A Rail De La Sand
I was recently given a very special opportunity in the form of what’s called a sand rail, and I took it! Delmont Day, a long-time Strolling Amok reader (“Papa”), invited me to tour the BLM land around Quartzsite with him. Long a fan of all things Volkswagen, Delmont had picked up his sand rail last Fall in order to be able to enjoy the extensive off-road opportunities in the Quartzsite, Arizona area.
And what a sand rail it is! Sand rails are similar to what most folks would call dune buggies, but they have the familiar shortened VW Bug floorpan/chassis replaced with a tube chassis made up from, well, steel tubes. That change makes for a much, much stronger, stiffer, and safer platform for charging over uneven ground. While many VW Beetle sedans of the period began with a 36 horsepower air-cooled 4-cylinder, Delmont’s particular rail fell into his hands with a highly modified version which, in such a lightweight vehicle, can make for some serious excitement when you stomp the go-pedal. Stock VW’s produced all their power at low engine speeds, while this one goes into full song at high RPM. In short, it’s a racing-class rail that still uses the original VW suspension.
I was a bit taken aback when he nonchalantly mentioned that he had managed to slow-roll it, bottoms-up, the day before while giving someone else a ride. “Scratched some paint,” he told me, “But nothing was damaged.” That roll was a result of its somewhat narrow tires digging into a turn on the deep, soft gravel in Quartzsite’s main wash. See, you have to keep moving in that stuff, or the tires will sink in and try to dig their way to China. With all of the motor’s power being lumped into the top end, it’s happiest at speed. If it rolls over, you simply unbuckle your five-point harness, unceremoniously flop onto the ground, and roll it back upright. Then climb back in, start it back up, and go.
Now, I wouldn’t mind rolling over in such a lightweight contraption, but my body probably would. Sustained G-forces or an elevated heart rate have proven to be problems in the past, and I strongly suspected that inversion would also be on the “Don’t Do That” list. Non-optimal things happen when the situation demands four quarts a minute and your blown pumper can only peak at two. So I cautioned Delmont that he would have relatively fragile cargo, and apparently scared the crap out of him in the process. Afraid to even goose the throttle, he gave me the smoothest Old Codger Tour he could manage. I found it surprising that, even with all of the bottom-end torque gone from the race engine and it popping unhappily through the carb, it still managed to push the lightweight car over any place that traction was available.
Two things are necessary to wear in a vehicle like this, and preferably three. Those open wheels throw a hell of a lot of dust, which absolutely requires basic eye protection. A decent breathing mask or filter wouldn’t be bad either. It’s one of those things where you’re spitting grit for a while afterward. And on this rig, ear protection is a really good idea, since the exhaust is wide open through an upright trumpet exhaust pipe. I wore decent shooter’s earmuffs, and was surprised at just how well the engine sound came through them! Having so recently acquired the car, Delmont naturally has plans to fit a SuperTrapp or similar muffler in place. Yet for the time being, it’s relatively demure just pottering around, but ear-splitting once more ponies are urged out. My seat-of-the-pants perception was that this thing is a caged beast, caged because poor Delmont was now afraid that his passenger would expire if he laid on the throttle or even bounded over bumps. I could sense that, wide-open, this rail could fly. It doesn’t take much power to make a vehicle this light hustle, and the wretched excess of power available here must be a delight when it’s in its element.
We went for an extended tour, exploring the back trails over ground that neither the Evelo e-bike nor even the ponderous Mighty Furd would be able to manage. Very steep descents and abrupt climbs out of rocky gullies, tall hills, deep sand, and bottomless gravel were all taken in stride. The hilltops frequently drop off suddenly enough that you can’t see anything but air beyond the front of the rail, so getting out to look is a real good idea. Part of the return route involved a short section of paved road, which was its own little thrill, owing to the fact that although the rail is licensed, it is not anywhere close to being street legal. Ever the humorist-wannabe, I pointed to the oil pressure gauge which showed the needle at 40 PSI, and yelled, “Don’t speed!” It’s just as well that the engine burble drowned out my attempt.
In all, it was an afternoon of filthy fun for me, and the first time I’ve ever ridden in a vehicle of this type. I’ve owned a couple of early-60s Beetles (and enjoyed them), and the difference that the decreased weight makes really stood out. First gear becomes a seldom-used crawler gear, and second allows a much better range of speed without bogging down much when the challenges come. Delmont’s sand rail is a great way to fulfill a true gearhead’s need for speed. Thanks, Del!