Waiting at a junction in my tin can hatchback with the air conditioning working overtime during the uncharacteristically sweltering temperatures the UK experienced recently, a very alfresco GP beach buggy drove past, and my I almost melted with envy at the thought of driving such a fresh air machine in such extreme heat.
The eight best beach cars | Axon’s Automotive Anorak
In the all-too-rare scorching summer days we occasionally experience on our large island, a totally open car, with no roof, doors or side windows, seems like the ideal way to get from A-to-B with the wind in your hair and sun burning your knees, even if it is not practical or very useable for the remaining 90 per cent of the year.
Driving down to (and possibly on) the beach to soak up the rays, go for a dip, fall off a surfboard, build a sand castle and play volleyball is a summer dream most motorists have never realised in their hot metal SUV or saloon canisters, the prospect of catching the warm summer breeze from behind the steering wheel on the open road being an exceptional sensation.
Just as the summer heat is turning into cooler drizzle (at the time of writing), here are eight top sunny production machines just ready and waiting to whisk you to the beach when (and if) the sun returns, each one derived from regular showroom.
Ghia Fiat 600 Jolly
Arguably the Godfather of all open sided beach cars, from the late 1940s onwards, the sheer quantity of production Fiat-derived beach cars could fill a hefty encyclopedia.
Originally conceived by local coachbuilders for wealthy Italians who would not ordinarily consider being seen in with a regular Fiat city car, be it a Topolino, 500, 600, 850 or Panda, dispensing with the roof, windscreen and doors to convert into a handy open Fiat runabout and yacht shuttle became an attractive and fashionable proposition.
The popularity for these cars began post-war as a way to travel between private yacht and beach, with the cut-down doors allowed easy access with an awning style roof canopy keeping the sun’s rays at bay. To prevent the ‘beautiful people’ unintentionally falling out of their coachbuilt open-sided baby Fiats, a cursory rope or chain substituted for regular doors, with cooling and water-proof wicker ‘deck chair-style’ seats replacing the standard upholstered items.
The most familiar of all converted Fiat-based beach cars has to be Jolly models, designed and built by Ghia. It created hundreds of these alfresco vehicles, usually based on the Fiat 500, 600 and even the 600 Multipla (the Ghia 600 Jolly becoming the most iconic), with a few Renault 4CV Jolly’s built as well. Ghia dispensed with doors in favour of a cut-down side openings, often with chromed yacht-like hand rails to hold on to, with a Surrey-fringe-style roof canopy, plus wicker seats becoming a Jolly trademark. Wealthy high-profile clients such as Aristotle Onassis and Yul Brynner used their Ghia 600 Jolly beach cars to amble between their Mediterranean villas, yachts and the seafront, with these tiny Fiats now being highly valuable collector’s items.
BMC Mini Moke
Originally conceived as a lightweight and versatile BMC Mini-based military vehicle suitable for dropping out of aircraft by parachute, the Moke soon become an icon of the Swinging Sixties, as the trendy and fun vehicle to be seen in, helped by contemporary film and TV appearances, plus stars such as Brigitte Bardot, who made a Moke her wheels of choice when zipping around locally in Saint Tropez.
Built around the Mini’s pioneering front-wheel-drive, transverse engine base, the Moke failed to impress the military services, due to its small 10-inch wheels and limited ground clearance which restricted its off-road capabilities.
With the failure of the Moke in its intended military markets, and ahead of introducing a civilian version of the vehicle, in 1961 BMC decided to build its own open-sided beach car using a regular Mini bodyshell as the base, with the doors and rear side panels removed (but the roof section retained in the interests of rigidity) and the standard interior swapped for fast-drying wicker seats. Never launched as a regular production model, around 15 BMC Mini beach prototypes were built, with a single right-hand-drive model made that was loaned to the Queen and briefly used at Windsor Castle.
Meyers Manx Dune Buggy
Recently deceased, Californian Bruce Meyers was the ‘inventor’ of the now ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle-based dune buggy, one of the most playful motor cars ever created. In the early 1960s, Meyers took a shortened Beetle chassis, with its simple rear-mounted air-cooled engine, and dressed it in a swoopy open fibreglass plastic body, reduced to its simplest form with (an optional) windscreen and no roof or doors. The affordable result was intended for desert racing, but easy-to-assemble kit form versions quickly found favour with California’s surf crowd, the buggy optimising the Beach Boys ideals and generation.
The Meyers dune buggy formula proved so popular that it has since been copied countless times over the last six decades. The buggy made the most of fibreglass as a new material that allowed small companies to make curvy bodies cheaply, spawning many thousands of imitators across the globe, with GP being the most commonplace of British-built beach buggies. The original Meyers buggy is one of only a few still produced and available today, with little changed cosmetically over the original 1964 launch model, with Brazil now taking over from the USA as the world’s top beach buggy producer.
Inspired by the popularity of the Mini Moke, in May 1968 Citroën presented its cheap and cheerful utility Mehari (named after a fast-running dromedary camel). This basic new lightweight Citroën used an ABS plastic moulded body, created by specialist subcontractor SEAP, mounted on a Dyane 6 chassis (that being almost identical to a 2CV’s separate platform), and sharing its air-cooled 602cc engine.
The Mehari’s innovative ABS body (not dissimilar to a plastic washing-up bowl) offered the advantage of being totally rust proof, unlike the chassis which was (and remains) rust prone, though easy and inexpensive to replace. The functional Citroën was even more basic than its famous 2CV ‘Tin Snail’ sibling, thanks to a removable canvas roof, cut-down doors/chains, plus a fold-flat and dismountable windscreen. This made it ideal for hosing out sand and muck, while its long travel suspension and light weight meant it could easily take rough ground in its stride, unlike its Mini Moke mentor.
Enjoying classic cult status today, with prices to match, the 1968-88 Mehari went on to inspire the short-lived E-Mehari, an all-electric beach car briefly made for Citroën by electric vehicle experts Bollore.
The 2016 E-Mehari took elements of the 1968 original and modern C4 Cactus to create something only Citroën could dream up. Launched as an electric only fun car with a 69PS (51kW) motor and limited 124-mile range, the E-Mehari’s brittle ride and hefty price tag meant this updated 21st Century version found few takers with production ending less than three years later.
Renault 4 Plein Air
Developed by off-road chassis experts Sinpar on behalf of Renault, the R4 Plein Air was distinguished by its absolute minimalism, like a Renault 4 beheaded with a chainsaw. The Plein Air was essentially a converted standard R4 with all of its doors removed and a simple side panel installed.
Launched around the same time in 1968 as the Citroën Mehari, the open-sided R4 Plein Air’s appeal and success were far more limited and after just two years the model was quietly withdrawn, to be replaced in Renault’s Continental showrooms by the ACL/Teihol Rodeo ‘jeep’ models, based on the platform of the R4, R6 and later R5.
Aimed directly at the jugular of the rival Citroën Mehari, the Renault Rodeo enjoyed a 27-year lifespan that started in 1970 when the first was built based on the R4 van’s floorpan. It retained front-wheel-drive and 845cc engine, but the boxy body was made from plastic and offered a fully open cabin. Only a slender central roll bar offered any protection and the doors were replaced by a rope to comply with period vehicle regulations.
Taking its Vamos model name from the Portuguese term for ‘let’s go’, this tiny Honda kei car leisure vehicle was produced from 1970 to 1973, with the Vamos name revived in 1999 for a kei microvan-based MPV.
Based around the mechanicals of the popular Honda N360 passenger saloon and TN360 van, the Vamos was available with an optional and removable rear seat (known as the Vamos 4), with a rudimentary convertible top that was quick and easy to remove, plus basic metal side bars to help prevent occupants falling out around corners.
Due to its open cabin configuration, all of the small Honda beach car’s instrumentation and switches were both water- and dust-proof. Only around 2,500 examples of the original Vamos were made over a short three-year production run, making this model a much-sought, desirable and now expensive collector’s item in Japan today.
Felber Ferrari 365 GTC/4 Beach Car
Exclusive Swiss specialist coachbuilder Felber created its wild 1970s Ferrari 365 GTC/4-based Beach Car by commissioning master vehicle stylist Giovanni Michelotti to design the car. From the mid-‘70s, the Beach Car was widely offered for general sale, although very few affluent customers were tempted to have Felber wield an angle grinder to a rare Ferrari 365 GTC/4 with the Pininfarina GT coupe’s doors and roof removed.
The Ferrari’s sills were deepened to replace some of the strength lost from the more rigid original coupe bodywork to create a large, costly and quick beach buggy. Felber furnished the Ferrari Beach Car’s spartan interior with wicker seats, plus a modest soft-top was added to keep the rain off between the morning Monaco harbour swim and evening après-ski Alpine lodge.
Volkswagen 181 (Trekker, The Thing)
Like BMC’s Mini Moke, the Volkswagen Type 181 (a.k.a. the 182 and Trekker in the UK, Safari in Mexico and The Thing in the USA) was originally designed for army use. Built on a standard Beetle floorpan and with styling inspired by the World War II VW Kübelwagen, the 181’s career was soon diverted from its initial military destiny, as it was briefly considered to be cool, carefree and daring. Able to take a quartet of young idealists with their guitars, surf boards and flower necklaces, the 181 was sluggish but mechanically indestructible with its rear-mounted air-cooled Beetle engine.
Difficult to define, Volkswagen’s in-house take on the beach buggy theme earned the name The Thing in its biggest market, the USA, being very practical (with detachable doors, windscreen and roof) and surprisingly capable off-road, despite being limited to two-wheel-drive.
The first examples were supplied to the German and Belgian military, but civilian sales got underway in 1971 with production ending in 1983 after 90,883 had been built, with more than half going being put to use in armed services when new.
Ideal for those long, hot summer days perhaps, although the VW’s stark black PVC vinyl seats could get very sticky with large beach towels recommended to shield them from the midday sun!
Fiat, Meyers and VW images courtesy of Bonhams.
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