Steve Hart captures a bit of the past in his open framed buggy

Tucson, Arizona’s Steve Hart ran a tube frame Chenowth sandrail from 1974 to 1983. Through that experience, Steve built his one of a kind, open framed buggy that captures a bit of the 1960s.

Steve has been into buggies since 1969 when a co-worker took him for a ride in a VW pan-based buggy with a unique powertrain: an aluminum Oldsmobile V8 engine mounted to a VW transaxle. Over the years, Steve has been involved in six buggy builds of which he owned three. His first buggy was a modified VW Beetle called Voldswagen because of the Olds V8 hanging off the rear.

By 1982, Steve conjured up a vision for his new buggy. “What inspired me to build the current frame partly came from the Chenowth not being able to withstand the abuse I put it through. Over time, it needed to be repaired after almost every dune trip. The other influencing factor was the full roll cage often got in the way of being able to read the dunes at night. So, one day I got out a pen, pad of paper, and a measuring tape to document everything about the Chenowth frame. I applied that information to design my open frame, using 2” x 3” steel tubing for the frame rails and 1 ½” exhaust tubing for the roll-bars.”

The Corvair powertrain is out of the Steve’s Chenowth. The original Corvair 140 engine was professionally rebuilt and balanced in 2011. Upgrades included larger cylinders and pistons, a new Otto Parts OT-30 cam, milled heads, new valves with LS-1 springs, a 500 cfm Holley carb, and high output oil pump gears. Per Steve, “The engine doesn’t like anything less than 100 octane fuel. All of this gave me a more powerful car estimated at 180 horsepower; one I had to learn how to drive again. I can’t use all the horsepower because of the light front-end but the added torque is nice.”

Another unique frame design, carried over from the modified Chenowth, is how the powertrain is mounted. Steve does not utilize frame support under the engine. The frame is designed with two mounting locations for the transaxle: at the nose cone and the bell housing. Corvair guys question the design; the need for support under the engine to prevent breaking the bell-housing. Steve’s response, “Well, the engine has only been hung like that since the middle ‘70s and that’s the original bell-housing.”

To give the buggy another personal touch, Steve topped it off with a custom wing and mini roof made from quarter inch red Plexiglas. He used a jig-saw to cut the shapes, a hair drier to make the bends, and a torch to smooth out all the edges.

All told, the project took over a year to complete: design started in late 1982, build, test, and tune by late 1983, disassembly, paint, and completion in early 1984. Steve’s brother-in-law, Daymond Cothren, did most of the frame’s critical welding and painting.

How does the buggy drive? “It rides a little rough but it drives like a dream.” Although Steve has filled the frame’s front cross bar full of lead, the front-end is light. It takes some extra throttle control and steering brake to navigate dunes when speed is a factor. To make fast turns, it’s either get off the gas to plant the front tires or get on the steering brake.

Steve has designed, built, and preserved an old school buggy that turns heads and is met with amazement where the sandrail goes.

Photo taken by Steve Hart.

Wantabe Racing

Back in the 1960s, sand drags and/or hill climb competitions were held on the “big weekends” throughout the US. The events were run right on the beach or dunes, not like today’s purpose built sand drag facilities. In the early years, buggies and 4×4 rigs would line up and go. Over time purpose build dragsters and hill climbers were ruling the events.

The late Saburo Wantanabe of Guadalupe, California was there from the beginning competing with his water pumper buggies and continuing to race until 1994 with a rear-engine, normally aspirated B/Pro Comp class car with a best E.T. of 3.01 sec. at 108 mph.

Saburo grew up close to the Pismo/Oceano Dunes area, so he was always watching others and their sand machines. He and a group of friends would go on to build their own buggies to play in the dunes and ultimately evolved into purpose build competition cars and organized events, which he helped with as a member of the Dune Riders club based out of Oceano, California.

Saburo built a total of seven buggies/sand race cars in his gas stations/automotive shops that he had over the years. His close friend and high school buddy, Tom Silvera, helped with machine work and welding and whatever they could design. Another great friend Leroy Saruwatari also was involved and ran a similar buggy built for the dunes. Many other local racers also helped with his builds.

Saburo ran competitive cars. One year he took the hill climb at Pismo on 4th of July weekend and runner upped in the drags and his buddy Leroy took the drags and runner upped in hill climb. Then, Labor Day weekend, they did the opposite. Lots of work and effort paid off for him.

He raced whenever possible: Pismo/Oceano Dunes, Spillway Park, Santa Maria, Oceanside, Bakersfield, Glamis, Oxnard, Hanford, Avenal, Glen Helen ORV Park, San Bernadino, Riverside, and Hermiston, Oregon.

The racing legacy of Saburo Wantanabe continues today through his son’s at Watanabe Racing; Robert Watanabe is the driver, John Watanabe is the crew chief, with assistance from Gary and Larry Sakaguchi.

In fact, the Watanabe’s brought one of their father’s sand dragster to the Old School Buggy Reunion (Pismo, August 2016). Nothing on beach and dunes sounded like that car when they fired it up.

Art Caball Water Pumper

Art Caball’s and his water pumper buggy: 45 years of creativity, survival, and determination.

It is rare to find a water pumper buggy built in 1971 that survives to this day. It is even rarer to find one that has gone through several years of modifications in the pursuit of continued refinement.

The story of Art Caball from Augusta, Michigan begins in 1965 when he had his first encounter with a dune buggy. While in training to be a structural welder in the U.S. Navy Amphibious Fleet based in San Diego, California, Art attended an open wheel race at El Cajon Speedway. “A guy came on the track during intermission driving this ride, it looked like a praying mantis. The driver sat up high on some sort of spring under his seat, way in the back near the rear axle which had four cross cut farm implement tires. It had an injected small block Chevy with zoomies for the exhaust. He did some wheelies out on the track. I thought it was pretty cool!”

Art became “hooked” on dune buggies the summer of 1969. His friend, Dave Eldridge along with Bob Dummire, built a buggy based on a stock 1957 Chevy. They moved the engine back a couple of feet, welded the rear axle to the frame, put in a full sized bench seat, and added a roll bar and platform to stand on at the rear. They headed to Silver Lake Sand Dunes, a first for Art, but that was all it took to motivate Art to build his own buggy.

Later that year, Art suffered a near fatal car accident spending 22 days in ICU and 60 days in the hospital. During this time, he drew up a lot of plans for the “dune ride”. Per Art, “Many of these ideas and plans are on my buggy to this day. I was very determined!”

Art’s buggy project was put on hold as he started his own welding business and continued to recover from his car accident. In 1971, Art began construction on the buggy he envisioned while in the hospital two years earlier. The custom frame is still within 1/32” of being true and straight. Various 1950s era components were used for the powertrain: ’58 283ci Chevy small block V8, ’51 Chevy ¾ pickup provided the top loader four speed transmission and floater rear end, and a ’57 style blow proof bell housing. Bill Storm turned the 283 V8 into a stout, high winding 301 engine producing an estimated 400 horse power. Although the rear axle was solid mounted to the frame, Art fabricated brackets that allowed him to move the axle forward and backward to adjust the buggy’s weight balance. To cope with the solid mounted rear axle, Art developed his own suspension seats. The original front axle assembly, a ’37 Ford I-beam with a transverse leaf spring, was replaced with a ’65 VW Beetle king/link pin independent front suspension in ’72. The cowl was composed of ½” EMT conduit for the framework and print press die sheets from Kellogg Company cereal boxes.

Art finished the first rendition of his buggy in 1972. For the next eight years, Art continued to innovate to improve the overall handling and performance of his buggy. Along the way he won and placed in multiple sand drags, hill climbs, and car shows.

By 1980, Art sold the buggy; “I needed to buy a lawn mower and the buggy wasn’t used that much. It was very hard to let go, I was depressed.” As time passed, Art wanted his buggy back. The original buyer still had the buggy and agreed to sell it back to Art. On the day of sale, Art was reunited with his buggy for the first time in twenty one years. Like Art’s previously broken body, his buggy was abused and broken. “I was emotional. I thought, she is broken but coming home where she belongs.”

The buggy went untouched for eight years until 2009 when Art started the new build. “I wanted to get the buggy out of the trailer; make it more multi-purpose so I could enjoy it more frequently via parades, car shows, the dunes, and as a push car at races.” Art implement several changes including: a 1969 Corvette 427ci V8 rebuilt by Cheney Engines, Hastings Michigan, bored to a 439ci, pumping out 660 horsepower, TH400 automatic transmission built by the Shift Shop in Maurice, MI with a manual shift valve body, Winters quick change rear end, replacing the damaged VW front beam with an aftermarket beam that was 6” wider, power and rack n pinion steering, and a new wheelie bar designed both for sand and street.

There have been many challenges, changes, and daring adventures that Art has experienced with his buggy over the past 45 years and through it all, the essence of Art’s one of a kind “dune ride” remains; a ride, like it’s creator, that is determined to run…to run hard.

Jeff Elrod Tunnel Buggy

Looking back through the history of the dune buggy, tunnel buggies were a major part of the 1960s. Wherever there was sand, from California to Florida, these buggies were there. A tunnel buggy, as compared to a shortened pan buggy, was created by simply replacing the solid VW floor halves with expanded metal mesh. Today, the tunnel buggy is rare; most did not survive.

Jeff Elrod of San Martin, California, has joined a very small fraternity of enthusiasts who have saved and owned a classic tunnel buggy. Buggies have been part of Jeff’s family for years. His late father Curt Elrod purchased the family’s first buggy, a water pumper, in 1968. What started out as hobby became Elrod Motorsports; a full fledge off-road racing family. Roger and Rick Mears both drove Curt’s buggy at Pikes Peak during the 1970s. Jeff and brother Wes, owned their own dune buggies and became successful buggy racers competing at Ascot, Pikes Peak, the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Grand Prix, the Cranden International Off-Road Raceway, and the SCORE Off-Road World Championship. Last year they campaigned a Pro Class Buggy in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Series.

So why does a championship winning off-road racer with the skills and in-house resources to restore any buggy choose an old ‘60s era tunnel buggy? Per Jeff, “Wes and I saw the buggy outside at the Santa Maria Raceway. We could see the roll bar through the trees. It reminded us of a buggy that my dad’s friend Jim Lampy owned. It brought back great memories. Plus, you rarely see these buggies today.” Jeff bought the buggy as roller without an engine for $250 in 2014.

The buggy is based on a 1961 VW Beetle pan that has been shortened to a 77” wheel base. Like most tunnel buggies with a two seat configuration, the seats have been moved back near the rear torsion tube thus the need to reposition the gear shifter, pedal assembly, and master brake cylinder. Gone is the stock VW floor pan in favor of a much lighter and smaller expanded metal area to rest the feet of the driver and passenger. A single bar provides roll-over protection.

Where possible, Jeff has preserved original parts including the stock VW steering box, VW front beam suspension, brakeless and lightened VW front hubs, and the Firestone farm tires mounted to the ’66-67 VW stock wheels.

Personal touches include a polished aluminum master brake cylinder off a 1964 Datsun Roadster, Goodyear Terra tires mounted to Mike Tacoma 10” x 15” rear wheels, polished 7.5 gallon Olympia pony beer keg for a fuel tank, 1953 John Deere B rear tail light, and 1950 Dietz front headlights. Jeff also fabricated the oil pressure instrument pod, the tri-spinner fuel cap, and the dual handled cabled based turning brake system. The clear gear shift knob was created by Jeff in junior high school.

A stock 1200cc VW air-cooled engine running a 6 volt generator was built by Tony Mace of Beetle Power, Pleasanton, California while the original swinger transaxle was freshened up by VW buggy guru Joe Sellers.

The blue and yellow paint represents the original colors that Jeff and Wes started their buggy racing careers.

Completed in April 2016, Jeff would like to thank Tony Mace (engine), Joe Sellers (transaxle) Wes Elrod (paint), Gerald Giacalone (electrical), Eric Robinson (deal maker), and Mike Flannigan (all around) for their contribution to the two year project.

Jeff’s outstanding buggy restoration exemplifies old school: home-built with friends and family, use of period correct but unique parts while maintaining the originality and personality of this ‘60s era buggy.