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Metal-Bodied Buggy: 1966 VW / Empi Sportster

A bit odd-looking by modern standards, this VW Empi Sportster was quite popular in its day. It still turns heads, and is listed for sale here on craigslist in Santa Paula, California, at an affordable $5500 asking price. Big thanks to Rocco for letting us know about it! Intrigued? Read on for more information!

Everyone knows the story of Volkswagen, so we can skip ahead to the mid-1950s. Volkswagen had slowly gained ground and followers in America, and a demand for repair and soup-up parts was beginning to form. Joe Vittone, a VW dealer in Riverside, CA,  was already at the forefront of the burgeoning market, supplying many aftermarket parts for VW of all types. One day, he discovered a need for a tool to make replacement of the valve guides on 25- and 36-horsepower variants of the air-cooled flat-four engine easier. He and his team at Economotors came up with such a tool, and it was a smashing success.

With this success, Joe saw an opportunity for a brand-new venture: European Motor Products, Incorporated (EMPI) was born. They went on to create some of the highest-quality, most-iconic aftermarket parts for VWs, some of which are still in production or highly-sought-after today.

The Sportster (and its sibling, the Imp) were allegedly EMPI’s answers to the rockin’ success of Bruce Meyer’s “Manx” fiberglass-body fun machine, using drivetrains and underpinnings from Type 1 or 2 Volkswagen, and later on, Corvair mill. Basically, the Sportster was a sheet metal buggy built on a VW Beetle floorpan. It was available in a two passenger model or a four passenger model. All Sportsters featured a “Deluxe Folding Windshield” and were constructed of 20-, 18-, and 12- gauge steel. As for production: You could get a turn-key, nearly-turn-key, or DIY kit. Of course, you could also get just about every dress-up bit from them as well.

As for this one, the seller gives us quite a bit of useful information. We’re told that a lot of maintenance and driveability work was done to it, sometime last year, including an engine rebuild. Additionally, we’re told that there is some rust present, and that it could use paint. The Christmas theme stuff in some of the pictures was apparently done temporarily for this past Holiday season, and has since been removed. Other than the LED light bar on the nose, it looks rather period-correct – we’re not given Interior pictures to say for sure on that.

Overall, it looks like a neat little fair-weather cruiser. There’s a bunch of information on the web, including this 1967 Popular Science article and this article on Scribd, and James Hale’s The Dune Buggy Phenomenon. I kinda dig it and would consider having it for fun cruising and maybe some light-duty off-road adventures, but that’s just me. What do YOU think? Let us know in the comments!



  1. F Again

    Among the vehicles I repair in my shop are all-steel VW buggies built by a shop an hour north of here. Every ranch has at least one of the damn things as work vehicles. No VW pans, they are built on a steel-plate chassis and use Bay-Window Bus transaxles. Pretty bombproof, all told. Guys’ll just ram bulls with ’em, treat everything like a demolition derby’s underway.

    Side-by-sides get ripped apart by the terrain out here in Big Bend Texas, and they are costly to stick back together, meaning these dumb steel VW buggies just keep churning along, given there are a few dummies like me down here that keep them working.

    Anyway, this guy here reminds me of ’em.

    Like 11
  2. Earl

    I hope they get the asking price. I have one of these. The ones made or kits from EMPI are worth more. Mine was made from plans from EMPI. They are both light and rugged. Good luck.

    Like 5
  3. Dale Davis Member

    Cool little buggy. I had the opportunity to speak with the seller last week as he had located the two previous Empi’s we had in stock. This one looks well cared for and has been a lot of fun for the owner.

    Funny story; the seller probably wouldn’t be selling except the fiberglass buggy club in his area won’t allow the metal buggy in so he bought a plastic one to join. This little ugly duckling should find a good home.

    Also, I bet you can get the sleigh. And you definitely want the sleigh.

    Like 8
  4. Louis B Phillips Member

    Joe Vittone gave me my first management job in the car business back in 1971. I was the used car manager at Economotors back then, great fun and still friends with some of the people I worked with in Riverside. We had a couple of those buggies in our used car inventory after Joe had me buy some of the old EMPI inventory. Joe’s son Darryl built some of the hottest flat four powered bugs in the country back than, before he went in to water cooled VW stuff.

    Like 1
  5. Wayne

    Either the values have dropped over he last couple of years. Or this is a screaming deal. Nice condition ones in Northern CA and NV were going for $8,000 2 years ago when I was paying attention. I have written this before when another was posted about a year ago. My son not only has the factory “bent” kit installed on his floor pan. The kit also came with the factory widened rear wheels. He also has the original plans to “bend up your own”. I ran into a guy in Klamouth Falls OR with one that had been bent up with some modifications. He claimed that there were approximately 30 running around his area. All made from the same plans.
    The story that I read about was that the state of CA was having problems patrolling the beaches because of all the buggies running around so they hooked up with EMPI to make patrol units out of metal so that damaged body parts could be easily replaced. They also required the sporty little units to have a roof to help keep the sun of of the officers. I had the opportunity to by one of the old patrol units that was terribly rusted ( which is what happened to those units running on the beach) so I passed. ( at the time I did not know what it was) So EMPI started selling “non-hard top units” to the public.
    This one in the article seems to me to be built from plans as I see extended body, missing side rails, the missing spare tire mount on the nose where the LED driving lights are and the bed that does not cover the engine fan shroud. Maybe that is why the “cheap” price.
    Fun units, no matter what.

    Like 2
  6. 4spdBernie 4spdBernie

    06-2021 update: This isn’t an Empi, the front fenders identify it as a 1966 Stallion Roadster, one of 10 factory built by Stallion in Long Beach, CA. The serial number is on the hump between the seats, should be SR66XXX. I own Number 8, pretty much untouched since 1966. How exciting to see another still exists!

    Like 0
  7. 4spdBernie 4spdBernie

    Stallion Roadster #8…lives again! 1st startup in decades ->

    Like 0
  8. 4spdBernie 4spdBernie

    Stallion Roadster #8 driving on and off road ->
    on road https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LaFsRnLe-ZA
    off road https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOqKfJxn4nw

    Like 0
  9. Paul Flaming

    I found this frame and bought it for $10. I’ve been building it since. I’m about ready to get it legal and have some fun.

    Like 0

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