Off-Road VW Sand Rail Buggy Project - Parts, Ideas, Accessories

Off-Road VW Sand Rail Buggy Project - Parts, Ideas, Accessories

A Volkswagen sand rail or dune buggy can be lots of fun but also lots of work to repair, maintain and customize! Here's my ongoing project and recommendations.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

 

How It Started: VW Based 1600 Off-Road Rail (My Buggy)

I got started with sand rails in 2016 after moving from Alaska to Arizona with my wife. We wanted a second vehicle for work purposes and also wanted some kind of ATV for off-road fun. Because the fantastic laws here allowed for a street-legal rail, we thought "Why not buy something that could be used for both ON and OFF road"?

I began looking into various types of rails and buggys' for a few months and eventually decided to jump on the opportunity to get somewhat of a fixer-upper rail that would serve as a good base for customizing things exactly as we want them.

Prior Experience

While I have years of prior experience with traditional ATVs and Side by Sides, I never put my hands on anything Volkswagen based. This was most definitely all new territory for me.

Luckily, I had experience building a highly customized Fiero GT a few years ago from the ground up so I was at least comfortable with engine work in-general and all workings of drivetrain, suspension and more.

The Goal

The primary goal with the buggy is to have an extremely reliable second vehicle that I can use as a daily driver but also tough enough to take some severe punishment off road.

 

The Base Sand Rail: From The Beginning

buggy first ride

This is the buggy that we started with. In fact, this is a photo from the very first real outing where we drove from Chino Valley, AZ to Jerome, AZ via forestry roads. It included the following configuration and accessories at the time of purchase (more issues were discovered as time went on):

THE BAD

  • VW 1600 Type-1 engine ran poorly
  • Transmission shifted very hard, especially with 2nd gear
  • Fiberglass seats in front and back with no padding
  • Steering wheel literally in my lap, way too low.
  • Zero front suspension movement (completely locked up)
  • Headlights were Walmart specials and barely lit up at all
  • Was running a generator instead of a newer alternator
  • Frame was rusted heavily in places
  • No padding left on the foam bars, very old and deteriorated
  • Very old and nearly useless shoulder-strap style seat belts
  • Back seat completely useless because no room to sit there

THE GOOD

  • Current VIN plate and registration for on and off road
  • Would start every time
  • Good, new back tires
  • Custom spare tire holder up top
  • Custom roof rack very stable and well made
  • Good condition Centerline wheels
  • Custom mounted jack by the spare up top
  • Working brakes front and back (drums)
  • Small aluminum console for ignition switch and light switches, etc.
  • Great exhaust setup with down-turned pipe and a spark arrestor
  • Great aluminum fuel tank solidly mounted
  • Nice, newer CNC aluminum pedals
  • Hydraulic clutch with CNC master and slave
  • Really nice Black Mamba aluminum shifter
  • Well designed custom tow bar included for 2" ball

 

Buggy Project #1: Comfortable Seats And 4-Point Safety Harnesses

Our first major ride was over 5 hours total. That time was spent sitting in the worst seats ever with nearly no padding and because of the stiff front suspension, it was just a brutal ride. Therefore, the very first thing I decided to take on was to purchase and install more comfortable aftermarket seats and 4-point harnesses.

I was on a very limited budget and decided to purchase these cheap aftermarket seats and a decent pair of 4-point harnesses:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Completely remove existing seats and seat rails
  2. Weld in new seat rails (further back for more leg room)
  3. Remove cross-bar that ran behind the original seats and move it back about 6 inches
  4. Weld new tabs to the newly relocated cross-bar to mount 4-point harnesses
  5. Weld new tabs to the left and right of each seat to mount 4-point harnesses 
  6. Install new seats and 4-point harnesses

 

Buggy Project #2: Relocate Steering Wheel, Pedals And Windshield

Immediately after getting the seats and harnesses installed, it was apparent that due to the higher profile of the seats (and moving everything back about 6 inches), I needed to relocate the steering wheel higher and that meant cutting off a good 4+ inches from the bottom of the windshield and moving everything up. At the same time, I also needed to relocate the pedals about 6" back so that I could reach them again.

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove the windshield
  2. Cut off the bottom windshield cross-bar and prepare to relocate
  3. Weld the bottom windshield cross-bar 4 inches higher than it was previously
  4. Ensure that the steering wheel still aligned properly
  5. Have the bottom of the windshield cut to match the new size requirement
  6. Install the newly resized windshield with new rubber surround
  7. Drill new mounting holes in the aluminum floor plate about 6 inches back from original pedal location
  8. Move pedals back and mount to new location
  9. Drill new mounting holes in the aluminum floor plate about 6 inches back from original passenger footrest location
  10. Move passenger footrest back and mount to new location

 

Buggy Project #3: New LED Off Road Lights And Side Mirrors

Now that the ride itself was a lot more comfortable and fit two adults much better, I needed new lights for after dark and a set of side mirrors to aid in reversing and to keep an eye on traffic. I found a good deal on a set of 6" round Anzo LED off road lights at a local O'Reilly Autoparts and then ordered a set of side mirrors from amazon. Although I was installing these large Anzo lights, I new that they would not be legal for highway use so I was still in search of another set for another project date later on.

Here are the parts I purchased:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove existing headlights and all wiring
  2. Install wiring harness and new relay into dash console
  3. Connect relay to existing off/on switch
  4. Ran new wire from console to light locations at front of buggy
  5. Mounted new lights
  6. Installed side mirrors and adjusted properly
  7. NOTE: I added some rubber spacing to account for the fact that the mirrors are made for larger diameter tubing

 buggy new seats belts mirrors

The above image shows the buggy with its new racing seats, 4-point harnesses, raised steering wheel, new round LED lights and side mirrors. 

 

Buggy Project #4: New Air Horn With Compressor And Additional Smaller LED Headlights

There were two goals for this project... First was to install a new set of much smaller LED lights (because the large ones are not ok for road use). Second, I had a brand new Wolo air horn kicking around that I was going to use in a previous project but I ended up going a different route and didn't use it. Therefore, because of so many people keep nearly running me off the road because they can't seem to see me well, I decided to get it installed in the buggy.

Here are the exact parts that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Decide the best location for the horn and compressor that is in front of the driver and out of the way
  2. Drilled mounting holes in the aluminum floor plate and installed the air horn and compressor
  3. Installed the new push-button switch into the center console
  4. Ran positive (+) wire from the switch to the horn location
  5. Ran an extra short ground wire from the horn to the chassis tubing
  6. Moved existing large LED lights back towards the windshield to make room for the small pods in very front
  7. Ran wiring from existing light switch in center console to new LED pods at front of buggy
  8. Mounted new small LED light pods at the top of the front shock towers

buggy air horn

 

Buggy Project #5: New Bar Padding And Fix Extremely Hard Front Suspension

Although installing new seats made a massive difference in comfort, one thing was still very wrong... There was zero play in the front suspension and that made for a very rough ride, especially on rocky trails. I decided to take it in to have a professional look at it because I am still very new to VW's and I figured that while it was being worked on again, I would find a replacement for that nasty old roll-bar padding.

Here is the ridiculously cheap padding that I found and purchased for the bars, and the tape I wrapped them with:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. The fix for the front suspension was simply loosening the front torsion bar adjustment so that they were free to move.
  2. Cut off existing foam padding with a razor blade
  3. Made a single slice down the side of the new foam sleeves with a razor blade
  4. Wrapped the new foam around the bars I wanted to pad and cut to perfect length
  5. Wrapped the newly padded bars with black Gorilla Tape

buggy foam padding

In this image you can see the newly padded and taped vertical bar (left) and the old, not yet removed padding behind it (right). What a difference!

 

Buggy Project #6: Fixing Rusted / Rotted Structure And Adding All New Supports

I had a feeling this day would come... After removing all of the old bar padding I discovered multiple problem areas with badly rusted / rotted bars and supports that were literally broken in half. The front-end was so bad in places that I am surprised it didn't come off completely. Luckily, the guys at Vigilante Offroad in Prescott Valley, Arizona assured me that it was all fixable. However, it would need a lot of fabrication to fix the bad parts and then add all new cross-bars and supports to greatly strengthen the chassis.

This project required about 20 feet of raw steel tubing with 1.5" outer diameter (OD):

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove lights, wiring and anything else that would be in the way of cutting and welding
  2. Remove paint from areas to be cut and / or welded
  3. Cut off rotted bars and supports
  4. Cut new bar pieces to exact fit and prepared a couple sheet-steel (1/4" thick) plates for front-end side-supports
  5. Tack weld new replacement pieces in place to fix removed rot and then weld firmly
  6. Added completely new X supports over top of front-end, and welded into place
  7. Created a single-tube bumper section for very front (not interfering with the tow-bar configuration)

 buggy new chassis tubing

In this image you can see the newly fabricated structural cross-bars and supports, along with the placement of the new smaller spot-beam LED light pods.

 

Buggy Project #7: Sanding And Painting The Front Beam

The rust everywhere and old flaking paint (or what was left of it) finally got to me and I decided it was time to start painting everything. However, I really didn't want to take everything off the chassis because this is literally my "daily driver" so I decided to sand and paint a small portion at a time, masking as I go. I knew this would mean that painting would be a long, drawn out process, but at least I can do it as I have time. Note that I love the dual-angle sanding blocks because they can get into tight spots. I always order at least 6 sanding blocks at a time so I have multiple spares.

Here is the paint and sanding blocks that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove flaking paint and heavily sand all surfaces to be painted
  2. Clean sanded areas very well with acetone to prepare for paint
  3. Mask areas that I didn't want to get paint on using masking tape and plastic sheeting
  4. Paint using brushes of various sizes depending on the area being painted

 buggy paint front beam

This image shows the newly painted front beam after removing all flaking paint and then sanding heavily.

 

Buggy Project #8: New Transmission And New Carburetor

The old transmission was extremely difficult to shift and it had stock gears so I had no power at all in 4th gear with the large tires. If I had to go up hill in 4th, I had to shift down to 3rd to make it. Also, I had been battling running issues with random spitting and spuddering and fuel running down into the engine oil. Therefore, it was time to go ahead and install a new transmission with aftermarket gearing and a brand new carburetor. At the same time, I decided to replace the old air cleaner assembly because it was damaged.

Here are the parts that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove old transmission and remove axles
  2. Install new transmission with old axles
  3. Install new axle seals
  4. Remove old air cleaner assembly
  5. Remove old carburetor
  6. Install new carburetor and tune
  7. Install new aluminum air cleaner assembly


buggy transmission carb

 

Buggy Project #9: Sanding and Painting the Rest of the Front-End Tubing

I actually painted the remainder of the front-end tubing in multiple different stages over the course of a year. However, for the sake of this article I decided to simply group all of that into one final "painted the front-end" project.

Here is the paint and sanding blocks that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove flaking paint and heavily sand all surfaces to be painted
  2. Clean sanded areas very well with acetone to prepare for paint
  3. Mask areas that I didn't want to get paint on using masking tape and plastic sheeting
  4. Paint using brushes of various sizes depending on the area being painted


buggy front tubing paint 

 

Buggy Project #10: Boxed Trailing Arms, Bearings, Disc Brake Conversion and Fox Shocks

Now for a truly large project... I found out that my stock rear trailing arms were bent beyond repair. This was making for a rough ride, really bad noises (especially around corners) and badly worn tires. Since everything in the rear was going to be removed for the project, I decided to also do a disc brake conversion, new bearings, seals, poly bushings, and new shocks all at the same time. I chose really nice (extra beefy) aftermarket trailing arms but decided to stick with stock width and go 1" longer than original. The disc brake conversion widens each side by 1" and both of these upgrades allow me to use my current axles and keep the rear width within reason for the more narrow trail riding (+1 inch wider and longer on each side overall).

Here are all the parts that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Removed old shocks, wheels, drums, etc.
  2. Removed old trailing arms and axles
  3. Welded tabs to hold brake lines on the new trailing arms
  4. Welded heavy duty shock mounts on the new trailing arms
  5. Welded custom caliper mounts on the new trailing arms
  6. Installed new poly bushings on the new trailing arms
  7. Installed new bearings and seals all around
  8. Installed new disc brakes and calipers
  9. Installed new trailing arms with existing axles
  10. Installed and connected new brake lines
  11. Installed new Fox Shocks
  12. Mounted remote reservior on the frame tubing
  13. Installed residual pressure valve on new rear disc brake line
  14. Bled brakes completely

Here are the original trailing arms, old shocks and drum brakes (BEFORE replacing):

buggy trailing arms brakes shocks before

 

Here are the new trailing arms, fox shocks and disc brake conversion (AFTER replacing): 

buggy trailing arms brakes shocks installed

At this point, I am cleaning everything up from the work performed at the fabrication shop in preparation for paint. However, there is another project I will be doing (#11 below) before I get a chance to get the new fab work painted.

 

Buggy Project #11: PerTronix Electronic Ignition System (Distributor with Ignitor II, 60k Volt Coil, 8mm Wires)

I have been having intermittent problems for the past year with the buggy not wanting to start after I turn it off and it has stranded me countless times because of it. I have troubleshooted everything I could and even though I narrowed it down to electrical, I could never nail down the exact problem (even after replacing the coil numerous times).

I decided to stop trying to fix old equipment and just replace the entire electronic ignition. After a lot of research, I opted to go with the PerTronix Flame-Thrower system (with the Ignitor II) and the huge 60k volt coil so that I can widen the plug gaps a bit for more performance.

Here are all the parts that I purchased for this project:

 This project included the following tasks:

  1. Removed old external ignition module, ignition coil, and distributor
  2. Weld new plate on side of engine cage to hold new large HV coil
  3. Mount new PerTronix HV coil to newly fabricated plate
  4. Extend a few wires to reach new coil location (further away)
  5. Installed new PerTronix Distributor and connected wiring to coil
  6. Removed old spark plug wires
  7. Removed left and right cooling tins
  8. Removed old spark plugs
  9. Installed new spark plugs (gapped at .030)
  10. Reinstalled cooling tins
  11. Installed new PerTronix spark plug wires
  12. Installed new extra-long MSD ignition coil wire
  13. Adjusted new distributor timing

 

Buggy Project #12: Re-Upholster Seats and Paint Seat Rails and Tubing Underneath

I knew quickly that the upholstery on the new seats was not going to hold up to the Arizona weather. Not only did they come with extremely thin vinyl, but they were also intended to be used indoors only. In less than a year and a half, the vinyl was literally crumbling and coming apart from all sides.

I decided to keep the seats and have them re-upholstered with thick marine-grade vinyl rather than replace them altogether. This was mainly because I really love the shape and comfort of the seats and the installation job was good and solid. At the same time that the seats are being worked on, I also decided to get all of the metal work under the seats sanded and painted.

Here is the paint and sanding blocks that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove the 4-point safety harnesses from both sides
  2. Remove both seats from the buggy
  3. Take seats and drop them off to be upholstered 
  4. Remove flaking paint and heavily sand all surfaces to be painted
  5. Clean sanded areas very well with acetone to prepare for paint
  6. Mask areas that I didn't want to get paint on using masking tape and plastic sheeting
  7. Paint using brushes of various sizes depending on the area being painted
  8. Pick up newly upholstered seats
  9. Re-install both seats into buggy
  10. Re-install both 4-point safety harnesses

Here is the "before" and "after" of the seat rails and tubing underneath (before installing the newly re-upholstered seats):

seat rails

 

Here is the "before" and "after" of the newly upholstered seats. They are so much better and now have twice the foam padding in addition to the ultra-thick marine grade vinyl:

newly upholstered seats

 

Buggy Project #13: Replace Back Seat with Custom-Mounted Aluminum Toolbox

The back seat has always been useless because there was never enough room to actually fit a person back there. The only time I ever used it was to simply place a duffle bag on it to hold tools and spare parts when going for a long ride. Therefore, I decided I would like to transform that space into real (secured) storage of some kind. After taking some measurements and doing a little searching online, I came across the perfect option... I would install a Lund 32" Aluminum Diamond Plate Toolbox!

The goal was to have as much storage as possible while positioning the box to still be able to get the battery in and out and also not interfere with the transmission behind it.

Here is the toolbox that I purchased for this project:

This project included the following tasks:

  1. Remove the existing fiberglass back seat
  2. Fabricate (using angle-iron) a simple mounting structure
  3. To position properly, structure is held up in the front and hangs in the rear
  4. Painted the mounting structure
  5. Added rubberized grip-tape to lesson rattles and secure tightly
  6. Mounted the toolbox by drilling 4 holes in the bottom

 Here is the "after" and "before" of the newly fabricated mount:

newly upholstered seats

 

And here is the toolbox fully completed and installed:

newly upholstered seats

 

MUCH MORE TO COME AS I HAVE TIME TO WRITE IT UP!