known as a sand rail, is a great way to go blasting through the desert at a considerably lower cost. Better yet, whether you chose to build your own or purchase one that's already been put together, sand rails are easy to customize to give you your preferred balance between power and performance.

How are dune buggies built, and what does it take to create an all-terrain terror that won't tear up your wallet in the process? Let's see the universe in a grain of sand with this dive into the world of rails.

Dune Buggy Basics

One of the most beautiful aspects of building a sand rail is that there's no set rules as to what kind of a base you need to start with. Buggies come in both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive configurations, and can be put together using anything from a custom tube frame to a pre-existing platform salvaged from a wrecking yard.

In fact, the latter is how the dune buggy business really got its start in the United States. The lowly Volkswagen Beetle was a frequent target as a platform for kit car builders in the 1960s and 1970s because of its lightweight design, simple drivetrain, and ease of repair. The same was true for sand rail fans, which often incorporated the Beetle's chassis into their projects.

Of these, the most mainstream was the Meyers Manx, which was built in Southern California by Bruce Meyers, which was originally offered in kit form before a surge in copycat designs pushed the number of examples sold past 100,000 by the end of the 1970s (6,000 of which were originals). Although the Manx featured a fiberglass tub that gave it a distinctive styling edge, other designs of the era relied on simple sheet metal bolted to a similarly-modified Beetle platform, which made them ultra-cheap to churn out and easy to bang back into shape when their drivers roughed them up out on the trail.

Lessons From The Past

Current dune buggies still walk a path that would be familiar to Meyers (whose company once again started producing vehicles a few years ago after a decades-long hiatus). Modern manufacturing techniques have significantly expanded the possibilities available to even the most modest driveway operations, however, which means variety is the order of the day when tallying visitors to the sands.

Still, there are some unifying factors that are found across nearly every sand rail build. The most important would be ensuring a low center of gravity, which separates a dune buggy from a traditional truck by giving it a much better chance of climbing steep dunes without the risk of tipping over. As a result, sand rails make use of a relatively long wheelbase given their size in order to improve stability. Rear engine placement remains as common now as it did in the Beetle-centric days, as it helps maintain balance while keeping the sand from being blown in the driver's face by the fan.

Most rails feature the tube frame design mentioned earlier, which makes it easier to integrate a roll cage, and few bother with body work or any real protections from the elements. Almost every rig makes use of paddle tires with aggressive tread slots that are excellent for floating across the surface of the sand at a high rate of speed (which is required to avoid sinking in and getting stuck).

Higher-end rigs will protect riders from the sun (topping the roll cage with a flat panel), as well as the sand (with sealed, flat bottoms that can slide across the sand with ease). The more you're willing to spend, the more suspension modifications and engine updates past the basic four-cylinder setups commonly found in the desert become available to you.

Mightier drivetrains are out there, but dune buggies face a very real weight penalty should they load up with a large displacement engine. The heavier the engine, the more difficulty a rail will have staying on top of the sand, and the risk of instability on an incline or decline also increases. That being said, it's not uncommon for power adders and exotic fuels such as methanol to boost output on smaller motors into the 200 horsepower to 500 horsepower range. Those who pursue V8 applications push from the rail category into the 'sandcar' world, where vehicles can often way twice as much and trade maneuverability for speed and brute force.

Stepping Stone Or Stay A While

Surprisingly, in a world where all-terrain vehicles like side-by-sides and four-wheelers have become increasingly sophisticated (not to mention powerful), sand rail and dune buggy culture has remained remarkably resilient. Old school buggies and rails are often viewed as stepping stones to larger Ultra 4 competitors made famous by events like King of the Hammers, and they make a remarkably good starting point for anyone seeking to get involved in off-road racing at a grassroots level.

Even if you decide to stick with a rail rather than move on to a bigger and quicker off-road vehicle, you'll have plenty of company on the dunes each and every weekend whether you're in California, Utah, or Michigan. Anywhere there's sand, a spare Beetle chassis, and a group of friends who want to go fast when the pavement ends, you're likely to find a buggy tearing things up.

What's Ultra 4 racing? Get caught up on the history of the King of the Hammers.



Lightweight off-road vehicle

Sandrail at Dumont Dunes CA 2011

A sandrail, or sand rail, or rail, is a lightweight off-road motor vehicle specifically built for traveling in sandy terrain. Similar in some respects and often mistakenly referred to as a dune buggy or sand car, a sandrail is a different type of speciality vehicle.[1] Sandrails are popularly operated on actual sand dunes. Sandrails can be driven on other types of terrain but are designed specifically for sand.


Sandrail frame advertisement circa 1978

At the end of World War II thousands of soldiers returning from the war had spent years driving Jeeps, tanks, and half-tracks with few or no roads. Having an increased disposable income, these GIs formed the original core of off-road enthusiasm. Initially, they used surplus Jeeps and cut-up cars to build their off-road vehicles. Soon these "off-roaders" discovered that with little more than a skid plate, they could get a stock air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle to go almost anywhere.[2] Throughout the 1950s the sport continued to develop.

In 1958 Pete Beiring of Oceano, Calif., took the body frame or "pan" from a damaged Volkswagen and shortened it into a new machine that eventually became the precursor to the dune buggy. This eventually led to the first production dune buggy called the "Sportster", which was developed around 1960 by the EMPI Imp Company. It was an angular sheet metal vehicle built on a stripped-down Volkswagen chassis. Many others followed including the ever popular Meyers Manx design.[3] Dune buggies had a style all their own with fiberglass siding and other "heavy" body features.

As the late 1960s and early '70s approached, enthusiasts saw the need for lighter and more powerful sand vehicles, easily capable of ascending steeper and higher dunes. Many started experimenting at home by building super light weight vehicle frames from metal tubing, often without a roll cage. Many were nothing more than a frame, engine, transmission, wheels and one or two seats. Because of their versatility, light weight and simplicity the air-cooledVolkswagen engine and transmission were the power plant of choice for many owners. It also offered the perfect body arrangement. By placing the motor and transmission in the rear of the frame it allowed the front of the sandrail to remain extremely light and thus able to "float" over the sand dunes. An added value of placing the engine in the rear of the vehicle was that heat created by the motor did not blow into the face of the driver and passengers. From the 1970s forward, sandrail builders continued to develop the delicate balance between weight and power.

Body style[edit]

Dumont Dunes sandrail video

When it comes to serious sand dunes, most off-road vehicles including those with four wheel drive are relatively top heavy and can only safely climb or descend steep hills with a mostly perpendicular approach to inclines or downhills. In the case of driving up a steep sand dune, many would simply "dig-in" and get stuck.

Sandrails are ultra lightweight vehicles often weighing in at 800 and 1500 pounds (≈363 and ≈680 kg). They typically use high flotation smooth or farm implement front tires and special rear paddle tires, allowing it to skim over the surface of the sand without getting stuck. A sandrail has a low center of gravity, permitting it to make tight turns even on the face of a sand dune.

Sandrail frames are built from a tubular space framechassis that incorporates an integrated roll cage. The distinction between a sandrail and dune buggy or sand car is that the sandrail will rarely have windows, doors, fenders, or full body panels. The sandrail will also be a lighter weight vehicle compared to the sandcar. On most sandrails, the engine is typically at the rear. Some sandrails also use a mid-engine configuration. This design offers favorable weight distribution and traction, which is very desirable for dune "hill-climbing".

Engines and fuel[edit]

170HP Volkswagen mid-engine performance sandrail engine.Note that the engine air intake filtershave been unscrewed from the intakes for either cleaning or display purposes (See the two vertical pipes closest to the camera at the center-right of the image, and the second set of pipes in the background).

Originally becoming popular in the 1960s, sandrails used lightweight air-cooled engines like the Volkswagen engine from the VW Beetle and Porsche (~200 pounds) or the Chevrolet Corvair, Mitsubishi Minica and Cosworth DFV (~350 pounds). Because of the availability of affordable parts, the Volkswagen engine continues to be the mainstay of many sandrails today. At some point in the late 1970s in the wake of the Ford Pinto product liability cases, the first alternative engine was sourced from the Pinto, primarily the 2.0L and 2.3L. More recently, some enthusiasts have turned to lighter weight water-cooled engines such as the Subaru boxer or GM Ecotec engines.[4]

The need for more power comes from necessity and desire when driving in steep sand dunes. This has driven sandrail engine builders to add performance features to engines such as the stock (24 to 50 horse power) Volkswagen engine. These include: larger pistons, turbochargers, dual racing carburetors, fuel injection, and high performance cylinder heads. Some performance engines can run on premium unleaded gasoline. However, many high performance engines must use racing fuel or fuel additives. A high performance sandrail Volkswagen engine can produce well into the 170-200+ horse power range and as high as 700 horse power with methanol fuel.[5]

Most sandrails use a manual transmission, although automatic transmissions are used as well.[6][page needed]


Early sandrails often consisted of little more than a steering wheel, brakes and accelerator. However, today an entire industry is built around all kinds of accessories such as HID and LED headlamps, radios, passenger communications headsets and GPS navigation devices.

Other applications[edit]

US Navy SEAL sandrail, 2010

Some states in the USA, such as Arizona and Utah, allow the registration of sandrails and other primarily off-road vehicles for "on-road" use. In these states, sandrails registered for on-road use usually must meet the minimum insurance coverage required by normal vehicles.[7] Additionally, they may require modifications to be road worthy this typically includes a wind shield, turning signals and license plate. These requirements may vary by state.

Sandrails have been employed by US state authorities, the United States Border Patrol and even the military. They are still in use today by the Navy SEALs. The military design of these vehicles is based on the Chenowth Advanced Light Strike Vehicle model and have been modified for a third seat above the engine to control a .50 caliber machine gun and other armaments. State authorities, such as rangers at sand dune parks sometimes employ sandrails, removing the passenger seat to convert the sandrail into a makeshift ambulance with a stretcher.

Although sandrails are primarily designed for the sand, they have been successfully used on "soft pack" dirt, mud and even snow. Some of these types of applications usually require the use of off-road type tires versus "sand" tires. They are typically not well suited for rocky terrain due to their mostly limited suspension and lighter duty frames.


Accidents most often occur in collisions with other off-road vehicles, and are frequently the result of not being seen. In many dune areas, all sand vehicles (motorcycles, quads, sandrails, UTVs and sandcars) are required to use an eight-foot antenna whip and flag. This is critical to being seen by other vehicles as a driver traverses from one dune to the next.[8] Most sandrails employ a variety of safety features for the driver and passengers. The most common is the use of a three-point safety belt system. Many sand rails also utilize roll bar padding and fire extinguishers. More advanced safety features sometimes include: arm and wrist restraints, netting for large frame openings, automatic fuel cut-off switches and horns. Additionally, the use of eye protection (goggles and ballistic-grade glasses) is considered a necessity. Finally, the use of helmets while "duning" is increasing due to the advances in performance. Sand associations along with state and federal land management agencies work to provide dune safety information through pamphlets, online and in classes.

Future, industry and associations[edit]

Sandcar at Silver Lake Sand Dunes

Due to its economical cost to build and maintain, access to new parts and good balance between weight and power, the sandrail continues to be used by many enthusiasts today.[9] However, the heavier and typically more powerful sandcar now represents another style for duners.[1] This style often employs mammoth cars weighing several thousand pounds and using highly advanced suspension systems and transmissions coupled with large performance V8 engines such as the latest GM LS engine series, Ford Coyote engine series or Range Rover engine series.

Associations such as ASA hold events throughout the year in some parts of the country for sand racing and hill climbing. Additionally, these associations provide representation for enthusiasts with legislators and land management officials.


External links[edit]


Rail buggies sand


Sand rail in glamis


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