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Interview: Road Tripping the USA in a Home-made Buggy

Written by: Dave Owen

Most travellers dream about an epic road trip USA adventure, but significantly fewer would consider building their own car to do it.

That’s exactly what Dillon Sterling and Reid Liberato did late last year. Using the shell of a Subaru Outback, they built their own buggy complete with sleeping space, cooking equipment, and mechanical necessities – the only thing it lacked was any doors. Christening the ramshackle vehicle the Hooptie, they set off from their home state of Texas to race the winter to New York and beyond.

We caught up with them both to talk about their unique USA road trip.

hooptie buggy snow colorado


What inspired you to build your own vehicle to road trip the USA?

Dillon Sterling: During the summer of 2017, Reid and I were on an extended road trip around the West Coast of the USA in my sedan. We split our time between national parks and cities that we found interesting. Due to the extended nature of our travelling, we made it our goal to save money by always finding a free place to sleep, even if it meant sacrificing comfort. This usually involved finding a quiet place in nature and setting up the tent. We also got into a routine of cooking all of our meals with a camp stove that we lugged around.

After months of packing and unpacking all of our gear from a small car, we started to envy those travellers who had camper vans. This led us to brainstorm ways in which we could travel more efficiently. One of our ideas involved converting a dune buggy into a dedicated adventure vehicle.

Reid Liberato: Eventually we realised we had a vehicle back on Dillon’s ranch that would make a perfect blank slate with which to test our designs.

DS:
At the time, the buggy (which started as a Subaru Outback) consisted of nothing but a drivetrain, floorboard, and roll cage. After considering all of our alternatives, we decided that the buggy conversion was the most cost-effective and obscurely practical way to move forward.

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What were your design goals, and how long did it take to design, build, and get the buggy legally approved for the road?

RL: Our base idea had to involve a vehicle with no doors or windows, thus achieving the unique look of the Hooptie. Within this design we were looking for all the utilitarian comforts you could find when camping; cooking space, allocated sleeping area and, considering our lack of doors, we needed an area to store valuables safely.

DS: Our most important and overarching design goal was to minimize cost by using repurposed materials. As of today the total investment (not including regular maintenance) is around $400 including the cost of the car.

After our West Coast trip, we had one month to complete the project. We worked long hours seven days per week fixing mechanical problems, sourcing materials, and completing the modifications.

Getting the buggy inspected and legal for the road was an interesting experience, for us and the inspector. The inspector loved our contraption but ultimately failed us over a couple of small problems (muffler and parking brake issues). Interestingly enough, a lack of doors and a sheet of plastic for a windshield is totally acceptable in the state of Texas.

hooptie buggy camping woods

What was your road trip USA route, and how long were you on the road?

DS: The journey started with the goal of seeing if the buggy could make it to New York City. Other than that goal we didn’t have a planned path. We met people on the road and often took advice from locals on which places to see. This is how we found the Blue Ridge Parkway, a highway that doubles as a national park. It stretches from North Carolina to Virginia and follows the ridge of a mountain range, offering stunning scenery the entire drive. We also stopped in Washington DC and saw the US Capitol.

After we made it to NYC we knew we could continue further before it got too cold (It was early October), so we headed to Maine. From there we headed southwest and passed through Buffalo NY, Chicago and made our way to the southern tip of North Dakota. Around that time we decided that the temperature was no longer bearable and headed south to Boulder, Colorado. The total loop lasted 6 weeks. We would have liked to go slower and see more but we ultimately chose the wrong season to explore the northern US in a car with no doors.

Did driving such an unusual car give you any trouble with the police during your journey?

DS: There were three interactions with the police during our entire trip.

RL: In Time Square we were stopped for having our propane tank attached to the back of our baby. The police said, “this could be seen as an explosive.”

DS: After a few formal questions the officers realized that we were on an adventure and meant no harm with the potential explosive not so ironically labelled ‘The Explodorator’ in bold letters.

RL: It ended with taking a few selfies.

DS: The third stop was in Michigan where we were pulled over because our license plate was obstructed by some of our gear. The officer was very harsh at first and seemed quite confused by our vehicle. He even checked our VIN to make sure everything matched in the registration documents. After chatting for a few minutes he lightened up and also got pictures with our vehicle.

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What were the advantages to road tripping in a custom vehicle? And did you encounter any shortcomings or design flaws along the way?

RL: I laughed out loud at this question!

DS: There were many advantages and an equal number of shortcomings to travelling in this particular vehicle. Being able to cook food and sleep anywhere proved to be the main advantage. This vehicle is certainly not discreet, but it also isn’t always obvious what is going on with it. We got away with camping in quite a few urban locations, including New York City, without any trouble.

RL: I found the advantages not so directly connected to the vehicle’s build as much as the idea of the vehicle itself. The fact that no matter where we went, people had a smile and a few questions or a story, and even a prayer or two, really lent to our moral.

DS: The main obvious shortcoming is the lack of protection from the elements. We had to compensate with additional clothes. As the weather continued to get colder as we travelled north, we stopped at thrift stores and accumulated more and more layers. By the time we made it to Maine, the average temperature was around 36 F (2 C) and we were each wearing 8 layers of clothing. On several occasions, we had to stop driving and heat up drinking water to increase our core temperature. Another way we dealt with the cold was with a system of dryer vent tubes. We used them to pipe hot air from the heater vents directly into our clothing.

We also went during a particularly rainy period of time. Our hardest rain was outside of Asheville, NC. It rained heavily for two hours as we made it into town. This is when we learned that the windshield only shielded wind – it certainly didn’t stop much water!

A not-so-obvious design flaw is the complete destruction of the car’s streamline. The car is now the aerodynamic equivalent of a parachute. This destroyed our fuel mileage and our hopes and dreams of driving at highway speeds.

RL: We got very good at doing on the spot repairs almost like pit stops every time we stopped for gas.

Niagara Falls tourists

What was your favourite experience of the whole USA road trip?

DS: Hands down the best part of the trip was the human element. From the first day to the last, we met so many genuine and interesting people. In the beginning we didn’t really expect people to be overly interested in the vehicle or our journey. However, we were blown away by the number and quality of interactions we had. This ranged anywhere from messages on our Instagram account, to people inviting us to their homes and cooking us breakfast (this happened multiple times).

RL: We talked with gang kids on the streets of New York, we stayed and worked on a farm in Amish country Wisconsin, we drove a father and son to school in what had to be the coolest car any of those school kids have ever seen.

DS: I’ll never forget watching his son wave to his friends out of the doorless Hooptie.

RL: We were given so much by the people around us. It’s so beautiful to see the unquestioning kindness of people when there is so much news to the contrary.

hooptie buggy camping stove

Did you have any sketchy or scary moments during the road trip?

DS: It’s hard not to say that the whole trip was sketchy. However, there were some particularly sketchy moments that I must mention.

The first was a blizzard we drove through on the way to Buffalo, NY. First off, I have no experience driving in the snow. Secondly, we are thousands of miles from home, at night, in the middle of nowhere, driving a roll cage on wheels. The only thing keeping the windshield from completely freezing over was a small gap in the hood that let engine heat spill onto the windshield. We could have stopped and waited out the blizzard, but we were meeting up with a friend that night so we decided to keep driving.

Another sketchy moment was in Michigan. The car started overheating so I checked the coolant and found oil and combustion gasses. From experience, I knew these were symptoms of a blown head gasket. I feared that we would have to ditch the Hooptie and fly home. I knew that we could replace the head gasket on the road but it would be very difficult, and paying a shop to fix it was too expensive and against the philosophy of the project. We built the vehicle to be expendable, if it ever became unreliable or expensive, we would push it to the nearest scrap yard and come up with a new plan. Our solution to the head gasket leak was ultimately to ignore it and stop if the car started overheating. We learned what type of driving caused it to overheat and did our best to avoid those conditions. We continuously checked the fluids and limped all the way back to Texas over the next few weeks.

RL: Our mothers would consider some of the places we slept sketchy. We spent one night up in the bushes of an old abandoned army base. We spent quite a few nights out in fields and plenty other nights just parallel parked somewhere in a city.

Do you have any future adventures in the buggy planned? If so, what modifications will it need?​

DS: We have a four-six month trip to Alaska planned for the summer of 2019. We currently have four people who are going and I’m considering establishing a caravan of more vehicles for additional adventurers. There is an extensive list of modifications. Most of them revolve around creating more sleeping space and improving fuel efficiency, and maybe adding some doors if there is time. Our plan is to build a lightweight trailer and remove the rooftop tent. We will design the trailer to streamline the air and minimize the turbulence that we currently struggle with.

Our dream is to do the entire Pan-American Highway in the Hooptie. The Alaska trip will be the first half of this trip. The Central and South America portion of the trip will be the main challenge and will depend on what type of support we are able to establish.

RL: We’ve even dreamed of the Hooptie in South East Asia. I think for now we really have our minds set on modifications first. We will keep our eyes open for opportunity and I’m sure our best adventure will make itself known.

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