Kurt Lusso, a civilian contractor on Kadena Air Base, attaches a specially-fit tube onto the frame of a dune buggy, one of two off-road vehicles he's building in his spare time.

Kurt Lusso, a civilian contractor on Kadena Air Base, attaches a specially-fit tube onto the frame of a dune buggy, one of two off-road vehicles he's building in his spare time. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Kurt Lusso spends his days keeping some of the Air Force’s biggest jets in the sky. But his true passion rides about 6 inches off the ground.

Lusso spends his off hours these days bending steel. There’s no red “S” on his chest, but he’s got the neighbors looking. Outside a small tin shack, Lusso’s goal of building two dune buggies is taking shape.

“I guess it all started when I was 11 years old,” Lusso said. “A friend of mine in Kansas City had a salvage yard, and we put a car together from three others. We ran it all summer. I was hooked.”

Lusso’s passion for mechanics spurred him to continue tinkering with cars. His first dune buggies were built in the United States.

Lusso’s now the site manager at Kadena, working on corrosion control for KC-135s. But after he arrived from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, he was dismayed to think his passion might be left in the garage.

“There wasn’t much here I was interested in,” Lusso said. “I’m not a driver. I like boats, but out here it just wasn’t the same.”

Then Lusso ran into a friend who shared his enthusiasm for building buggies. His idea admittedly is low-tech.

“I’ve got a real sophisticated blueprint,” Lusso said. “It’s a picture up on the wall.”

But Lusso’s been doing this sort of thing long enough that a first pile of straight tube already resembles the mean lines of an aggressive off-road vehicle.

“The first thing we did was look for a salvage yard,” Lusso said. “We found one in Itoman that had Volkswagen parts — and that’s what we needed to get this done.”

That and a few specialized tools that couldn’t be found on Okinawa. Lusso got hold of a tube-bender and had his son ship his welder.

“The only thing that’s really different is we’re not using VW power plants,” he explained. “We’re going to a Toyota power plant. On top of that we took a front-wheel drive transmission and made it into a rear-wheel drive.”

The constant metal-grinding and flying sparks are drawing some attention. Neighbors, both American and Japanese, peer over fences and from balconies to watch the dune buggies take shape. But Lusso doesn’t mind the attention — just the opposite.

“It’s already generated a lot of interest,” he said. “That’s part of the reason I’m building it as a four-seater, so I can haul more people. It’s a family thing. I raised two kids in the back of dune buggies. The whole thing is to get other people involved.”

Lusso’s got high hopes for his rides, too. Once he’s done building the buggies, he’s going to take them apart again for a run through the paint shop at the end of January. Another month or so later, and with a total initial investment estimated to be about $5,000, he’ll be ready for the off-road.

Just don’t expect him to stick to the worn trails.

“I’m building these to be climbers,” Lusso added. “To do that, the front end has to come off the ground. That means I’ll put in special steering, hydraulics and braking systems.

“When I first got started, I talked to some of the four-wheel-drive folks and they showed me some areas where the terrain is bad,” Lusso said. “But we’ll be able to go over it. This thing will go where four-wheel drives just look.”

Still, Lusso said, his work won’t be done once he’s off and running. The work is constant.

“You’re never really done with it,” Lusso said. “You constantly get new ideas to make it better and inevitably, something breaks. But that’s half the fun of it.”

The other half is getting behind the wheel. But that’s harder for him to see, he admits.

“I get just as much joy constructing these as I do driving,” Lusso said. “But when I’m driving, I go from a smile to serious, because if you’re doing it right, it is a dangerous game.”

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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