Down on the Playa, Part II

The Mutated Vehicles of Burning Man 2008

After braving nearly 2600 miles of brutal Interstates, days of consuming food of questionable origin, and a dust storm just as we passed Gerlach, NV that seemed determined to coat us, my rig, and our lungs (thank God for dust masks and goggles!) with a fine, talcum-like powder, we arrived in Black Rock City.  I bid my traveling companions adieu, as they set off in search of their camps, and proceeded to find:

 Or, more specifically, my psuedo-assignment of collecting as many pictures of Mutated Vehicles as possible.  Now, a lot of folks have heard the term "Art Car", which is a very broad term which basically encompasses any automobile, usually legal for road use, that has been artistically altered from its stock form.  A friend of mine, Tim, has created such a car, out of a very stylish 1967 Imperial.  Check out his page HERE.

A Mutated Vehicle, on the other hand, goes one step further.  According to Burning Man, an "MV" is a vehicle that has been radically, and usually permanently, altered from its original state.  This typically (though not always) means the vehicle is not permissible to use on public roads.  It also encompasses a broad spectrum of canvasses- lawn tractors, golf karts, ATVs, scooters, etc can all become Mutated Vehicles.  Many MV's aren't even based on a single base model at all, and are instead a collage of engines, frames, and other components.  Burning Man offers probably the largest single venue in the world where these types of vehicles can roam freely.  In fact, the DMV (Department of Mutated Vehicles) inspects and grants licenses ONLY to those vehicles it deems mutated enough to roam the Playa.

Let's start off with a very common frame for creating an MV: The original Volkswagen Bug.  Built for scores of years, parts readily available, and with dirt simple mechanicals, old Bugs have been used as the basis for dune buggies, kit cars, and canvasses for many an artists' own interpretations:

This Beetle was a fairly typical case study of the "gluing random shit to a car" idea, but parked right next door was this amazing contraption:

Yes, that is (or, more accurately, used to be) a VW Beetle.  According to the owner, standing next to it, it is registered and road-legal (in the State of Massachusetts, no less!) as a 1974 VW.  It has working headlights, taillights, turn indicators, brakes, and whatever else you'd want out of a street-legal vehicle.  To add to this already incredible car is the incredible story: he DROVE this thing to the Nevada Desert from Massachusetts!  More pictures below:

Naturally, the owner was much more interested in conversing with the two leather-clad ladies shown in the second picture than he was a camera- clutching gearhead, so I didn't get much of a chance to examine the mechanicals of said vehicle.  Still, I think on a scale of zero to awesome, this rates pretty high.

Ah, the Hummer.  Or, in this case, the "Bummer".  Long the victim of ridicule and bashing from eco-nazis, hippies, and pretty much every left-wing group imaginable, this group decided to construct a larger-than-life replica out of plywood.  And then burn it.  When I first saw this, it was probably a mile out on the open Playa, and it wasn't immediately obvious that a) it wasn't mobile, and b) it wasn't a real Hummer.  It was only as I approached it that I realized it was at least double the size of a real H1.  The tires, however, were real (and were removed prior to the immolation).

The bus.  Well, one of several, I should say.  Busses make great playa vehicles.  They hold a lot of of people, utilize bio-diesel-friendly compression-ignition engines, and have plenty of room for kick-ass sound systems.  The one below shows some sort of Nautilus theme.  The detailing is pretty cool; click on the pictures for larger views.  


There was another bus roaming the playa that regrettably escaped my lens.  It was covered in transparent fur, beneath which were computer-synchronized LEDs that illuminated the entire rig at night, flashing, pulsating, and changing colors to the bass-heavy music that emanated from within.  Alas, my camera's ability to reproduce images falls on its face at night, so it was unlikely I'd be able to get a good picture of it, anyway. 

 While not a vehicle, per se, this mechanized hand utilized hydraulic actuators to mimic the actual movements of the human hand.  And, of course, it was much, much stronger!  I never got the opportunity to see this thing function, but as you can see by the crumpled pile of what used to be a Ford LTD next to it, it is a very effective Fist of Death.  Perhaps they should consider hiring this guy for the People's Curse at the 24 Hours of LeMons Races.

 In addition to Mutated Vehicles, many of the Burning Man attendees brought some rides that were righteously cool in their own rights.  Here's a couple of some of the choicer ones:

Trailers are big here, too, whether the ubiquitous Airstream or any of the canned ham styles from the 50's, or the retro Scotties and such from the 60's and 70's. 

At the History of Burning Man exhibit, we see the original "Trauma Unit" from 1996: 


One group showed up with a Flxible!  The Art Deco detailing on this thing is just spectacular:

This was my rig:

1954 Sportcraft aluminum trailer, towed by a 1992 Dodge 3/4 ton 4x4 with the Cummins Turbodiesel engine, backed by a 5 speed stick.  The trailer is a particularly interesting story.  About 2 years ago, I began a search for an old camping trailer, and the wonderful world of eBay brought this one to my attention.  I bid on it, and won it, and since the seller had notified me that it was not road legal, I hitched up my flat trailer and went to go pick it up.  When I got there, it was sitting in a field, on two mostly flat tires, rusted out rims, and a hitch that was ready to fall off.  The inside smelled like nothing I can describe in words.  Apparently, a hippie had been living in it for 25 years (and likely died in it).  I got it home (a 5 hour drive), and proceeded to remove the shell from the frame, sand and coat the frame with POR-15, replace the wheels and tires, and replace the rotted out frame and hitch in the front.  I replaced all the lights and rewired them.  I then gutted and stripped the interior, painted it with Kilz, primer, and 2 coats of paint, and have thus far installed a bed and two closets.  It isn't finished yet, but it has come a long way.  Since I had it and gotten it roadworthy, it's been pulled over 10,000 miles (including the over 5,000 to Burning Man and back).  It amuses me to think that it sat for 25 years, and now, suddenly, its seeing the world again, like it was meant to. 

Back to the Mutated Vehicles:

I saw this rig on the first day (it appears to be based on an old Dodge Tradesman Van) but it eluded my shutter until later that week when I caught it out on the open playa.  

Lots of people bring bicycles to Burning Man.  They are cheap, reliable, and easy to ride.  And, since the city itself is over 5 miles across, they allow one to see and experience much more than traversing the city on foot.  And let's face it: there isn't always a Mutant Vehicle around to take you where you want to go, and since they don't run dedicated routes, you have absolutely no idea where you'll be going!  Aside from bicycles, some folks bring scooters (which are permitted, but frowned upon as they assault the olfactory as well as the aural senses) and this year, I spied this trio of Segway riders.  Of particular interest are the two off-road Segways.  An interesting, if expensive solution to playa transport.  I wonder if we'll be seeing more of these in the future?


DPW, or Department of Public Works, are the hardcore assholes who make Burning Man work.  They are the archetypes for "Work hard, Play Hard".  And they drive some cool ass rigs. 

 This Volare, replete with DPW signage, caught my eye.  Hmm...LeMons contender?


The "Propain" truck sported some unique graphics:

There was also a neat 1930's-era cube van, which I saw only once (and, luckily, when I had my camera) and a 1950's era Ford flatbed truck that I saw repeatedly, yet was never able to get a picture of.  !


Speaking of cube vans, they also make good canvasses for Mutated vehicles.  Below, we see two examples.  Again, both were decked out with some great illumination, which I'm going to have to leave to your imagination due to my camera's night-time liabiity.


Trucks and SUVs, with their stout body-on-frame construction (and cheapness of acquisition, now that they've got this gas crisis going on) are other popular choices for MV construction platforms.  Below: A Playground of death FJ:

And an IH Scout, re-purposed for partying:


Blazers/ Broncos make great playa crawlers, too:


Sometimes, the MV creator decides that, rather than modifying the base vehicle, a "parade-float" style is more the order of the day.  Thus, a strange, unique, often beautiful shell is created which sits over the vehicle underneath.  This first one, a mobile party platform, conceals a barely-visible Volvo 240:


Others completely disguised what was underneath.  Here, we have an interesting duo: A stagecoach and a space shuttle.  Both evoke distinctly different, yet distinctly American eras.


The race is on!

Then there was a great 1980's styled boombox.  Again, the underlying vehicle remains a mystery.


A few classic vehicles always end up becoming mutated.  I have mixed feelings about this, being an old-car enthusiast.  However, I rationalize this with the belief that most of these Classic MV's were probably beyond any hope of a reasonable expectation of restoration, and are models that there are still quite a few of them about.  Take, for instance, this MG, which has gone about the expulsion of its Lucas electrical system demons in a most unique way:

And what Burning Man would be complete without a mutated hearse, replete with flame throwers?


Want more? How about a vehicle so cool that I violated my own rules about no night time photos to bring you grainy, yet discernible images of an old desert rat wagon:

We were beginning to be inundated by a dust storm on Sunday night when I took these pictures, and the camera decided to focus on the sand particles rather than the truck.

One last photo, that couldn't find a group to include under (and which also is a daring attempt at nighttime photography):

So that pretty much concludes my collection of MV photos.  To be fair, there was much, much more there than I could have ever hoped to capture on film.  The whole point of Burning Man is about temporality, about experiencing what is in the present, and picture-taking, while not actively discouraged, does somewhat detract from that.  Then again, if these pictures inspire others to create, or to participate, then they have served some greater purpose.  

I'll see you on the Playa.