What's a reliable car for Mutant Vehicles?

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What's a reliable car for Mutant Vehicles?

Postby misimol » Thu Oct 21, 2010 10:54 pm

We're looking to build a Mutant Vehicle, and are hoping some of you have advice on what would be a good make/year of a cheap car to get for this. Basically we want something that will survive driving to/from and around BM for at least 4-5 years.

Cost is an issue of course, we have a $1000 to put towards the car. Since we don't care about the cosmetics, we're hoping to get something selling for cheaper than it would be if it looked nice.


Thanks!
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Postby Bluemandrew » Fri Oct 22, 2010 1:02 am

Although I've never built an MV, there's a few things we need to know before we can figure out what works best for you.

How far away do you live from the burn? How big of an MV are you aiming for building? If you buy something that gets 6 miles a gallon, will you be able to get it to the burn, or will you be pushing it/begging for gas all week?


For 1k, I would look at older pickups, because parts are cheap, I know how to fix them, and they are tough. Also I like the idea of a vehicle with a real frame under it for an MV. YMMV
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Postby Dork » Fri Oct 22, 2010 1:05 am

What is it going to look like? How many people do you want it to carry? What sorts of cars are you (or your group's mechanic) comfortable working on? This should help you narrow it down a bit, at least to small economy cars, trucks, vans, buses, whatever.

I bought a 93 Geo Prism (same as Toyota Corolla) which had just been in an accident for $350 and used it for an art car. That car has been driven to the playa the last 8 or so years without too many problems.

I would recommend sticking to cars with small, fuel injected engines. You won't need much power to go 5mph and you won't have to fiddle with it to get it to idle properly at altitude. Other than that, most any car with a good engine and transmission will do. DO NOT buy a car with mechanical problems that you think you can fix while you're in there working on it. You'll have your hands full doing the mutating. Spend the extra time and money to find something highway ready.
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Postby Tin Halo » Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:23 am

We used a '91 Chrysler Mini-Van for ours. It had had the body crushed when a snow-covered roof in Breckenridge suddenly became NOT snow-covered.Stripped of body, glass, and everything else--just a chassis and engine--that mother was FAST. (I also crashed it before we started building it. It survived. That's another story altogether, one I'm desperately hoping will blink out of my memory banks one day.)
Out of that, we built a vehicle that could comfortably handle 12-15 people, both in weight and in horsepower, such as the playa speed limit was concerned.
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Postby junglesmacks » Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:36 am

Image

Camp Inspiratum's "Colosseum" was created using a mid 80s Chevy Luv truck I believe.. whatever the little micro truck they produced was.

The creation sits squarely over the truck that I believe has only had the roof/windshield removed. The driver is positioned in the front/middle of the circle in a floor cutout, and sits on booster seat over the original seat with an extension made to push the gas and brake pedals.
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Postby mdmf007 » Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:38 am

Older GM vans kick ass as well. They have frames underneath and once you cut off the walls you have a large flat platform with short nose to do your thing too.
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Postby Sham » Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:54 am

I have seen several built with Ford Crown Victoria police packages. One thing to consider is towing the vehicle vs. driving it. The steering may need to be manual steering and the drive shaft would have to be disconnected for an automatic transmission to be towed with the wheels on the ground. Also, think of the weight of the structure you're building on top, but deduct the steel body you will be removing.
Also, most cars are unibody construction, which means that there is no real frame to the car, only body structure for support. As the steel body is cut down or removed, the car looses it's integrity.
I guess the ideal vehicle may be an old pick-up truck with a full frame underneath. Junk yards are full of vehicles that have lots of body damage, but the mechanical parts remain sound.
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Postby mudpuppy000 » Fri Oct 22, 2010 8:19 am

I noticed driving on the playa that my truck wants to drive faster than 5mph when it's idling. Not sure how common that is but it'd be a real pain in the ass having to keep your foot on the brakes all day long. Do people normally re-gear mutant vehicles?
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Postby misimol » Fri Oct 22, 2010 12:33 pm

Looking to carry max about 10-12 people. Mutations + people I'm estimating won't exceed 5,000 lbs.

We do have a welder on our team, so we can add structural elements if we get a car and cut down the body. We want to build it modularly so that it's drivable to bm and we can bolt it together in a few hours, though towing is an option. We're near SF.

I hear the playa is hell on electrical systems and of course air filtration. We'll carry a spare alternator, filter, oil, coolant, tools etc. but we'd rather not have a vehicle that's constantly overheating and needing repairs on the playa.

I'm thinking a late 80's light truck (low cost, easy to strip). A team member wants to get a mid 90's toyota wagon.
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Postby ygmir » Fri Oct 22, 2010 12:35 pm

don't forget to consider, tire load capacity.
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Postby Dork » Fri Oct 22, 2010 1:24 pm

Idle speed isn't a problem with the Prism. Another benefit of the small engine, I suppose - first gear is really low. Air filtration has also not been a problem even with 40ish hours of operation on the playa. The filter gets changed at the end of the week, of course. Electrical problems were mostly off-season issues - resurrecting the car the following Summer often meant a new battery and/or alternator.

I don't think tires for passenger-class vehicles have a load rating. Just be sure to bring a full size spare just in case.

If there's any way you can drive it instead of having to tow it, do it. Having a non streetable vehicle is a pain.
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Postby gyre » Fri Oct 22, 2010 4:08 pm

Passenger tires do have a load rating.

Higher speed tires are typically safer and stronger, but profile does make a difference.
Many true high performance cars avoid extremely low profiles, which is more of a fashion thing like baggy pants or very tall rims.


Ford trucks were the last to stop using a separate body and frame.
My ranger has a separate cab and bed supported over the frame.

There are a number of art cars built on 240 volvo bases.
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Postby motskyroonmatick » Fri Oct 22, 2010 5:57 pm

I second the suggestion for using an older pickup truck. You can get a running 3/4 ton truck for pretty cheap and that is the chassis I used for my MV.

I recommend a stick shift with a granny low first gear.

I'd definitely go with a size larger than what you anticipate needing. Space gets cramped and weight adds up as you add more to the vehicle.
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Postby Tin Halo » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:44 am

mudpuppy000 wrote:I noticed driving on the playa that my truck wants to drive faster than 5mph when it's idling. Not sure how common that is but it'd be a real pain in the ass having to keep your foot on the brakes all day long. Do people normally re-gear mutant vehicles?


that's not a re-gearing issue. It's a carb issue. Depending on how old your truck is, you could dial down the idle manually, using a screwdriver on the idle set screw near the carb. If it's a newer, computer-controlled type of engine, that would require a re-programming. And there are a LOT of people on the internet who have the skill, experience, and results of doing that... there's a whole subculture built around it, actually.
You also might want to check your air filter. If clogged too far, the engine will rev higher in order to make up for the lack of sufficient airflow.
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Postby gyre » Sat Oct 23, 2010 11:04 am

Might be worth looking into altitude adjustments.
Most fuel injections have them available in software or hardware.

The altitude might kick in things you don't want going on, and may be the issue.

If you have to choose one setting, I guess it depends on what matters more.
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Postby gyre » Sat Oct 23, 2010 11:09 am

Worth noting that many high altitude cars have odd suspension settings for roads built for snow.
I don't know if it matters on the playa, but it is worth knowing.

The adjustments can be awful on normal roads and hard on tires.

Leaving denver with the settings dialed out, I found a car almost impossible to steer, but I don't know if it was the road surface or just bad roads, or a car too precise to tolerate the crown.
I don't recall the same issue with more normal cars, but I may not have noticed.
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Postby Captain Goddammit » Sat Oct 23, 2010 9:47 pm

I've done all this stuff, here's what I have to say...

Playa vehicles do tend to coast along at better than 5MPH and no, it isn't a carb issue, unless you want to try to get your idle speed down to something like 2 or 3 hundred RPM, where your alternator won't charge and your water pump wont flow enough water and your oil pump won't make any oil pressure. At a nice normal 600 - 750RPM idle, you do end up rolling a bit fast and have to drag the brakes a bit. You could go to the trouble and expense of finding super-low gears or just buy a set of brake pads every few years for $20.

"Odd suspension settings for snow" isn't even an issue for a playa mutant vehicle and it's extremely unlikely you'll even stumble across such a thing.

Manual steering has absolutely zero to do with whether a vehicle can be flat-towed (on it's own wheels). At super low speeds and a full deck of people, power steering is nice. Personally I find automatic transmissions a lot nicer for constant starting and stopping and low-speed crawling around, like you do in an MV on the playa. If you have the skills to build a mutant vehicle, you can probably handle unscrewing four 1/2 nuts and dropping the driveline if you have to flat tow it.
Automatic vehicles make it a hell of a lot easier to relocate the driver's position.

Remember that a vehicle has to be currently licensed and street legal to flat tow it just as if you drove it. If it's not gonna be a road vehicle, you want a trailer.
Street legal cars CAN be mutant vehicles, but be advised, the DMV keeps raising the bar and it's pretty damn hard to build an MV that will get a playa license that is still a real, street legal car.

The best chassis for your project depends on two things: What you're building and what you happen to find a deal on. An old Chevy van is indeed a great platform, unless you have a free mini truck that runs. Both suck if whatever the hell you're making just doesn't happen to fit a big square chassis.

Front-wheel-drive vehicles can work well because the whole engine/brakes/steering package is one modular unit that can even be cut off the rest of the car. The rest of the vehicle design is then wide-open to your imagination and/or desired configuration.

Electrical power is a big thing to thing about. The stock single alternator, running only at idle speed, will be inadequate for powering the amount of lighting the Burning Man DMV expects you to have if you want a night license. You can just run a Honda generator on your MV but afetr doing that for years I find it less trouble, cheaper, and even quieter (since the MV engine's gonna be running anyway) to simply run two or more alternators on the vehicle's engine, coupled with a few batteries and inverters.
Fuel-injected base vehicles have some great advantages over carbureted ones for playa MV use. First, the playa is almost a mile high and the electronics will automatically adjust for it, and the rig will run perfectly.
Second, if you add at least one extra alternator (I highly recommend that you do) the fuel-injected car will automatically adjust it's idle and not just die unless you give it gas every time you turn on all your stuff.
If you're using a big V8 engine vehicle you won't likely have trouble with alternator load at idle even with a carb, but I'd avoid that because a carbed V8 idles through a LOT of gas. A little injected 4 uses hardly any and still makes more power than you'll need.
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Postby motskyroonmatick » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:24 pm

It is very true that repetitive working of the clutch on playa is a substantial pain in the ass.
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Postby gyre » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:27 pm

I'm told it's normal in all areas that expect snow every year.
I think it is mostly steering settings and would be harder on the playa surface, but would certainly run out there.
The car I refer to, had radical camber settings, but I think that was related to track use.
That helps more in the mountains than on flatter roads though.

Anyone looking for a deal may be looking far and wide, as I did, and may be looking for steering issues that are simply settings.


On alternators, gearing up is another approach.
And, of course, the ambulance alternators intended for such use.
Some are rated at idle, while most are rated at 3000 and/or 4000 rpm.
A 160 amp idle alternator is very different from a 130 amp alternator rated at 3500 rpm.


All cars get zero mileage idling and parked and nothing is designed for low speed.
Expect terrible mileage.
Better to calculate by the hour than mile out there.
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Postby Snow » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:33 pm

I've never heard of any kind of different suspension for snow areas, and I live in the mts. Also I wouldn't worry too much about carbs and altiude, I haven't seen much problems with cars until well over 8000 feet. The playa is a shade under 4000'. Carb cars run just fine in reno and truckee.

Capt Godamnit is pretty much spot on. Without knowing what your plans are its hard to recommend a particular vehicle.
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Postby gyre » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:40 pm

Not a different suspension, just the settings.

I think a lot of toe in, and camber changes when available (rare on production cars these days).

Almost all companies have had jets for 5000 feet and above and fuel injection adjustments.
It normally doesn't come up except when people move cars.
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Postby Snow » Sat Oct 23, 2010 10:45 pm

fuel injection adjustments are done via the computer

and the playa is well below 5000' anyway, everyone thinks its so high, but really its not.
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Postby Sham » Sun Oct 24, 2010 1:18 am

Captain, tell me more about towing a vehicle with power steering. Will the front wheels turn and follow the vehicle pulling it? I also heard that there is a pump that could be put on the transmission to circulate the fluid, to allow it to be pulled without disconnecting the drive shaft.

The idea of a second altinator is great. I have strung lots of LED lights and used smaller inverters as well. They use so little power, that it lights the MV pretty brightly with little strain on the engine.
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Postby gyre » Sun Oct 24, 2010 1:56 am

There are some great tow kits made for cars behind RVs.
Instant switching with some.

No, they won't follow steering commands.
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Postby gyre » Sun Oct 24, 2010 2:01 am

Snow wrote:fuel injection adjustments are done via the computer

and the playa is well below 5000' anyway, everyone thinks its so high, but really its not.

Closer to 5000 feet than 150.

If a vehicle is mostly used for the playa....
I think it makes more difference at idle than cruising.

My denver car has a larger mass air for adequate air flow.
An easy option on fords.
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Postby Tin Halo » Sun Oct 24, 2010 4:49 am

Snow wrote:fuel injection adjustments are done via the computer

and the playa is well below 5000' anyway, everyone thinks its so high, but really its not.


Yeah... especially to those of us coming down from the mountain. :lol:

I actually enjoyed the week-long blast of extra oxygen on the playa.
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Postby Zhust » Sun Oct 24, 2010 5:38 am

I'll first say that I have not built a mutant vehicle, but have built custom pedal-powered contraptions (two bicycles, one trike, and a 2-person 4-wheeler). I'm reluctant to even say this stuff because I think it's what everyone thinks before they actually set out building a mutant vehicle. Ego gets the best of me, I guess.

Is a tractor/lawnmower/go-cart drivetrain viable? I understand the allure of an automobile with its functioning drivetrain and suspension geometry, but the nature of driving on the Playa (i.e. 5 mph, lots of stop-and-go) is pretty much the last thing on the list of functions car designers design for. As such, cars can barely go slow enough and use a lot of gas doing it. My thoughts then lead to a small engine more suitable to those conditions, and then to drivetrains like in tractors and lawnmowers. By my own expertise though, I'd probably go for a moderately high-power generator set (3000W or so) to drive one or more electric motors.

But considering adapting a car, and considering that I'd be working on a relatively small mutant vehicle, I'd start with a small front-wheel drive, fuel-injected car. To keep speed, down, I am thinking to get rid of the pneumatic tires altogether and instead weld a drum around a steel rim and either weld on "tread" á la construction equipment / winter tire chains or just cut off existing tires and screw them on with sheet metal screws. Barring modifying the internal gearing/transmission, I think this is the quickest way to slow down a car by very near a factor of 2—the somewhat high-profile tires on a small car (i.e. 175/70R14 tires have a 14-inch rim but a 23.6" outer diameter.) Plus you'll never get a flat.

As for the orignal poster's question, I am doubtful about finding a road-worthy car for $1000 to start with. Finding one for playa-only use is much more reasonable. I too dream of the transformable car, but the combination of function and maintaining reasonable safety makes it seem like the Playa-only vehicle much more viable.
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Postby gyre » Sun Oct 24, 2010 6:06 am

I'm happy to say you can still find a decent car under $1000, though more difficult than once.

Look for major body damage or a luxury car that a teenager nailed an open door backing up, and it gets a lot easier. (The teenage door thing seems to be a recurring nightmare for someone.)
Saw some good deals last winter, without heaters.
(Very cold last year.)

The pickup I had planned to get is available.
351 with a 4 speed, weak engine, under $400.

Lots of tractor/ lawn mower bases, as well as RV bases. (Some RVs have one piece drivetrains.)


Let me pause to loathe Tin Halo for being 6000 feet tall.
At least you didn't say it only takes a day to acclimate.
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Postby Tin Halo » Sun Oct 24, 2010 6:57 am

Of course not. I acclimated right away. I was born and raised in the Midwest, so my body has that knowledge. :D

You can always come back, you know. :wink:
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Postby Snow » Sun Oct 24, 2010 8:39 am

I live at 6200' as well. None of my many cars/trucks/jeeps have EVER been modified for altitude and run just fine, even at idle. you are making a mountain out of a molehill. Just get a vehicle and worry about it running at all, not about making alterations for "altitude." motorcycles and other small carbed engines seem to like to be re-jetted at about 6000' though, again well above the playas elevation.

And yes the front wheels of a towed vehicle will follow along when you are making turns. Don't forget to put the key in it to allow the steering to unlock!!!! Otherwise you'll be screeching the wheels around corners. To flat tow a vehicle a considerable distance it is best to disconect the driveline(s), even if its a manual. Its not that much work to remove drivelines. Even better, if you have full floater axles you can often get hubs to unlock the wheels from the drive axle with the turn of a knob (mostly older truck type vehicles). Thats how my '41 jeep is set up for flat towing. Also remember that when flat towing, you CANNOT backup, you can only go forward.
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