Hunter Valley Dune Buggy Club

It’s a movement that seems to have risen and disappeared almost as quickly as the drift sand that flows across the dunes: Newcastle’s own homemade beach buggy culture.

Head out onto Stockton Bight today and you’re likely to see a parade of 4×4 vehicles in familiar shapes and sizes: Range Rovers; Landcruisers; Jeeps. But it wasn’t that long ago that you wouldn’t have been able to identify any of them because they weren’t name-brands fresh off the assembly line, they were one-of-a-kinds pieced together from scrap, spare parts, and cut-downs in the backyards of suburbia.

Inspired by the Kustom Kulture that emerged in the United States in the 1950s, local fishermen and automotive enthusiasts alike took to building cars that they could take out onto the sand, either to get quick access to the water or just burn off some steam on the weekend.

Sydney’s PIX magazine sent photographer David Cumming to Newcastle in 1966 to capture the phenomenon.

These images were sourced through the State Library of NSW. In the absence of a copy of the magazine itself, I had to do some further investigation to discover some of the story and context behind them. To do this, I turned to some local experts.

The first thing to figure out was the location of where these images were shot. Given that iconic Nobby’s Headland is not visible in the southern facing shots, these are clearly not the usual haunts of Stockton Beach or Fern Bay. There was some speculation that this could be Blacksmiths or Redhead. Local enthusiast Dave Baldwin suggested that it was Nine Mile Beach, and that he himself had a buggy there, cut down from a Zephyr Zodiac with airplane tires. Some others suggested that it was in fact in Sydney, either Wanda Beach in Cronulla or Botany Bay. The most likely candidate however seems to be somewhere along Port Stephens, such as Morna Point or Birubi.

Feeling fairly confident about the location, the next thing to do was figure out some details of the buggy itself, and what, if anything this might reveal about the pictures. Nat Hails and Cam Blunsden speculated that this vehicle is based on a shortened Chevrolet from the late ’20s or early ’30s with a 216 straight-six engine. Mark Speirs had some further observations, and revealed to me that this was a far more prolific scene than first thought:

“No roll bar! There was a bunch of Holden-powered beach buggies at Fern Bay during the ’70s and early ’80s. My brother had one. It had twin carbies — they certainly ripped along up the back dunes. That bloke driving along in the water is lucky he got out. One broke down below the high water line just where you used to be able to park behind the hospital in Stockton and just slowly sank. The last thing I remember seeing was the corner of the roll bar!”

“Pulling down dad’s EJ to build a beach buggy”. Photo by Mark Speirs

Once I started to put the word out about the PIX magazine images, a number of people got in touch to share their own stories. As it turns out, this is a largely forgotten piece of local history, a coastal custom car scene that was active all over the region.

John ODonohue, Stockton, 1966.

“This was homemade buggy I built with mates. Originally a 1935 V8 Ford Roadster with dual back wheels and shortened chassis. What a sin to chop up such a beautiful car I think now!” — John ODonohue

“These buggies were quite common in the ’60s and ’70s, especially around Fern Bay and Stockton. People used ’em to get onto the beach and across the dunes to the best fishin’ spots. Or just for the leisure of drivin’ through the coastal bush. The beach resembled a highway sometimes. The cops shut it down eventually” — Robert Gray

“I had two buggies, both Volkswagen. One I built myself. I had a lot of fun on the beach between Stockton and Birubi Point. I lived on the hospital grounds and got to the beach through the cemetery. It was all just for our own pleasure and some fishing at Taylor Beach. This was between 1975 and 1980” — David McCosker

Homemade buggy on Stockton Beach c/o Mark Coleman

It was Carl Digger who brought the existence of local dune buggy clubs to my attention, further underscoring just what a well established this culture this was:

“My parents were part of the Hunter Valley Dune Buggy Club in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The meetings were just about every Sunday. The members had mainly VW-based buggies. Some had Manx fiberglass bodies. There was one member who had a rails buggy with a Holden engine at the rear like they do with F1 cars. The Club was a wonderful family-based club that pushed hard for safety. Over time the vehicles were equipped with seat belts, roll bars, and a tall flag to help warn others that you were there. I learned to drive on the dunes and beach. A couple of times the club was part of the Mattara Parade. Great times and the buggies did less harm to the dunes compared to 4WDs. They were lighter vehicles.”

Homemade buggy in the 60’s. Photo by Allan Searant.

Allan Searant shared his story, which spanned many decades and showed some crossover with the stock car racing that was happening at the speedways in Tomago and further out in the Hunter Valley:

“The picture above is of the homemade buggy my brother Roger built in the ’60s, with my father and a friend. They were independent of any clubs and mainly used the buggy for fishing. We camped at Sandbar a lot. This looks like the south end of the beach, but a lot of sand had been washed away by heavy seas. We’d go out to Redhead Beach too before the Police became more involved!”.

“Both of my brothers — Roger & Graham Searant — were involved in stock car racing at Morrisset and Heddon Greta in the late ’60s. It cost a lot of time and money to be involved and the prize money was piddly, if the promoters hadn’t run away with the cash!”

“Our family is fairly mechanically minded, in fact, us kids learned to drive from about 12 years old in very old cars in the paddock opposite our home in Charlestown. Our father Max was the Maintenance Manager for transport group Toll Chadwick, so we had access to and support from many businesses in the motor industry”.

Local stock car racing. Photo by Allan Searant.

While the club was clearly focused on the safety of its members, there was at least one death reported, though many years after this early period. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Buggy racer killed” details the fate of an unnamed 50-year-old driver, killed during the Hunter Valley Dune Buggy Club off-road race at Stockton. His custom-built car was traveling at a speed of about 80 km per hour when it tilted upright and was hit by another competitor. That there is only reported fatality suggests this was a very safe practice, with skilled drivers and well-built machines.

Judging by that article, it would seem that the club was still active at the turn of the century, but by all reports, the homebrew buggy culture seems to have largely given way to manufactured models by the mid-80s. Allan Searant, shared these photos of his father with two limited edition 1968 Volkswagen Town & Country buggies, which is he says worked well on the beach.

Details on club memberships have been elusive, as have the particular legal arrangements clubs have with the use of the dunes. The most up-to-date legislation I could find about buggy racing was from 1994, and it states that Hunter Water Corporation Limited is responsible for care and control of the land on the bight where most of the racing appears to have taken place. Essentially it seems that HWC has permitted the use of the land for clubs with unregistered vehicles, according to strict rules and regulations:

“In addition to registered RVs and 4WDs, there are also recreational vehicles which are not registered but whose owners are members of a club, such as the Hunter Valley or Newcastle Dune Buggy Club. In this situation the club holds its activities on land approved for use by the landowner (or occupier) and, in addition, has insurance coverage for a particular tract of land stated in the policy. This latter category of vehicle is referred to in this report as an “unregistered RV”.

What, if anything, has changed about this arrangement today is unknown to me, but Azriel, a member of a 4X4 internet forum made a post in 2016 that alluded to stricter regulations having been put into place and that some dune racing had been outlawed altogether:

“I remember getting onto Stockton 15 to 20 years ago as a young-un and we would drive, ride dirt bikes, camp and surf all weekend. There was a dune buggy club that would hold events, a quad bike club that would have regular outings, people would fish off the beach and I even remember horses being ridden there. It saddens me that it has come to what it has as those were some of the best days I ever had. We used to get silly and ski on old bodyboards with tow ropes and ride in the tray of the ute which we look back at and wonder why the rangers never pulled us up for it but back then it was only just starting to be a concern. Hell, we even climbed over the Maheno wreck and jumped off the edge for a laugh. Do that now and you’ll probably fall through and get sliced pretty badly! There was rubbish but in general, people were mostly good and took out what they took in. The worst was actually a huge cable that was buried just over the beachfront from the Maheno that occasionally would be exposed after storms and be a huge hazard if you didn’t keep a good eye out”.

Whether or not this has any relation to the phase-out of homemade vehicles, or if that is just a sign of the times, is also still a mystery.

Perhaps the best and most detailed account of the local buggy clubs available is contained in an episode of Ask the Leyland Brothers from 1976. The show, which ran for eight years, saw Mike and Mal Leyland visit places of interest in Australia and New Zealand based on viewer suggestions. In the episode above — from the 14-minute mark — Mike speaks to Don Werner, president of Newcastle Dune Buggy Club, about the sport. They discuss everything from the nature of the builds to their environmental impact, followed by a ride that captures this great part of Hunter Coast history in action.

If you have any information, photos, video, or memorabilia from the Hunter Valley or Newcastle Buggy Clubs please get in touch via email.

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Categorized as Fathoms
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.