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Beach Cruiser: 1960 EMPI Sportster

Sometimes it is a case of from the smallest of seeds a mighty tree will grow. That was the case with EMPI, or European Motor Products, Incorporated (later, Engineered Motor Parts, Incorporated). The company’s history is quite complex, but one of the innovations that drove it to success was a single tool that saved mechanics and customers time and money on engine maintenance. Barn Finder Pat L referred this 1960 EMPI Sportster to us, so thank you for that Pat. The Sportster was another step in the ongoing growth and success of EMPI, but they are now a slightly rarer sight on our roads. This one is located in Stanton, California, and is listed for sale here on Craigslist. The owner is asking $8,900 for this VW-based classic.

EMPI was founded in the 1950s in California by Joe Vittone, who ran a car and motorcycle import business called Economotors. After seeing the potential of the new Volkswagens that he was selling, he began to also market performance components from third-party manufacturers. However, it was his hatred of waste that really cemented his place in the industry. The early 36hp VW engines had an appetite for valve guides, and the standard practice at the time was to replace entire cylinder heads when this occurred. This insulted this man’s sensibilities, so he devised a tool that was designed to press out the original bronze guides, and for replacement guides to be pressed back in. The industry sat up and took notice, and plenty of mechanics were clamoring to get their hands on one of these tools. Thus the legend was born, and over time, EMPI diversified into all facets of upgrades for the Volkswagen brand. One of these was the  EMPI Sportster body kit, also known as the Imp. This kit pre-dated the Meyers Manx and had another major point of difference to the Manx. Where the Manx used a fiberglass body, the Sportster’s was all steel. This 1960 model is an early version, and as with all Sportsters, it sits on a shortened VW platform. The body and frame are said to be in good condition, while the floors are also solid. The owner says that the paint isn’t perfect, and there are some flaws in it. The timber has all been finished in Marine Spar varnish and should be capable of facing the worst that nature can throw at it. The windshield latches and folds flat for the ultimate wind-in-the-hair experience, while those white wheels make the vehicle look tough.

As was common practice when the Sportster first hit the market, this one has been built and fitted with a VW Bus gear-reduction transaxle, which provides both good ground clearance and best utilizes the engine’s torque. This engine is a 1967-vintage 1,500cc engine, which is said to run and drive really nicely. Those complex tube headers would certainly give the Sportster a nice note, but it is also clear that this is a vehicle that would be more at home on the sand than the freeway. Still, I can’t think of a much better vehicle for a bit of beachside cruising. The interior is about as spartan as you would expect from a vehicle of this type, but the seats look comfortable, and at least it would be fairly easy to remove a day’s accumulated sand from the vehicle.

While these are a slightly unusual vehicle which can tend to slip under the radar of many people when they are considering any form of beach buggy, there have been a few that have been bought and sold in recent years. These haven’t numbered in their thousands, but they have popped up on occasion over the past 5-years or so. This one is quite a nice example, and the price tends to reflect that, being at the top end of what you would expect to pay. However, it is a vehicle that appears to need little before it can be truly enjoyed, and it would certainly be a brilliant way to really stand out at the beach this Summer.


  1. bobhess bobhess Member

    Neat rig but it does look like the guy building the front didn’t coordinate with the guy building the rear…. or it got high centered somewhere on something larger than itself. Price not bad. Would build some doors for it and hit the road for some fun.

    Like 1
  2. Wayne

    If see my other comments about a previous Sportser you will know that I know these intimately. This one appears to have been produced from the drawings that you could buy from EMPI at the time. Some of the dimensions appear to be not the standard fare. And it is missing body parts. ( side panels next to the seats and the nose cone/pan ) Because of the basic engine and the missing parts. My estimate of value is about $6,500. You don’t see many of these because they are steel. And ones used as beach cruisers rusted away just like the special addition ones with the hard top. Built for California State Parks for beach patrol.

    Like 2
  3. Jack M.

    Great history of EMPI Adam that I was never really aware of because I’ve mostly been in to V-8’s all of my life. I’m sure that I’m not the only one to notice the early Ford Mustang tailights.

    Like 2
    • Frank

      Indeed Jack…the first thing I saw!

      Like 1
  4. Art P.

    Wayne is right. This car has some other problems. The engine is a 1500 single port which is a pretty anemic engine. Just a bit more than 40HP and not much torque. Anything smaller than a 1600 dual port head engine really limits the usefulness of these cars. The rear wheels are way too big. There is no room for suspension travel before hitting the fenders. Also, tires larger than 31″ diameter on a VW dune buggy cause the engine to bog down.

    Like 0
  5. Dale Davis Member

    Seller here. Great write up. I learned a bit about my own car! Like most VW’s this one is very basic and super reliable. Thanks Guys!

    Like 1

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