When Jalopnik’s worker-restraint pods place me in the weekly 15 minute “success daydream” cycle, I sometimes imagine myself arriving at a red carpet to receive some manner of award — but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the car that pulls up and drops me off. For many, it’s a limo. For me, usually, it’s a Boonie Bug.
The Boonie Bug is one of those fantastic 1970s kit cars, much like the Brubaker Box, that used the wildly flexible base of air-cooled VW mechanicals and a gleeful disregard – bordering on contempt – for conventional styling or the fundamental principles of aerodynamics.
The Boonie Bug, named for its likely expected environment (the boondocks) and its fundamental DNA (Bug, as in Beetle, though this one was really more Bus) was born on the pages of the March 1974 issue of Popular Mechanics. Right there on the cover you can see the Boonie Bug in all its pinstriped glory, a pair of rugged outdoors people ready to commune with nature or get it on in a sweaty, stifling fiberglass box, or maybe just lay low until the shit blows over.
The Boonie Bug was designed by Robert Q. Riley (the ‘Q’ stands for ‘Qawesome’) and plans to build it were available from PopMech for a quite reasonable $14. Hell, you can still order the plans right now from RQR himself for $65 — still a steal, if you ask me.
The fundamental reasons and premise for the Boonie Bug were well laid out in the PM article, and I think are still highly compelling today. Really, we’re still without a suitable vehicle that fills all these roles so well:
The problem with most dune buggies, ATVs and other off-the-road vehicles is that they’re not generally suitable for around-town chores or highway driving. Many can’t even be licensed for street use. The Boonie Bug, however, offers the go-anywhereness of an ATV, the sleeping and camping facilities of an enclosed van and the smooth-riding qualities of a conventional station wagon at highway speeds — rolled into one slick-looking, smartly styled vehicle equally at home on or off the road.
See what I mean? That’s a pretty good sales pitch for a car. I mean, sure, I bet “smooth-riding” is based on a set of standards long gone, but you get the idea. On and off-road, street-legal, usable, campable — with gullwing doors and dirt cheap on top of all that? What’s not to like?
I suppose the styling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Hell, I suspect for most people it’s probably not even their cup of tepid urine, but people often have boring tastes. And, I suppose if you don’t like hand-building your own car, there’s that. But if you’re going to do it, the Boonie Bug seems like a pretty approachable goal.
Differing slightly from most of the kit cars of the era, the Boonie Bug didn’t use the basic, ubiquitous VW Beetle chassis, but rather used the Beetle’s big brother’s — the Type II VW Microbus. The Bus chassis used essentially the same drivetrain mechanicals as the Beetle, but was better set up for the Boonie’s layout since it was already a cab-over design with a steering shaft and geometry that put the front wheel under the driver’s butt, as well as being a good bit wider.
To make a Boonie, Bug, the VW Type II chassis was shortened by 16.5” to help it get over rough terrain without bottoming out. Then, in the middle section of the chassis, beefy 1.5” square section tube steel is used to form a pair of elongated hexagonal-sided (they look like the shape of every airlock on every 70s and 80s TV spaceship) roll hoops/body section supports. The lower part of this middle area between the wheels is sectioned off from the rest of the van interior with two centrally-hinged floorboards, enclosing a substantial 34 cubic feet of storage space under the interior floor.
The familiar air-cooled flat-four engine is actually mostly external to the main box of the body, hanging out back like an outboard motor, sheltered from above by a sort of engine canopy thing, but pretty much open to the air everywhere else, which, for an air-cooled engine, isn’t a bad thing.
Stock VW controls, lights, electrical bits, etc. are used. Wheels are reversed at the rear to give a nice, wide track, and large balloon tires are used to improve both traction and ride. The body is actually to be built of fiberglass over urethane foam, and the Boonie Box was one of (or perhaps the) first vehicles to use this sort of construction. In fact, according to R.Q. Riley:
It also served as a test bed for the automotive application of foam/fiberglass composite, explained in detail in the document on this site entitled One-Off Construction Using Fiberglass Over Urethane Foam. Because it had already experienced 60,000 miles of pounding on and off US roadways, the system had proven itself. John Delorean, who was considering a foam/fiberglass sandwich composite for his Delorean sports car, sent one of his engineers out to check for delamination. Engineers had been concerned that, due to the vibrations and twisting typical of an automotive application, the fiberglass skin might delaminate from the foam. No delamination was found, even after going through three winters in Ohio wherein the doors became iced over and frozen shut due to freezing temperatures. This real-world experience also cleared the way for the series of specially designed vehicles that were to follow. There is simply no other cost-effective way to build a vehicle body from scratch.
So, holy crap, John DeLorean himself studied the Boonie Bug while planning and designing his own famous, angular, rear-engined, gullwing-doored car. Hmm. Of course, DeLorean went with stainless steel over fiberglass over urethane, but there are an eerie number of strangely shared traits between these two cars.
The Boonie Bug even got some acting gigs, playing one of the Martian cars in Total Recall. Many of the cars in Total Recall were VW-based one-offs, but this silvery-grey Mars car was very clearly a mostly unmodified Boonie Bug, recognizable to eagle-eyed Earth folk like myself.
I should mention that I started thinking about the Boonie Bug thanks to Opponaut TFritch, who called my attention to an amazing yellow Boonie Bug for sale in Bakersfield. Accurately inferring that such a car would draw me in like a dozen otter carcasses dangled in front of a shark, I looked longingly over the ad as my appreciation for this homely, quirky folded box rekindled, powerfully.
The face of this thing juts out, and the sloping double-glass headlamps give it a sort of sad, soulful robotic-frog sort of look. The windshield surround has an improbable forward rake, and the overall form manages to somehow be crisp and clean and yet fussy and a little baroque all at the same time. On its four huge tires it has a vaguely water-animal sort of presence, like an angular hippo or something. It looks fun and capable and strange and dated and futuristic all at once.
Clearly, I love it.
I so want more cars like this to exist. I’m sick to death of status and comfort and performance and quality and safety and all those other things that any rational human would seek when picking a car. I love cars like these that are simply magnifying tools for your own personal freedom and ability to not take everything so damn seriously.
So let’s just take a moment here and appreciate this wonderful loon, the Boonie Bug, and offer our thanks to Mr.Riley for drawing this thing up in the first place. Great work, sir.