Sunday, April 29, 2012

Transformers: Chevy Tiltmaster to Sinking Ship

So I wired the money to the used car sales place.  I'm soon officially the owner of a 2006 Chevrolet W3500 Tiltmaster.  I'm gonna just start calling it a Chevy Tiltmaster, so people go WTF is that?  After camping Friday night with the OC Burners, I have learned a little more about art cars and heavy trucks.  Apparently, I'm going to be surprised by how expensive insurance is.  You see, heavy duty trucks are usually used for commercial purposes and therefore insurance companies think they'll be used 24/7 for making money.  They don't anticipate someone parking at a parking lot for 4 months turning it into an art project.  So I'll probably just keep it registered and insured through Burning Man and then off to storage it goes for a year.

I checked on high-performance alternators today to see if I could run the whole thing and all its lights on 12V power alone from the engine.  Nothing really came up, so I'll just have to investigate later.  The truck has a 5.2 liter four cylinder diesel engine, but I've seen these things used as ambulances so I'm guessing there must be a high performance alternator out there for it.  Or maybe I can just bump up the idle speed and install an ammeter.  Art car veteran suggested I hook up a trickle charger from a generator to keep it going.  But then I will need a generator.

Maybe I should just bite the bullet and get a proper generator, so I don't have to worry about depleting the 12V battery.  To really get major concert-level bass from rental speakers, you need 480V anyway.  So that's a possibility:  get a used really fricking huge generator capable of pumping out 480V.  Plus then I could weld anywhere and wouldn't need to be at the shop.  So many options.

And I've been thinking more and more about the design options.  I could fairly easily design this thing to be like a giant Transformer toy that unfolds and turns into the ship.  Honestly, it's really not that hard for me to imagine and would just have to do some 4-bar linkage calculations.  Think about designing a garage door which opens and closes into two positions.  It's really not that complicated.  What makes a garage door or convertible top on a car difficult to design is predicting the forces needed to do the opening and closing.  If I get rid of all the springs and electric actuators, then it's simply a matter of having a few people retract and expand the pieces.  After all, why did I get two degrees in Mechanical Engineering?  I can assure you it was not so I could calculate and design supersonic flow through nozzles (basic rocket science), although at one point I definitely spent a semester doing just that.  No, I secretly wanted to design and make life-size Transformers as a kid.  I'll have to sketch some concepts up and attach to a post.

Oh and I renamed it again:  now it's the M/V Abandon.  It's rule #18 of Burning Man:  When the captain says welcome aboard Abandon Ship.  Do that.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The one that didn't really get away

It turns out that the truck I bidded up the price on last Sunday has now been offered to me.  Apparently the original high bidder was unable to finance the truck with his bank because it has over 200,000 miles, so I got the chance to buy it as the 2nd highest bidder.  And I've accepted!  So now I just have to get it somehow.

I've been excited about this all day... what fun, I get to buy a strange truck and turn it into something stranger.  The book value on similar trucks seems to be in the $9 - $11,000 range, so I actually think this is a steal.  I should be able to get this beast home for around $8200 including California registration, tax, the $80 flight to Phoenix, taxi to the auction place, diesel to drive home, etc.  So that means when I'm all done with this adventure in the Fall of 2013 after taking it to two Burning Mans, I won't be losing too much money.  Lets face it, this is not about the money.  This is about a crazy dream and following it to see where the dream leads me.  This is a statement of expression that I am compelled to share.

I'm relieved that the truck search is now over, because it was starting to get very time consuming.  And by choosing to go with the flow and take what the universe throws into my lap, the truck is smaller than my recent ambition.  Actually it's more in line with my original ambition, and should be a fairly reasonable size.  It's not excessively large.  This is not about my ego anyway, at least I hope it isn't.  I really want to express my craft of automotive engineering with this thing, and hope I'm not unlike all those other artists at Burning Man who toil away building things that are their passion.  This is not about me or making my name, but about having a vision and creating it and bringing it into a collective reality.

My first year at Burning Man in 2006 was an experience which blew me away.  I'll never forget my first day at Chillonia on Esplanade and 2:30, when off in the distance I saw a pagoda.  I thought, that's cool, an installation way out there in the dust.  Then in the dusty distance, it moved!  Right then I was hooked on Mutant Vehicles.  I got to see the inaugural year of the Never Was Haul, a 3-storey Victorian mansion on wheels.  And last year I was privileged enough to camp and help out Tahoe Twisted, an awesome group out of Lake Tahoe who brought the biggest and baddest Mutant Vehicle ever, Christina the 65 foot Chris Craft on a cement mixer chassis.

So back to 2006.  My vision is really simple.  I want this truck to look like a piece of art.  And then I want to blow people away when they see it moving.  I'm pretty sure very few people have seen a shipwreck.  And I am sure that nobody has seen this:  A slow-moving shipwreck, coming your way.  How's that for a metaphor?

BTW, here's the link to the truck:

Monday, April 23, 2012


So I will admit over this rainy weekend and Monday evening I've been listening to a lot of lectures about symbolism and astrotheology.  Basically there's a field of study which tries to understand all the ancient symbols that are still in use today, and determine where they come from.  So many iconic images have roots in astrology, ancient sun and moon cults, and tarot archetypes.  So I will put on my scholar's hat and try to explain what this sinking ship could possibly mean, from an unconscious and archetypal point of view.  I already explained the overt symbolism in my first blog post.

So here are a couple of thoughts about what the subconscious meaning could be.  If the ship is considered to be in a vast sea of water, often water symbolizes the emotions.  The ship represents a belief or idea, but it's sinking in the water of emotions.  Basically this archetype says "let go of the idea" because it's going down; it's an idea which needs to be released.

A similar interpretation could be the sinking ship represents an individual feeling consumed by society. It's a sort of drowning of the individual, because the beliefs (the ship) don't match society (the water).  It's a kind of wake-up call to examine the beliefs that you cling to, or at least reexamine them and decide if you're really on the right path.

Another viewpoint, especially since this will be sitting in a dry lake bed environment, could be that the ship has already been consumed by the water.  But the water (emotions) have all dried up and gone away.  All that's left is the frozen shell of the ship, as a warning to others.

There you have it.  And as I look at the shadow this casts over my own motivations for building it, I can't help but wonder what the hell is so screwed up in my life that I'd want to build something which represents this.  Nevertheless, it must be built.  Oh and I've considered that in year 2 that the outer shell should be burned.  So people will have seen the truck driving around for 2 years at Burning Man, and then one day late in the week the outer skin could could be removed and placed around temporary support structure.  It would be kept all lit up, and to some people it would look like the mutant vehicle they saw all week driving around.  Then it would burn.  That would be a fitting end.  I don't really want to have this thing around for more than a couple of years.

One last piece of info:  so I inquired about moving truck bodies and it's really simple.  If I had a bare chassis and no box or flatbed, I could get one installed for $1800 and a beat-up one for $1500.  If the truck already had a box, they'd give a few hundred dollar discount if it were a swap.  So I figure if I get a vehicle with the wrong body configuration, about $1000 would fix the problem.  If it's a nice box with a lift, the cost difference could be even less.  And for the record, the contact was Robert at Central Auto Sales at (909)356-0388.  So I will reconsider my budget once again, but expand the search to include bare chassis trucks and box trucks.  It doesn't have to be a perfect match.  Oh and they don't move ladder racks, but they would build/ weld something up to order if I want to pay for it.  So there's a lot of options!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The one that got away

Today was a bit exciting.  So in my travels around the internet looking for a suitable truck to metamorphose into a sinking ship art project, I happened upon this prime specimen.  It was significantly newer than anything I'd looked at, and frankly a little on the light duty side.  But in keeping with the idea of trouble-free modern art car, this seemed like a good deal.  And for the original starting bid of under $3,000, the price was right. 
So I watched it and read all the fine print.  I figured a truck like this should sell for around $9 - $11,000.  But maybe I could get it for a real steal.  There was also a $300 dealer fee and of course retrieving it from Arizona would cost at least $300 and probably more to fly there and drive back.  But with a diesel engine and under 200,000 miles, I figured it would be perfect.

Then I forgot about it and went over to a friend's place to (literally) help change a lightbulb.  In his car, and it required special tools (which I had) and a different light bulb than he'd bought.  So we went out to dinner at the local Crow Burger.  After a couple of beers and an excellent burger and string-bean fries, I remembered about the auction.

As it turns out, Chris also happens to be from Phoenix and goes out there every other month or so.  And I asked if he'd be willing to bring this truck back if I flew him out there.  And he said yes, so next thing I'm checking Ebay on my phone.  Sure enough, it's only 10 minutes before the auction ends and it was still only at $4000.  So I confirmed one last time, "If I buy this, will you really drive it back for me?" and he said yes.  So then the bidding began.

It quickly became obvious that someone had set up an autobid process on the truck, because every time I would bid, it'd immediately bid another $100 above my bid.  When I hit my pre-determined $5,000 max bid mark, I had to take pause.  There was 8 minutes left.  After discussing further with Chris, we determined the next bid needed to be higher than the $100 increment to find the bidder's cut-off price.  I entered $5500, which I thought was my maximum.  And was outbid.  At this point there was a minute and a half left.

Further discussion ensued, and we both agreed the other bidder probably had a $6000 cut-off.  It sorta made sense, because like I said the truck was probably worth at least $9K.   I entered $5700 as my next bid.  This was pushing the envelope... since it was not exactly the heavy duty truck I wanted and was going to be a pain in the ass to retrieve from Arizona.  But still, I need to get the donor vehicle purchased and begin the build process.  This seemed to fit most criteria, and had the added benefit of being just slightly smaller than I wanted so maybe that would force me to make it a reasonable size project.

By then, there was under a minute left.  I was outbid again.  $5767 was the next bid.  The very odd sales price told me that I had found my competitor's maximum.  The minimum bid was $100 higher.  If I entered $5867, the truck would be mine.  Should I do it?  I entered $5867 and hit submit.  But it was too late!  The auction had ended.  The truck went to someone else.

Thus ended my first bidding war on Ebay for a truck.  I am going to call tomorrow on the leads given to me by Tom's Truck Center about local companies that will switch truck bodies.  I still have my eye on that $7300 Class 6 truck with the 25,950 lb GVW with the 24 foot box for $7300.  If the box can be swapped for a flat bed as an even trade, I'm gonna take it instead.  Plus it's local, and already has California plates.  This is starting to be fun!

By the way, all the photos of the proposed vehicle are here: in case you didn't see the link before.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Truck Search Continues

Well after considering getting a cheaper and older truck, I'm tending back towards where I started... getting a fairly modern and heavy duty truck to avoid having to deal with breakdowns and spare part availability issues.  Currently I'm gravitating toward a GMC T6500 or T7500 similar to this one:  24' Foot Box Truck 2000 GMC T6500, Automatic transmission, Air ride suspension, lift end tuck away lift gate, roll up door. Priced for quick sale and priced low, no need to haggle.  Contact HiTech Transport at 562.250.7793

I have a couple of contacts now after reaching out to a local commercial truck dealer about places that will buy your truck body (in this case, a 24 foot box) and swap it out for something else.  What I really want is a flat bed with a rack over the cab.  That would make it somewhat simple to just hang 4 x 8 sheets of plywood from a bolted-on or welded-on scaffolding, and then the rest could be wooden deck-like platforms attached to the steel flat bed.

And since I haven't been laid off, and just did my taxes, that means I may not have to scrimp and save and cut every corner.  Just occasionally enlist professional help to repair or maintain the truck, and get the body where I want it.  I'm starting to imagine a summer where I'm not laid off and will still have my day job.  But I'm imagining it where it won't consume my entire weekend and and weekday life, so I would actually have energy to build something.  If the 2013 warehouse space comes together (not looking good... needs more $$) then I have just about everything needed to start this off starting in May.  Once I have the truck and basic framework, I can always scale the entire project back to a more simple design if I lose ambition or free time.

So why exactly am I compelled to build this?  I'm really starting to question my motivation again.  What concerns me is if this is some sort of ego-gratification trip, because I thought I was past that.  In the past, I somehow needed to prove to myself that I could achieve the new Mercedes-Benz and have a beautiful, large colonial house on a quiet street.  Looking back, I really wasn't buying and having those things to impress people and project some kind of image (although they did).  No, I bought them to prove something to myself. Clearly some deep insecurity about wealth and the trappings of prosperity compelled me to bring those into my life.  In the process, I learned that after two years of leasing a new Mercedes you need to give it back.  And when the housing market collapsed in 2008-9 taking $100,000+ of equity out of my house and leaving me with an upside down mortgage, I have come to take all of these material things a lot less seriously.  I'm now strictly on a enjoy now, pay now basis, as a philosophy for living.

Then why would I want to build some extravagant large art car, and not even go after a reasonable little one as a starter art car?  This is the question.  I haven't even ridden on art cars at Burning Man very much even though I have gone 6 times.  Mostly I admired them from afar.  I can only conclude there's some insecurity still there.  Or, are my dreams just that big?  I'd like to think that's the real reason.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Where will I buid this

So a couple days ago I met with some local burners who are starting a hackerspace/ makerspace nearby in Costa Mesa, and I am totally in! It's just $50 a month and we'll have a big warehouse space and some group-owned and privately-owned tools. Importantly, a welder will be among the tools and it may be possible to park a large truck there off and on for a couple days at a time. So if I get a truck suddenly, at least I know where I can leave it until I find proper storage. And there is an RV storage place down the street, so this could work out perfectly. It's going to start up around May.

So not to get all spiritual on you, but this is just far too coincidental. I am just putting my intentions out there, and suddenly this resource magically appears out of nowhere. I didn't even know what I wanted and this just turns up as a perfect solution and build location. I'm looking forward to the community and camaraderie and getting off this computer after a day at work. At this point, even though there were layoffs today and yesterday, I'm still employed. Which is good because to build this beast I'm gonna need money. Currently, I'm waiting for my tax return and April's paycheck, and think I'd like to have the truck by the beginning of May. That should be plenty of time to spend every available free second until the end of August building.

Monday, April 9, 2012

1st update: Application Accepted!

It's official! The Burning Man org accepted my application, and why wouldn't they? This idea is ridiculously ambitious and sounds difficult to pull off. In other words, if this becomes reality, it will be awesome. So I now have to put aside my doubts (like where am I going to find 600+ hours to build this beast while working a full time demanding job) and get to it.

I've been looking on Craigslist and Ebay for trucks since last Fall, and am thinking this fits the bill:

Flat bead delivery truck 1994 - $2600 (Jarupa)

1994 GMC Stake Bed, 16 foot diesel. Lift gate. Well maintained. High miles but runs good, 395,000 miles. Call Don at 951-903-3747.

So I'm gonna call on this one tomorrow. Realistically I'd rather a Flat Bed truck than a Flat Bead truck, but this will do. And it already has half a rack, which I need to build anyway.

Oh and here's the acceptance letter from Burning Man. I didn't read it entirely either, but there's plenty of time for that later and I skimmed it. If you're bored, read it an let me know if there's anything useful there:

Dear Steven Nilsen,

This is an invitation to bring your Mutant Vehicle to Burning Man 2012 for on-playa inspection. THIS IS NOT YOUR LICENSE, NOR DOES IT GRANT YOU ONE. Actual licenses are granted in Black Rock City when, and if, you pass the on-playa inspection.

This letter confirms that you passed the first level of inspection; read on for important information about what is next.


You MUST bring a printout of this letter with you to Black Rock City. Gate personnel will not allow any towed vehicle into the event site without a copy of this letter. If you do not have this letter when you get to the Gate, you will have to leave the vehicle in the lot at the gate before entering the city. In this case, come to the DMV between noon and 5pm and ask for help getting your vehicle into the event. Because those that brought their letter get serviced first, and because it is a taxing endeavor to get a towed vehicle through the gate without this letter, it may take hours or even days to get your vehicle in. Please remember this and be patient if you find yourself in this position.


This letter allows you to drive your Mutant Vehicle from your camp to the DMV.

This letter should be in your vehicle (and available) during this short trip directly to the DMV. If you are stopped by Law Enforcement, the Black Rock Rangers, or any other authority, this letter shows you are in compliance with the rules of BRC. This only applies for the trip directly to the DMV from your camp.

The DMV is located on the Esplanade near center camp. Check your BRC map for our specific location this year.

The DMV will open on the Saturday before the event opens and is open through Saturday the day of the Burn.

We will open at 11:00am and process Mutant Vehicles until sunset. We will then close until it is dark enough to process night vehicles, around a half hour, and then remain open until 10:30 pm. You must be in line by 6:30 for day licensing and by 10:30pm for night licenses or you’ll have to wait until the next day to get processed. We close at 3:00pm our last day, Saturday, the day of the Burn.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are applying for a night license, whether you are getting a day license or not, you will need to make TWO trips to the DMV: a first trip during the day (before 6:30) for initial inspections and to complete paperwork, and then again after dusk to have your lighting inspected and to receive your night license.


At the DMV your vehicle will be photographed and inspected. If your vehicle passes inspection, it will be issued a license. Licenses are a 12" long by 3" high bumper sticker. Licenses must be affixed to the back of your vehicle on the lower-left (drivers) side and you should make allowances for this on your vehicle. If your vehicle is approved for a day and night license, you will need a 12" by 6" space for two stickers. The placement on the rear left side is MANDATORY. This applies to each trailer segment as well.


When you submitted your DMV applications, you agreed to adhere to Black Rock City driving protocols. See These regulations and protocols will be enforced. Violations will result in impound, fine and/or ejection from the event for you and/or your vehicle.

Thanks for applying. We wish the best for you and your Mutant Vehicle. See you on the Playa!

-The DMV Hotties

Application from February 26, 2012

Her name is the M/V Trouble and she is a modern 1000 foot Great Lakes ore freighter, although at this point the vast front hull is completely submerged leaving only the bridge and stern visible. The name comes from the Red Dwarf of Detroit, "Nain Rouge", who appears to presage terrible events in that city, such as the great fire of 1805, the war of 1812, and the riot of 1967. This ship is a warning to all that carefully laid plans are not enough when “the harbinger of doom” shows up.

The intention is to bring a mutant vehicle that resembles large scale art by day and doesn’t look like a drivable piece of art. When parked out in deep playa by day, the passing traveler will walk across the bottom of the dried out lake bed and see in the distance what’s left of this mighty ship. Maybe they will be the only one climbing on the decks of this ghostly apparition, or perhaps it will be cocktail hour. Didn’t they see it sinking the night before? It looks like it’s been in the same spot for decades.

Approaching the ship up close by day, you can imagine yourself 500 years in the future, when the Great Lakes are no more and the shipwrecks of centuries past become visible due to global warming. Perhaps everyone will have moved to California and pumped the Great Lakes dry? This vehicle allows you to explore your own reactions. In the same way a good disaster movie lets you vicariously live through difficult times and prepare you for adversity in your real life, this piece will force you to ponder nuclear war, global warming, post-apocalyptic life, the temporary existence of humans. You will experience echoes of the Exxon Valdez, Costa Concordia, or Edmund Fitzgerald.

By night, the M/V Nain Rouge is in the process of sinking, and is no longer the wreck at the bottom. When faced with absolute calamity, what will you do? What is your reaction going to be when the ship goes down? Will you abandon ship? Get out the violin and play along with the string quartet?

The ship comes alive with a dance party on the back decks. Glowing blue cold-cathode tubes illuminate the ground underneath, white LED rope lights outline the superstructure and red LED lights outline the hull. With three levels of platforms and a ramp down the side, participants can rehearse the correct reaction to impending doom: to dance with joy with their community, then eventually abandon ship and face a harsh reality. It’s a metaphor for life: show up, burn brightly, leave.

Regarding the theme of Fertility 2.0: This vehicle is a symbolic counter-argument for fertility. The opposite of fertility is death and destruction. This needs to be contemplated at the same time as fertility.

Sound System:
The sound system is intended to be enjoyed only by the people physically on the decks of the vehicle, and will not blast outward. Speakers will be placed under the forward dance deck on the bed of the truck, and the system will be powered by a combination of a small portable generator and the vehicle’s 12V system.

The sound system is intended to be enjoyed only by the people physically on the decks of the vehicle, and will not blast outward. Speakers will be placed under the forward dance deck on the bed of the truck, and the system will be powered by a combination of a small portable generator and the vehicle’s 12V system.

Equipment currently available: Infinity home speakers powered by a Kenwood 600 W home receiver, 200 w home subwoofer. Car audio equipment includes a Pioneer 600 w mono sub amplifier driving a single 12" car audio subwoofer.

Max db output: 90 db at 30 feet.

The speakers will be aimed to the back of the truck towards the people dancing. When parked on the playa driving with sound system at maximum, the front of the vehicle will be facing the city. This also is the best perspective to approach the vehicle and be surprised by a dance party going on inside.

Safety Considerations:
I am a mechanical engineer with 17 years experience designing car and truck chassies and powertrains for auto manufacturers in Detroit and Southern California. I am bringing all my experience to this project. The base vehicle will be a used, high mileage flat bed commercial truck with a high Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) to ensure the weight of 20- 30 people can be safely handled. The target base vehicle is a Isuzu FTR or GMC T6500 diesel with 26,000 lb GVW and automatic transmission so it can still be driven without a commercial driver’s license. A slightly scaled-down version would start from an Isuzu NPR diesel with a 14,000 lb GVW to handle 15 passengers. Budget and truck availability will determine the final scale chosen.

The cosmetic structure will be lightweight steel with thin veneer skin of either 1/8” plywood or fabric, and the platforms on the bed of the truck will be similar to outdoor decks made of wood like you would find at a residential house. No one will be allowed to climb or sit on the cosmetic frame enclosing the cab. The cab will have a fold-down screen to enable unobstructed view forward while driving, but will be folded up by day to completely obscure the windshield all resemblance to a truck.

Railings will be built into the cosmetic structure surrounding the platforms on the bed of the truck. Entry and exit will be via a wooden ramp along the side of the truck supported by steel beams bolted to the frame at the bottom and bed of the truck at the top. The ramp will have a door in the false hull at the bottom which must be opened to enter the vehicle, and entry from the front is not possible. At this point, the plan is to have one ramp to minimize the number of crew required to operate. There’s a design possibility to have ramps on both sides of the vehicle: one for entry and exit. Railings will be provided by the hull shape, and the front and rear wheels will be blocked off by the design to keep passengers away. Ideally, the ramp would be wide enough to handle a wheelchair but this is not decided, and may be added for future returns to BRC.

The build crew and budget is extremely small for such a large and ambitious mutant vehicle, so the design is being kept as simple as possible. The Orange County, San Jose, and Detroit members of our camp do not all have tickets to go so this is our major challenge. So far, only four people in our camp have tickets. Finishing touches for the vehicle will be done at Big Art Labs in LA. I would like this vehicle to be far more detailed and with multimedia lighting and sound, but with a skeleton crew, the design is very squared off and easy to build while meeting the intent described above.