Cue the Beach Boys. Along with their California-tinged sound, one of the staples of the ’60s surf scene was the dune buggy, typically a modified version of the equally iconic Volkswagen Beetle, and now the automaker is ready to show off an all-new, retro-futuristic dune crawler.
But this time, the VW dune buggy concept vehicle set to debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March will be environmentally friendly, riding on the same electrified platform that will be shared with dozens of battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, the German company plans to bring to market by 2025.
“A buggy is more than a car. It is vibrancy and energy on four wheels,” VW’s global design chief Klaus Bischoff said in a statement accompanying a pair of shots teasing the dune buggy concept’s debut. “These attributes are embodied by the new e-buggy, which demonstrates how a modern, non-retro interpretation of a classic can look and, more than anything else, the emotional bond that electric mobility can create.”
Also known as beach buggies and sand rails, they became wildly popular with the launch of the Meyers Manx, produced by California surfer and entrepreneur Bruce Meyers. Debuting in 1964, Meyers came up with the idea of lifting the body off the original Volkswagen Beetle and replacing it with a fiberglass, open-topped shell, making a few other modifications that would let it operate on sand dunes, as well as public roads.
Volkswagen estimates that as many as 250,000 of the original Beetles were modified into dune buggies and other unique models by the 1980s. Meyers himself relaunched his company in 2000, still relying on the first-generation Beetles that continue to ply U.S. highways.
Volkswagen isn’t offering many details about the new e-buggy, but the teaser pics reveal that it picks up on the classic design first pioneered by the Manx, with a long nose, a stubby tail, a shortened windshield, roll bar and high side sills rather than doors. Knobby, oversized tires suggest that, like the original sand rails, the VW e-buggy concept is designed to operate both on and off-road.
But there’s at least one big difference between a classic sand-crawler and the e-buggy: the drivetrain. The Manx, and pretty much every VW-based buggy that followed relied on the automaker’s simple – and famously reliable – air-cooled four-cylinder engine. The e-buggy concept, however, is all-electric.
The body is mounted onto a platform dubbed the MEB, a modular “architecture” that will be used for the majority of future all-electric products that the Volkswagen Group will sell through brands as diverse as Europe-based entry marques Seat and Skoda, as well as upscale Audi.
Two MEB-based battery-electric vehicles also will be produced for the Volkswagen brand in Tennessee, the automaker last month announcing an $800 million expansion of its Chattanooga assembly line.
Appropriately enough for this California-inspired concept, the MEB somewhat resembles a skateboard. Instead of mounting its engine up front — or in back, as with the original Beetle — the battery pack and motors are tucked underneath the floorboard. That approach lowers the center of gravity, making the platform more stable. It also means that space normally devoted to the engine compartment can be transformed into additional passenger or cargo space.
While the e-buggy is being described as purely a concept vehicle, it wouldn’t be the first retro-tinged show car the automaker has introduced with an eye towards production. VW revealed an all-electric take on its classic, hippy-era Microbus during the January 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It has since announced that what will be known as the I.D. Buzz will roll into showrooms in 2022.
Whether VW would want to get into the dune buggy business is far from certain. But the concept coming to the Geneva Motor Show might offer a hint that another once-believed model is ready for a revival.
The third-generation Beetle is currently winding down and will go out of production by the end of the 2019 model-year, Volkswagen confirmed last August with the debut of the “Final Edition.”
“There are no immediate plans to replace it,” said Hinrich Woebcken, then the head of the Volkswagen Group of America. But he left the door open slightly when he quickly added that “I would also say, ‘Never say never.’”
Beetle fans will be watching the debut in Geneva next month to see if the automaker just might be ready to bring back the Beetle in all-new form.