If you enjoy off-roading, it’s hard to top the thrill of letting it rip in a dune buggy.
But as an owner or a potential owner of one of these awesome vehicles, you may be wondering if dune buggies are limited to off-road use.
A couple of the more commonly asked questions around dune buggies are:
How do you make them street legal?
Where are they street legal?
In this guide, we’ll cover the steps to making a street legal dune buggy and provide an overview of:
- The most common dune buggy designs
- Why they’re easier to make street legal than similar off-road vehicles
- Which states you can and can’t make a dune buggy street legal in
- The steps and safety features required to make a dune buggy street legal
- What to consider when buying or building a street legal dune buggy
The Dune Buggy
The dune buggy is an off-road vehicle designed mainly for use on sand dunes, beaches, and desert terrain, but is capable of general off-road riding in most other terrains as well.
It is also commonly lumped in with and referred to as a sand rail or a Meyers Manx, though they all have some key differences.
Dune buggies got their start in the 1950’s, when folks who lived in beach towns would strip down cars so that only the frames remained and then add bigger, off-road style tires for traction in the sand.
These stripped down cars came to be known as “donor cars”, and the VW Beetle became the most popular model to convert.
As VW Beetles were also known as “bugs”, the term dune buggy just sounded right and became the go-to name for these vehicles.
As dune buggies became more and more popular, auto companies caught on and began selling custom kits to help folks convert these donor cars into dune buggies with a number of different build styles.
And it wasn’t long before these vehicles that had started as light beach cruisers evolved into off-road vehicles used for racing in the desert and sending it over sand dunes.
Dune Buggy Design
Due to their design, dune buggies are easier to make street legal than similar vehicles such as the sand rail.
Dune buggies are usually built up starting with the chassis, suspension, and some other components of previously street-legal vehicles.
While they started out as very open build styles without much to them aside from seats and tires, most dune buggies now feature some combination of body panels, doors, windows, and roll cages.
And let’s not forget the tires, which are usually always oversized and off-road specific.
That said, one of the drawbacks of the design of dune buggies is that their limited wheel well space limits the size of the tires they can be equipped with.
Street Legal Dune Buggy States
If you’re looking to make your dune buggy street legal, you can be encouraged by the fact that there are already plenty of street legal dune buggies across the country.
But you’ll find that many of them are clustered in a number of the same states, as the state you live and drive in is the main determining factor in whether or not you’ll be able to obtain street legal status for your buggy.
Your first step is to check the local laws and regulations for your state to confirm whether making your buggy street legal is even realistic.
A few states where street legal status can be obtained for a dune buggy are:
- New Hampshire
It also may depend on the county you’re in, as those with lower population densities tend to have more relaxed rules around operating dune buggies on public roads.
And then there are plenty of states that will not ever permit a dune buggy to be driven on a public road. Some of those states include:
While there may be exceptions made locally, if you’re in one of these states you’re likely SOL for now.
Making A Dune Buggy Street Legal
There are a number of safety modifications you’ll need to make if you want to obtain street-legal status for your dune buggy.
These safety features vary by state, but the most commonly required are:
- Windshield wiper(s)
- Tail lights
- Brake lights
- Turn signals
- Brakes installed on at least two wheels
- Parking or emergency brake
- Seat belts or restraints
- Rearview mirror
When you’ve added the necessary safety features to your dune buggy, you’ll then need to have it inspected so it can be assigned a VIN number.
If you’ve built yours on the chassis of a vehicle that already has a VIN number, you may be able to get away with using that one depending on your state and the strictness of your local DMV.
Your dune buggy will also have to have flooring or a floor pan in order to pass this inspection.
Since most dune buggies are built on top of a once street legal vehicle’s chassis/frame, this is usually not an issue but important to note.
Upon passing the inspection, there are still a few final steps to street legalizing your buggy:
- Street legal dune buggies must be registered
- Street legal dune buggies must be titled
- Street legal dune buggies must be insured
- Street legal dune buggies must have a license plate
Once you’ve added a license plate, most states also require a license plate light be installed as well.
Lastly, you’ll need to check your state’s emission requirements to ensure that your dune buggy’s engine meets those.
Key Components Of A Dune Buggy
Whether you’re looking to build your own dune buggy or buy one that’s already been built, there are several key factors to consider about the build itself.
The easiest way to build a dune buggy is to start with the chassis or body of a donor car and build up.
Many folks who opt for this option will also consider leaving the suspension in place if it lends to the type of driving they want to do. More on that shortly.
For the body panels and additional components, there are numerous companies who offer dune buggy kits complete with body paneling, doors, and the like.
You’ll find that most modern body paneling is made of fiberglass.
You can also choose to build up completely from scratch if you have the skills to fashion and weld a chassis/body yourself, but this makes for a much bigger project.
Likely the most important factor to consider when building a dune buggy is which type of suspension to use, which comes down to where and how you’ll drive it most often.
If you plan to do some pretty serious dune or desert riding, or even just off-road riding in general, you’re best off installing your buggy with a link-and-kingpin front suspension and a swing axle rear suspension.
This suspension combo stands up well to harsh off-road riding, but doesn’t provide the most comfortable of rides.
If you’re more interested in a street legal dune buggy to drive on the pavement rather than in off-road terrain, a ball-joint front suspension and independent rear suspension combo is your best bet.
This suspension style will offer you better steering and control, especially at higher speeds, and a more comfortable ride.
But it won’t hold up well to the abuses of serious off-roading.
Most dune buggies are built with the engine in the very rear, which helps to provide stability for the vehicle by keeping most of the weight in back so that the front doesn’t dig into sandy terrain and get stuck.
And the location of the engine in the rear also helps prevent sand from being blown back into the faces of the riders by the engine fan.
Air-cooled VW engines are by far the most popular engines used in dune buggies today, but other types of engines are used as well.
Sand is well-known to minimize a vehicle’s power, so those who spend most of their time in dunes or desert terrain may consider a more powerful engine from the likes of Honda or Chevy.
There are also a number of common modifications made to dune buggy engines to make them more powerful, such as turbochargers, racing carburetors, high performance cylinders, bigger pistons, and fuel injection.
Dune buggies are usually equipped with tires of two different types and sizes in the front and rear.
Smaller, smooth flotation tires are usually used up front with bigger paddle tires used in rear for buggies primarily ridden in the sand.
Others may use four similar all-terrain tires, like those found on ATVs, for buggies that are used for more general off-roading.
It’s hard to top the thrill that dune buggies can provide when riding sand dunes, desert terrain, or trails.
And for those who want to be able to legally drive their dune buggy on public roads, there are a number of steps you can take to make this a reality depending on the state you live and drive in.
For more similar off-road vehicles, check out the following before you go: