How To Build A Dune Buggy: Everything You Will Need

Many off-roading enthusiasts aspire to build their own off-road vehicles and none more than those who want a dune buggy! The humble dune buggy is the epitome of fun in the sand that is within the reach of the average person interested in off-roading just for recreation!

This garage project was, and in fact often still is a garage project that is undertaken by many people as a way to get an off-road vehicle at a reasonable cost! And of course, building your own dune buggy is a fun project too!

Building a Dune Buggy requires, but are not limited to, the following considerations: Choice of chassis, engine, drive train, axles, wheels, tires, and suspension, finding the right body, electrics if you intend to use it on public roads as well, and the tools needed for each stage of the project.

Before we get into what you will need to get your dune buggy project started, we need to lay a foundation of the principle ideas involved. This foundation relates to why a dune buggy, in particular, is a good choice as an off-road vehicle and secondly why it is a project that you can undertake with confidence in your home garage

Why a Dune Buggy?

As we have already mentioned, the dune buggy is a popular vehicle for recreational off-roading, but why is this the case? Much of the popularity of any kind of item is driven by the exposure they receive in public media. The dune buggy popularity is no exception and owes its popularity to some extent to movies where it received widespread exposure as a beach vehicle.

The surfing community first adopted this type of modified vehicle as a way of reaching surf sites across the beach dunes on various coastlines. The dune buggy quickly developed a cult following in the surfing and beach communities as an ideal recreational vehicle. It had all the requirements to meet their sand driving needs!

The abilities of the dune buggy in the sand made it also become popular among off-roading enthusiasts who pushed the limits on dessert dunes and sandy off-road tracks.

The dune buggy is traditionally an inexpensive vehicle that can provide dual-purpose functionality as an off-road vehicle as well as an on-road vehicle as long as the legal requirements are met. This dual functionality allows it to be used as both a recreational vehicle as well as an everyday run-around vehicle!

Why Build Your Dune Buggy Yourself?

Building anything and ending up with a worthwhile, useable product is a very rewarding and satisfying achievement. Taking on a project where you build a car may seem a little daunting at first, but as you will see, it is easily achievable, even by someone with modest mechanical skills!

It is possible to buy a pre-built dune buggy, but we feel that there are several reasons why you should take a look at committing to the build-project yourself.

Building your own dune buggy has the following advantages:

  • It’s a fun project with scope for the whole family to get involved.
  • If you build the vehicle yourself, you will have intimate knowledge of how it is put together, the craft, quality of the parts, and the necessary expertise to repair it yourself.
  • You don’t need specialist knowledge, just be willing to learn and willing to ask for help on tasks that are beyond your skill set.
  • You don’t need specialist tools. Every tool you need can be bought from most local hardware stores if you don’t own them already.
  • The project is rewarding, satisfying, and upon completion, gives a huge sense of achievement for all concerned!

Some people may think that it is cheaper to build your own dune buggy rather than buy a pre-built one, but that is not necessarily the case. You may choose to put better, more expensive components in your build, but then you end up with a better vehicle. The matter of price, and whether it is cheaper to build your own dune buggy is, therefore, very subjective!

One of the aspects of the cost that could be advantageous is that you can build your dune buggy as your budget allows. You can take your time and build cheaper sections of the project, while you save for the more pricey components!

One thought that needs to be mentioned here is that dune buggy builds have gone down two divergent paths over the years. The one path is dune buggies that are built from the ground up, and the other path is those that are built from an existing vehicle chassis.

Dune buggies that are built from the ground up, including the design and manufacture of the frame or chassis, are usually termed sand rails. This is due to the type of steel they are made from. These are purpose-built, specialized vehicles that are designed for off-road use only and are not legal for road use.

Sand rails are highly customized machines that are usually built by off-roading enthusiasts who want a custom vehicle, dedicated to the purpose and with design features specific to what they want to achieve. Tackling a project like this will require specialist knowledge, tools, and materials and is usually a pretty expensive undertaking.

The other path of the dune buggy built on an existing vehicle chassis is the path we are going to follow in this article. This project will result in a much easier build, and your vehicle has the potential to be used on public roads.

There are many kits available for dune buggy builds and buying one of these kits may be a quicker way of getting the vehicle built, rather than sourcing all your own parts, but this route is usually more expensive.

If you would like to know more about the differences between these two types of off-road vehicles then check out our article “Sand Rail vs Dune Buggy: The 5 Essential Differences”.

Well, let’s get this project underway and get you up to speed to build your own dune buggy!

Where To Start

If you can find a complete VW Beetle (Type I), this is the best place to start. These vehicles are, however becoming quite hard to find as complete units. You may need to do much searching on the internet and spreading the word in relevant forums and other online communities to find the parts piece by piece.

As with any project of fairly significant size, the initial thoughts around achieving it may seem pretty daunting, possibly even too much to contemplate. However, breaking the project into manageable chunks helps to provide focus and break the big tasks into multiple smaller goals. Tackling each of these smaller goals as sub-projects, if you will, makes them easier to achieve and less daunting than taking on the entire project as one huge task!

Essentially, what we are talking about here is planning!

Planning Your Build

Planning is a critical component of the project to build your dune buggy. Doing the research and breaking the project up into smaller steps will let you get a perspective of what the project will entail from a time, tools, and budget point of view.

We recommend starting your dune buggy build project planning with the following steps. Get out a pen and paper, or crack open your spreadsheet on your computer, and lets’ get started!

  • Do all your planning for all the tasks as the first priority. Decisions you make for one task may affect another task. For example, the suspension you choose may require modifications to the chassis
  • Find out costs for the parts for each section of the build and keep track of them. You want to know how much the build is going to cost.
  • Make a list of any tools you will need for each part of the project. If you can’t borrow them from a friend, you will have to factor the purchase into your costs.
  • Join an online forum on dune buggy building. The information and help you can access on these online platforms can be invaluable and help you to avoid expensive mistakes.

Consider including the following items in the plan for your dune buggy build.

  • What chassis will be the building block for your dune buggy?
  • Choosing the right engine for your dune buggy.
  • Selecting the drive train for your dune buggy.
  • Planning the axles, wheels, tires, and suspension.
  • Finding the right body for your dune buggy.
  • Electrics for the vehicle if you intend to use it on public roads.
  • What tools are you going to need for each stage of the project?

We will take a look at each of these components of the dune buggy build as separate topics below. You can use this as a planning guide to establishing your own plan for your dune buggy build.

The Chassis

The chassis is an important place to start in your dune buggy build. It will be the basis for most of the other decisions you will make regarding components that fit onto the chassis, which is almost everything else!

Traditionally the chassis of choice for a dune buggy was from an old Volkswagen (VW) Beetle. These chassis were very popular because they had rear-mounted engines and rear-wheel drive transmissions. They were also readily available at the time and fairly cheap to acquire! Much has changed since then, and these VW chassis are becoming more difficult to source as time goes on.

Fortunately, due to the popularity of these chassis, some companies specialize in repairing and remanufacturing chassis from the VW Beetle for the sole purpose of building dune buggies!

Are you wondering if you can build a dune buggy with a chassis other than the one from a VW Beetle?

You can use different chassis to build a Dune Buggy, but you need to be selective and get a compatible chassis that matches the specifications of the Beetle chassis a closely as possible. This is also because many of the parts available for dune buggy builds are manufactured around the core design of the VW Beetle chassis.

A chassis from a different car may also require heavy modifications for a rear-mounted engine and transmission if it was not designed for that configuration. While it is possible to achieve the additional work and headaches it may cause are probably not worth the effort.

Rather take the extra time, look around a bit longer, and further afield to source a VW Beetle chassis. Paying a bit extra for shipping will be well worth it!

Another chassis that is gaining some popularity for dune buggy building is that of the Suzuki Samurai. This chassis is of a similar size and weight as that of the VW Beetle, but unfortunately, the additional parts to convert it into a buggy are not as readily available as for the VW Beetle.

The Engine

If your chassis is the VW Beetle type, then it would make sense to use a matching VW Beetle engine to power your dune buggy. The VW Beetle engine is great to use for this because it is made to fit in the chassis, so fewer modifications will be needed than with a different engine.

The VW Beetle engine is air-cooled and manufactured for rear mounting in the chassis and for a rear-wheel-drive transmission.

You don’t have to stick to a VW Beetle engine, and I have heard of people doing all sorts of crazy things like fitting Porsche engines to their dune buggies!

The thing to remember with selecting the engine is how many modifications are you’re going to have to make to the chassis to get the engine to fit, and will it work with your chosen transmission.

Another factor to consider is the engine capacity of the engine for your buggy. Sand is notoriously hard to drive through and requires some power from the engine to overcome the drag. For this reason, any engine smaller than a 1600cc is probably not going to have enough power for the task.

An air-cooled engine would be the preferable choice to power your buggy. Driving in sand is notorious for clogging radiators and causing problems for engine cooling systems. Radiator-cooled engines are also difficult to fit in rear-mounted engines and would require a lot more modifications to the system to get it to work!

If you have access to an old VW Beetle engine, but it is not in good working order, you may still be able to use the old motor. A quick search on the internet will reveal many places that sell engine rebuild kits for VW Beetle engines. The fact that these kits are still available shows that these engines are still a popular choice in dune buggy conversions!

These engine rebuild kits can be a cost-effective way to get an old engine back in working order. These rebuilt kits can be between $500 and $1000! This is significantly cheaper than sourcing a new engine for the build.

So to summarize, the engine should be:

  • rear-mountable
  • air-cooled
  • at least 1600cc capacity

This is the ideal situation and would minimize the work involved in the buggy build. Other engines will work but will require more work and a greater level of ingenuity to overcome potential fitment and running problems.

The Drive Train

The drive train, prop shafts, clutch, and transmission can be the trickiest parts of the build of your dune buggy! The difficult part comes in matching your chosen engine with these components.

The main thing you can do to limit the problems fitting these components to each other during the build is to do extensive research. Mentioning all the possible combinations in this article is not a feasible undertaking. Our advice, therefore, is to check the compatibility of the parts with each other during your research to make sure they can be mated correctly when the time comes to assemble them.

Many conversion kits are available to marry mismatched components together, but once again you will need to research this information based on the parts you manage to source.

Axles, Wheels, Tires, And Suspension

This is where using an existing vehicle as a building block also pays off. Often the old chassis will come with axles and suspension still fitted if you are lucky. These parts can be cleaned up, or re-furbished back into a functional state.

A common mistake that is made with fitting replacement axels is in the measurement of aid axels. You need to make sure you get the right length axels to make sure you have enough room to fit them in the space available. It is also important to measure the axle length on both sides, as the axle length on each side can be of different lengths.

Depending on the type of and driving you will be doing, you may want to change out the suspension for something more custom made for the sandy environment. A suspension kit that keeps the center of gravity of the vehicle low to the ground is preferable. This helps to prevent roll-over when riding steep dunes.

A suspension that is too hard, will not be ideal for sand driving, as it will cause the wheels to dig down deeper into the sand, which is the opposite of what you want. If you intend to use your buggy on-road as well as off-road, this will factor into the type of suspension you will fit. Modern suspensions don’t do well with heavy off-road use, and older style suspension systems, while better off-road, don’t have good on-road performance.

The size of the wheels, or rims, will largely be determined by the tires that you will fit onto the dune buggy. The thought to bear in mind when choosing your tires for sand driving is fat and tall. This is the ideal combination of tire characteristics for sand driving! The height of the tire helps to keep the vehicle above the sand, even with the wheel sinking in, to some extent. The width of the tire or fatness of the tire helps the tire to float across the top of the sand by distributing the weight of the buggy over a larger surface area.

The Body

Manufacturing fiberglass bodies for dune buggies became a profitable business in the motor industry. The majority of these fiberglass bodies were developed to fit the chassis of the VW Beetle

The fiberglass bodies for the dune buggies come in several different configurations. The various styles are also dependent on the length of the chassis. You can choose from a 4-seater style body with space for two adults in the front and 2 adults in the back seats. This style of body is normally designed around the full-size VW Beetle chassis.

Another variation is the 2-seater model which has space for 2 adults in the front and a small bench seat at the back, which is only suitable for smaller children. This body type is for a shortened VW Beetle chassis which is 14.5 inches shorter than the full-size version.

Another 2-seater version is the Mini “T” style body which has proved to be a popular body style for these conversions. This body style resembling a roadster is also designed for a shortened VW Beetle chassis with a total length of 80 inches. This body style only has room for 2 adults in the front seats.

The Electrics

The electrics for your dune buggy once again comes down to how you want to use the vehicle. Will you be using it both on and off-road or only off-road? If you are going to be using the vehicle on public roads, it will need to comply with the regulations required to deem a vehicle roadworthy!

This means that it would need all the necessary lights and turn indicators installed to make the vehicle street-legal. If your base vehicle was in decent condition, it may come with wiring and electric fittings that could be repurposed the used for the job.

Otherwise, once again there are kits available that will supply you with all the necessary parts you will need to wire the electrics of the car to make it street-legal.

Many people like to customize their dune buggy with spotlights mounted on the front of the vehicle, or on the roll bar that goes over the body if the vehicle is fitted with one. While this may look cool, and even be practical out on the dunes, you will need to check with your local authority if these spotlights are legal for road use.

Some authorities do not allow them to be fitted at all on street-legal vehicles, while other authorities may allow them to be fitted, but they must have covers on while driving on public roads.

The Tools

The final item to address in your dune buggy build is the factor of the tools you will need to do the job. Most of the tools required can be found in almost any suburban garage, while others on the list may be a little less common!

Tools you may need for the build may include the following:

  • A ratchet socket set.
  • A set of wrenches, both open-end and ring style wrenches.
  • Monkey wrenches of various sizes.
  • A good set of various sized screwdrivers.
  • Pliers of various sizes and wire cutters.
  • An angle grinder with both cutting discs and grinding discs.
  • A welding machine for making modifications to the chassis or other heavy steel sections.
  • A block and tackle to lift the engine in and out of the chassis
  • A couple of jacks to jack up the vehicle from the floor to access the underside of the vehicle.
  • Adjustable trestles to stand the chassis on while working on it. You will probably need at least four of these.

When it comes to doing the electrics, having a good multi-meter available can save you a lot of time and frustration in trying to troubleshoot faults in the wiring.

Apart from these tools, some other tools may be useful, but not essential, such as a bench-vise. There are other task-specific tools that you may need to perform certain tasks, but if the task is a once-off, it may rather be more cost-effective to take the part to a professional to get the job done than to buy the tool yourself.

Specialist tasks in the build may require a professional with the correct knowledge and tools to perform the job. Where necessary, you should use the services of professionals for these tasks rather than attempt them yourself. The cost of having a professional do the job would be justified in the time it would save, the cost of buying a specialist tool, or compromising the safety of your vehicle.


Thank you for reading our ideas and how you can build a dune buggy yourself, where to start, and how to get the project started!

This will result in you not only being able to pursue your off-road adventures for the whole family, but also give you the satisfaction of building the vehicle yourself!

Happy building!

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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