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Deserter Dune Buggies by Alex Dearborn

Editors note- Dune Buggies were big back in the 60’s and 70’s and they had a close connection to VWs and Porsches. Alex Dearborn, who has an extensive history with automobiles, was heavily involved with some of the more advanced Deserter Dune Buggies of the day. Here’s Alex’s story about the Deserter.

Deserter Series One

Our original '67 Deserter dune buggy was visually a shameless clone of Bruce Meyers' ingenious design, the Manx. In order to make the car more roadworthy, however, we extended the body to fit on a VW pan shortened to 84" wheelbase, instead of the then-customary 80". This in turn enabled us to hang a little more horsepower off the back end. In '68, we built a Deserter Series One with a 1600 Porsche Super in the rear, and, after a quick review of the SCCA rule book, went to Lime Rock so I could mix it up with the sports cars. (Therein lies another story.)

While the Deserter line was my concept, the actual protoypes and production parts were made next door to Dearborn Automobile Company (in Marblehead) at Autodynamics, then the largest manufacturer of racing cars in the country. Company products included the SCCA National Championship Caldwell Formula Vees, the D9 Formula Fords (by 1970, the car to beat in SCCA) and D10 Formula SuperVees. In addition, Ray Caldwell had designed a Formula 5000 car for Brett Lunger, and was working on a new Can Am car for Sam Posey.

The company had a dyno shop, chassis fabricating facilities, a fiberglass shop, and engineers Ray Caldwell and Fred Jackson. All of us knew that we could build a Corvair-powered rear-engined Deserter with readily available parts, but we also knew that it wouldn't handle well enough to be competitive. 

Deserter GS 

I asked Ray Caldwell and his chassis builder, Bill Woodhead, to design a mid-engined layout for the existing Deserter Series One buggy body. We knew that the doorless "tub" of the Deserter was very light and pretty rigid, and we had this idea that a floor pan could be molded out of fiberglass, incorporating the seats in the same piece. And so it came together. A mild steel tubular frame was designed, and the "floorpan" was cast fiberglass with two impressions of my butt in it. These two pieces were bonded and riveted together to form a mid-engined frame more rigid than the company's Formula Ford chassis! Pickup points were incorporated at the front for VW beam axles, and in the engine bay to carry Corvair or 911 or VW engines amidships. The best we knew about swing axle suspensions was used to locate the VW transaxle FV style, behind the engine bay.

The result was an 85" wheelbase Deserter GS, which weighed in at under 1300lbs with a Corvair amidships. The weight distribution was nearly 50/50 instead of 30/70 for a (rear-engined) Deserter GT or 10/90 for a Manx.

We called the mid-engined model "GS"; not after the Buick Gran Sport but after the ski race "Giant Slalom". I believed that the real market for the car was for autocross competition and street use, not the SCCA sportsracing classes then dominated by Can-Am cars. Indeed, Bill Goodale became SCCA National Solo Champion in a Deserter GS during the 70's.

We made a few kits available to customers for the annual hill climb at Pike's Peak, and we built a GTstyle GS/VW for me to do the 1971 event. After the event. I ran this car with a Corvair engine in SCCA and at a few 1/4 mile ovals.

The 1969-72 Deserter GS cars and kits were made with the newer GT-type body... basically the same tub with slicker body design. All of the 1969-72 rear-engined Deserters had the GT body made for a VW swing axle floor pan shortened to 84" wheelbase.

Deserter GT 

By 1968 sales of my Manx-derived Deserter Series1 were doing well. The bodies and most parts were fabricated at Autodynamics in Marblehead , using engineering and production capacity in the race car shop off season. It was time to do another car. As most east coast dune buggies were used on road, it made sense for the second generation car to cater to that use. I bought a new shape from west-coast designer Brian Dries, then Bill Wood- head, Ray Caldwell and I went to work morphing this into the Deserter GT, and later the mid-engined Deserter GS. For the GT we used an 84" wheelbase - longer than all other buggies and about the same as a Speedster - for better handling and directional stability. Every effort was made to make the body/chassis unit rigid and the suspension soft. We made kits until 1972, then I sold the Deserter business to Autodynamics and moved to Pond Street Marblehead to start my Mercedes-Benz restoration business.

The Red Car 

In 1999 my old customer Dennis Kazmerowski called and couldn't wait to tell me he had found two orginal Deserter GT kits at a body shop in NJ.... unbuilt and for sale! I said no thanks; been there, done that. Couldn't sleep that night. When I got to Pegasus VW in Elizabeth NJ, there they were... the 1969 bodies on the roof and the kits in the cellar. The parts kits were complete, with the unopened boxes marked "packed by AD". How could I not buy this stuff? Two NOS Deserter kits! I sold one kit to Reeves Callaway, and Pete Callaway hauled the other to Jack Daly in Ward Hill for assembly. Alex Finigan found a complete 1969 VW for me... The right year for the new IRS rear pan and suspension. Jack went down to Westport and bought the 912 engine out of Vic Zeller's Speedster. (Later rebuilt by George Nelson) . 

Mike Grishman worked on the project a bit, and noticed that the late 944 cast alloy rear hub carriers were a bolt-in on the '69 VW IRS frame, so, yup, gotta have those. He also sold me a set of 914 seats which would nestle down close to the floor. To keep ride heights correct, these cars need small front wheels and large rears. I found Fuchs alloys in 6X14 and 8X15, and splurged for magnesium lug bolts. Alex Finigan came through again with a complete set of 356 instruments. We filled the side pods with self-hardening styrofoam for rigidity and crash protection, and layered on coats of bedliner for sound deadening. Once assembled the car went to Brim Bell in Somersworth for body prep and many coats of Mercedes 516 mittlerot. The result is a vehicle not too buggy-like, but more like a car... quiet, fast enough, smooth riding and with prodigious grip. Dissimilar tire sizes compensate for the rear weight bias. The almost subterranean center of gravity eliminates the need for any sway bars, even though the ground clearance is about the same as the donor VW. I figured there's no chance this could flip over, so I left off the normal rollbar.

The assembly manual I wrote in 1969 helps, but that only gets the car hung together in a recognizable shape. As veteran restorers will attest, the last 10% of the job takes 90% of the time. Lesson re-learned, but immensely enjoyed. Alex 

Alex still owns this Buggy and is a Member of The Bug Club

The model for this 1970’s advertisement. was Alex’s wife Danna!

Article originally written for and published in the 12/2020 issue of Tub Times the Official newsletter of TYP 356 ne - -Re-published by The Bug Club with permission from Editor Ed Tobolski and Author Alex Dearborn.

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