J. Ruiter Reboot Buggy

"I've got a secret car club," designer Joey Ruiter tells me. The club in question is defined, in both spirit and literal membership, by the gold and black t-shirt he's wearing that bares the shorthand exclamation, "MIDZWL" across the chest. The letters are shorthand for the phrase "Might as well..." and represent the attitude of the kind of person it takes to build the vehicle I'm here to see and drive: the Reboot Buggy.

"Might as well" is a phrase uttered and heard with some frequency amongst the circles of car guys and tinkerers the world over. "Well, I needed to replace the front discs anyway, so I figured I might as well get a bigger set of Brembos. Then I wasn't sure I had exactly the clearance I needed from the wheel, so I guessed I might as well get a set of eighteens while I was at it; and at that point, I might as well do the rear brakes, too..." You know this guy. Perhaps you are this guy.

Ruiter is most certainly "that guy," as evidenced by the imposing black, open-topped-box vehicle that I'm wide-eyed over in his Grand Rapids, MI garage. The Reboot Buggy started as "the notion of a city car" and an "exercise in curiosity," and ended up here, with a vehicle that can jump over sand dunes, pick up the kid from school, turn every head that it passes and enthrall car writers like me enough to make the trip to come see it. The "Reboot" part of the sobriquet was meant as a concise definition – what you get when you strip away all the conventions of car building, and make a pure, functional vehicle. An eye for interesting form, a love of machines and more than a handful of MIDZWLs later, and you end up with this beastie. Henry Ford never had it so good.

J. Ruiter Reboot Buggy

The most common exchange: "That thing is cool! ... Wait ... What is it?"

I spent the day with Ruiter, driving the Buggy on road and two-track around some open farm country near Grand Rapids. At stopovers, gas stations and restaurants, the most common exchange with the many obviously interested members of the public all went down along these lines: "That thing is cool! ... Wait ... What is it?" I wrote a few short pieces on the Reboot when he first showed it to the press last year, or I'd probably be asking the same questions. In fact, Ruiter himself admits that his stark design work "doesn't answer the questions fast enough" when it comes to the elemental stuff.

That's also why I brought Autoblog video wiz-kid Chris McGraw along with me on the visit to the Ruiter compound; I knew that words weren't going to be enough to get the point across with this one.

Reboot Buggy

Bored and stroked and fitted with electronic fuel injection, the Chevy engine offers a sonic kick in the gut upon first firing.

From a technical standpoint, the Reboot Buggy is custom-built, steel-tube chassis that supports a cockpit and a few aluminum-skinned body panels, with an extraordinary suspension keeping knobby 40-inch tires (mostly) on the ground. Mounted in the middle, just behind the small of the driver's back, is a 6.7-liter (383-cubic-inch) small-block V8 of Chevy origin. The swing-down doors, made from ballistic plastic, don't really allow for ingress and egress so much as they protect occupants from road debris – to get into either seat, you still have to climb up and over the frame. About the only non-essential items I counted on the vehicle were the winch in the front (though I'm sure it could come in handy considering where the Buggy might travel), the hilariously tiny hot rod windshield wipers and the rearview mirror. Thankfully, the mirror, which Ruiter has never bother to affix with anything more serious than a daub of glue, fell harmlessly out of my way about two minutes into our first ride.

With a few notable exceptions like the doors and the bespoke chassis, Ruiter and his fabricators have constructed the Reboot Buggy with parts that are either easy to work on, easy to acquire, or (ideally) both.

The mid-mounted V8 is the perfect example. The first time we prompted the small-block to riotous life – a completely satisfying procedure that involves flipping a toggle switch and depressing a starter button – the sounds and smells were at once exotic and nostalgic. Bored and stroked and fitted with electronic fuel injection, the Chevy engine offers a sonic kick in the gut upon first firing, settling quickly into a high-decibel, basso idle through its short-run Magnaflow exhaust. This is a setup that would be loud as hell anyway if heard through the bodywork of your standard 1970's muscle car, so it's completely batshit-wonderful when heard unmuted in the open air.

J. Ruiter Reboot Buggy

The steering wheel is removable, as both a 'convenience' feature and a hilarious security measure.

Suspension components are off-the-shelf fare, too, with the rear end coming from a Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator and the beefy, 250-pound coilover springs from well-known off-road supplier King. That rear spring was difficult to place correctly, mounted roughly in the middle of the 98-inch trailing arm rather than at the wheel. The eventual geometry made the most sense considering stroke, speed and the 28 inches of total travel per wheel (12 inches of bump travel). The result is an underpinning that can take the punch of a serious dune jump while still riding comfortably (more or less) on the road.

The cabin is just as austere as the profile of the Buggy; there are beautiful elements, but each one serves a purpose. A row of toggle switches and one dial control lights, blinkers, wipers, and fan speed, (there is a heater), while throwback style five-point harnesses buckle you tightly into snug black bucket seats. The steering wheel is also removable (though I didn't have a problem sliding into place with it still affixed), as both a 'convenience' feature and a hilarious security measure. You know, in case you need to park it while you do the shopping.

The interior space is actually beautifully outlined in well-crafted welds and angular metal, more attractive, rather than less, for its utter rejection of adornment. That said, it's never lovelier than when you are behind the wheel with the throttle fully open.

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As a road car, it's every bit as visceral as you'd expect, and surprisingly more refined in some respects.

Ruiter and his buddy Mark Baas (who stopped by to say hello) of Baas Creative made a really excellent video of the Reboot Buggy, mostly showing its capability where jumping dunes and shooting fire from its tailpipes are concerned. After seeing that the Buggy was clearly more than capable in its role as a sort of dune buggy-plus, I was just as interested in feeling out what its on-road experience would be like.

Oh, did I mention this rig is street legal?

Knowing that I shouldn't be worried about getting busted (and ignoring the infraction of the dropped rearview mirror) we took the Reboot out and around some farm roads before eventually succumbing to the temptation offered by a friendly neighborhood gravel pit.

As a road car, it's every bit as visceral as you'd expect by looking at it, and surprisingly more refined in some respects. The underpinnings are obviously set up to absorb major impacts, so traveling over the ruts and cracks of your typical Michigan road hardly register through the wheel or the floor. What's more, with a nicely sorted hydraulic power steering setup, maneuvering the Buggy doesn't take much more effort than your typical, old-school SUV. Parking lots and gas station spots still require a bit of forethought because of the vehicle's substantial width, but with an overall length just a bit greater than its 126-inch wheelbase, it's actually very compact. I didn't dare it, but parallel parking should be an easy exercise.

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If Ruiter were feeling playful, he could have accurately named the buggy "Donut Machine."

The exotic suspension setup did make me think twice when cornering on anything but gravel, however. Though Ruiter is convinced he'll take it to the track one day and I believe his contention that the wide tires would offer significant grip, at normal speeds, the suspension leans more in a corner than any current production vehicle I can name. A few turns in, you realize that the Buggy is still plenty stable beneath you while this is happening, but it still does take some getting used to.

The powerful V8 would be more of an easy leap for track driving, as its readily accessible torque makes the truck feel bloody quick from the jump. The activities of the three-speed transmission are barely noticeable below the furor of this mighty small block, and every tiny tap of the throttle set the rear tires to digging hard into the pavement (or gravel). On more than a few occasions throughout the day, I gave into the always-present temptation to dial in some lock and break the rear tires loose. If Ruiter were feeling playful, he could have accurately named the buggy "Donut Machine" without fear of reprisal.

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From a dynamic standpoint, this is a vehicle that scratches the driving enthusiast itch.

From a dynamic standpoint, once you understand the way the Buggy handles, it's clear that this is a vehicle that scratches the driving enthusiast itch.

In fact, with the exception of the slightly – ahem – nuanced slam-style shifter for the three-speed auto 'box, the only driverly fault I could find with the Buggy was in its application of the brakes. The stop pedal has been moved forward from its original position due to a fitment issue, and could stand to have a bigger booster. Effecting a timely stop requires a really muscular effort from your right leg every time. In fact, I took to left-foot braking for most of the day, as I had better leverage and felt more in control (and quicker) with my free clodhopper on the brakes.

In terms of off-road capability, nothing we had to drive over at the local gravel pit offered much of a challenge. The Reboot Buggy seemed to almost float over waist-high bumps and climbed hills that would be impassable in almost any other street-legal thing. What's more, it did so with a smoothness that caused me to push harder and drive faster with each subsequent lap. It was a kind of involved driving that I'd not really experienced before, an activity that I can recognize as being highly addictive. And all that was without ever having more than two wheels off the ground, much to Ruiter's disappointment. I'll do better next time.

J. Ruiter Reboot Buggy

It's art that'll make you laugh out loud on a sunny day in a fallow field, or a gravel pit, or with a horizon full of sand dunes stretched out ahead of you.

Ever since I saw the first photos, I'd been craving wheel time with the Reboot Buggy – something between its primal shape and its promise of reinvention was impossibly alluring. For Ruiter, the allure was, and will continue to be in future projects, the process and discovery that comes will breaking a known thing into its elemental bits and starting from scratch. In previous interviews and during my visit, he talked about "letting the vehicle decide what it wanted to be," which sounded a little abstract at first, but seemed to make sense as I felt and saw how purposeful each bit of this machine really was. The end goal of the Reboot Buggy is what you see it doing as it moves through space, and not what it can achieve for its driver. That's art, really, but it's art that'll make you laugh out loud on a sunny day in a fallow field, or a gravel pit, or with a horizon full of sand dunes stretched out ahead of you.

Ruiter is moving on to his next project. You can tell that, as much as he's proud of this Reboot Buggy, he's the type of push-forward fellow that can't sit with just one idea for overly long stretches. He'll sell it if the offer is right (apparently he's gotten a few bites from unnamed parties in the Middle East), though he mentions that he'd just as soon see it in a museum or collection where the lessons he learned can be shared.

Wherever it ends up, chances are good that it will be a place where the MIDZWL ethos is easily understood. Got a drool-worthy car collection? Well, you might as well add a Reboot Buggy. T-shirt or no, I know I would.