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.