Do Dune Buggies Have Gears?

Dune buggies have been around for many generations, providing endless amounts of fun in the sun and sand for millions of people worldwide. Modern-day dune buggies have also come a long way from the original version that dominated the beaches in the 60s and 70s. If you’ve ever wondered whether dune buggies have gears…

Almost all of the classic and modern dune buggies have gears and manual gearboxes to allow for as much flexibility and fun, and to get the most of any off-road bugging experience. Although it is possible to find ones with automatic gearboxes, it is not so common.

But answering this question from a simple point of view can take less than a few seconds, yes, they do have gears. however, this would ignore the broader, and much more fun answer altogether, what types of gears do dune buggies have and why do they have them, to begin with?

First, we need to set the record straight as to what it actually is that we’re talking about, starting with how the dune buggy was originally made and it all started. Then we’ll look at where they are now and how the world has influenced them over time. We’ll even take a look at the extreme cases where they’re much more of a supercharged plaything than a cheap off-road master.

But an important thing to know about all dune buggies is that they’re not meant for utility, economy, or even to make any sense at all.

Where did it start

Have you ever driven, walked, or just shambled down the road and, off in the distance, heard the magnificent sound of an air-cooled engine coming closer? There have only ever been a handful of air-cooled cars in history and they are some of the best pieces of machinery in the world.

The two most iconic cars ever made also come from the same manufacturer, Volkswagen.

When the VW beetle was introduced, it was created as a vehicle for the masses, something that works simply, would be cheap, and can be repaired with a stick of gum if you have to and nothing else is lying around. This same philosophy is what made the VW kombi so magnificent in the 70s.

These vehicles worked on the same engines, the air-cooled 1400 and 1600cc engines that simply refused to die and was attached to a simple four-speed gearbox. Sure, they would sputter, thrash, vibrate and be almost arrogant, but they would rarely ever die on you, letting you have all the fun you want for what that little manual gearbox could manage.

It is this reliability and affordability that saw the VW beetle, that started out with those engines, become so wildly popular across the world. In African countries, you can still find these roaming around the bush In many Asian countries, grandpas are still driving these reliable bugs around and in other parts of the world, you can find them doing some amazing things.

The original dune buggies were made out of VW Beetles, using their frames and engines.

From the early 60s you could find these little bugs running all over the place, taking on beaches, dunes, and the popular kids roaming the streets with their aviators.

The idea was simple, you take a VW beetle, cut off its roof, give the engine a bit of a boost, and maybe even add some larger dirt tires. Then you get a few seats, load up all your friends and you suddenly had a small, lightweight vehicle that could drive almost anywhere.

Of course, things changed once their popularity increased, and when stronger engines, turbos, and various other alterations were being made. Then again, the modern-day dune buggies are not the same as the original simple machines that brought us so much fun in the 60s and 70s.

Modern Dune Buggies and Their Gears

While the original dune buggies were fun, they may have been too much fun and at times, with little extra support and only the basic controls, they tended to roll over. With no roof, this gave little protection to the driver and passengers, causing accidents to regularly stop the fun for many. Luckily, most of these accidents happened on sand only and so if you weren’t unlucky, got away with only a few scrapes and bruises.

Modern dune buggies, or beach buggies, have moved away from their roots, set by the VW beetle. Instead, it is not a very broad term to describe a whole range of vehicles that absolutely laugh in the face of any dune that’s made of sand.

They have evolved into full gearbox systems, making our main question varied and wide. You now have engines connected to boxes that have 5 speeds, a reverse gear, and sometimes even automatic systems.

Naturally somewhere in the 20th century, these buggies started being used for motorsport, which meant larger engines, full gearboxes, and electronic components that made life difficult.

Some of the speed demons you will see at Baja or Dakar have V8 engines in them, with only a basic framework and a roll cage to keep them connected to the road. What this created essentially, was a large chunk of metal that wants to dance across the desert sands with ferocious power and at frightening speeds.

The Absolute Beasts Out There

Naturally, you know they’re being used for mostly silly fun things and we’ll just ignore their military applications for now.

The dune buggy of the modern world requires more driving knowledge than the average 16-year-old will have, which is why the absolute best of them have manual gearbox systems.

It has to be said that dune buggies are almost always custom made, built from kits or salvaged parts from other cars. Dune buggy owners are some of the most passionate car enthusiasts out there, building their machines to challenge any obstacle they see facing in the future.

Unfortunately, most car enthusiasts love the feel of manual gearboxes, meaning they will prefer to not have the all-comfortable automatic systems that most of us have become so comfortable with.

If you watch a race where the modern version of a dune buggy is involved, you’ll find a varied group of vehicles that simply look mismatched, but have clear passions attached to them. They have roll cages, cooling fans, and be liquid-cooled engines. Overall, the modern term for a dune buggy is broad enough that being a purest is impossible.

As we all saw when the Grand Tour team took to the dunes of the Namibian desert. Those vehicles were varied, capable, and at times frightening to drive in. However, none of them were made for comfort. Dune buggies are still made with one thought in mind, to have as much fun off the road as you could ever have on it.


So whether you prefer to stick to the classic dune buggies of the old, or embrace the newer, faster, and scarier dune buggies of today, chances are you’ll be bound to manual gears for your outdoor fun in the sun and sand.

Now stop reading this and get going on your own dune buggy!

Louis Pretorius

As an amateur off-road enthusiast, I have always been drawn to outdoor adventure. I have decided to share all of my learning experiences with you as I dig a little deeper into my new-found passion and wonderful world of off-roading. My mission is to create the Ultimate Off-roading space on the internet in the process. Stay safe and happy Off-Roading!

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