It's a strange feeling when you kind of agree with something that Charles Manson did. It's not a good feeling. But I just learned that Charles Manson's insane "Helter Skelter" global race war fever dream used battalions of VW and Porsche-based dune buggies as key components, and I gotta say, at least in this one detail, it makes sense.
I had no idea about this whole dune buggy part of the Manson story until my friend T.Mike sent me a link to a reddit TIL (Today I Learned) that talked about this. So I did some research. I found that Manson not only planned to have a fleet of specially-equipped dune buggies as a crucial element in his Helter Skelter vision, he and his deranged "Family" actually had a sort of dune buggy factory operating in a desert junkyard, and the whole stealing-VWs-for-coming-race-war-dune-buggies plan had a key in his eventual undoing, because you know how cranky people get over stolen VWs.
Now, don't get me wrong — Manson and his whole "Helter Skelter" concept were, if you'll forgive the medical jargon, batshit insane. Absolutely, irretrievably clamshit nuts. Essentially, he and his followers (called "The Family") were going to try and start a huge race war with some awful album they never quite managed to record and, while all the brutal destruction was happening, they'd wait it out in a secret underground city in the desert, after which they'd emerge to rule over everyone.
That's the insane part; the solitary semi-sane part of the plan was that in order to outrun the police and race-armies roaming everywhere so they could get from LA into the underground city in the Death Valley desert they'd use a fleet of light, agile, rugged VW (and Porsche) based dune buggies.
Southern California deserts are the Dune Buggy's natural habitat. They can handle the terrain, and when they get to some feature or boulder they can't drive over, three or four of Manson's insane followers could easily lift one out of trouble. The air-cooled engine requires no water, which will likely be scarce in the desert after a globe-destroying race war.
And that's about the extent of the sane part. As you'd expect, everything gets pretty crazy in practice. At first, donor cars were purchased, sometimes with bad checks, but very soon the Family graduated to just stealing VWs and the occasional Porsche 356 outright. The operation got pretty elaborate. As Ed Sanders describes in his book, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion:
They set up a creepie-crawlie dune-buggy assembly plant in the trash dump behind the corral of the Spahn Ranch. They stole Porsches and Volkswagens and brought them to the Devil's Dune Buggy Shop in back of the corral, and then men would strip off the body and fenders, and cut everything up, and load the cuts onto a truck and cart it away. Then they'd make some dune buggies out of the skeleton Porsches or Volkswagen frames. They would then sell the fresh fashioned dune buggies somewhere out on the desert, in exchange for dope and money. It was creepy-crawlie capitalism.
So based on that it sounds like they were turning enough Beetles and 356s into crude dune buggies that they could sell off the surplus ones. Also, Ed Sanders may be the only author I've ever encountered to use "creepy-crawlie" twice in one paragraph.
The book also gives a nice detailed report of why these dune buggies were selected (to get in and out of LA without crossing a major highway), and some interesting variants they developed:
He [Manson] decided to begin to build a fleet of Helter-Skelter dune buggies with which to transport the Family back and forth from the Spahn Ranch to Death Valley, up into the Santa Susanna Mountains by means of Devil Canyon and across the Mojave Desert.
From his experience in the rough terrain of Death Valley, Manson decided that dune buggies were the vehicles for his mobile snuff squad. They were great for outrunning cops in the abyss. They were light enough so that two or three of the gore groupies could lift them over boulders and precipices. Motorcycles, on the other hand, were scorned as bingeing inadequate in the wilderness.
But dune buggies, ah sacred dune buggies— they were like battleships. He would later outfit dune buggies with huge gas tanks giving them a 1,000-mile assault field. They put machine gun mounts on them and Mansons command dune buggy was fixed so that it could be slept in. There could be food dune buggies, ammunition dune buggies, dope-supply dune buggies, etc.
Manson even had a Biblical inspiration for his use of a dune buggy, in Revelations 9:7:
And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle.
The shapes of locusts that were like unto horses were, to Manson, his fleet of dune buggies.
There's not many pictures of these buggies around, but there are a few key ones. Forgive the quality of the image, I had to take it with my phone in a library. This one seems to depict a pretty typical buggy-of-the battalion.
The buggies are of very crude construction. These aren't sleek and well-designed Meyers Manx VW-based kit things. These are Beetles (or, and it still horrifies me, 356s) with bodies unbolted, the chassis appears to be shortened about a foot or so behind the front seat, and mostly square-section iron tubing is used to build a simple support structure. Appropriate tires are added at the rear, but the mechanicals and seating (well, except that weird back seat) and everything else looks to be pretty conventional VW.
Other pictures do suggest that the Family had some fiberglass-bodied Manx-type buggies, which they seemed to stash in various places in the desert, awaiting Helter Skelter to get started, already.
Manson's own command dune buggy was even more insane, covered in furs, with an integrated sword scabbard, machine gun mount, and a winch, which Manson imagined employing in a laughably cartoon-like scenario:
On the buggy's front was a winch that Manson envisioned using to evade police, apparently in Helter Skelter. He would fling the winch's rope up into a tree and then winch himself up out of sight as pursuing officers would drive haplessly by.
Not surprisingly, it was these stolen VWs that proved their undoing. On August 16, 1969, Manson and 25 followers were arrested as part of a major auto theft ring targeting Volkswagens and turning them in to dune buggies. Police were tipped off by a legitimate dune buggy shop owner who bought a car from a Manson friend that turned out to be one of his own VWs, stolen from his back lot. The warrant for their arrest had the wrong date, and a few days later all were out on this technicality, but the police were closing in.
Incredibly, there's still some vestiges of the old dune buggy battalion around. This video shows discarded VW Beetle body parts that the Manson family flung off a long drop into a ravine as recently as 2012. It's possible that some of the dune buggies they built are still out there in the desert, baking in the sun.
Other than seeing the look on a Porsche purists' face if a 356-based one is found, I think those debased air-coolers are better left to decay in the desert.
(Sources, text and photos: The Family: The Story Of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Wikipedia, CharlieManson.com)