Introduction: Medieval Dragon Soapbox Derby Car

Back in 2008, I entered the Nazareth Adult Soap Box Derby. NASBRA and Co. have built this into an annual event of the area's best and brightest engineering talents.

But 2008 was the first year of the race and had no idea what to expect. I also had no clue how I would build my car. I did research online about the designs of soapbox cars but found that most are really lame. I started building my car in March and decided that I would use my inherent talents as much as possible to make the fastest and best looking car possible. I am good at paper art but bad at carpentry so I focused on making a mechanically simple design that incorpated paper art. I started by recording a few goals: 1) The car should look good 2) Use as many reclaimed materials as possible 3) Spend as little money as possible

Step 1: Chasis

I collected as much scrap wood as I possibly could from people's garbage piles around town. I started with a sheet of plywood and built a body out of 2X3 studs. These studs were the only wood that I bought from a store. They cost me about $8 total. All other wood was reclaimed scrap wood.

Step 2: Wheels

I got some lawn mower wheels from my wife's grandfather. They did not have an axl. Rather, they each had their own mounting bracket. This would simplify things by allowing me to use 2x4's as axls rather than worrying about finding a metal rod.

Step 3: Steering

The steering was going to be important. I needed to be able to straignten myself out but didn't really need to make any sharp turns (W. Prospect Street hill is perfectly straight). So I knew I could limit the steering capabilities. Many of the online plans I found had steering columns much like a real car. But these were far too complicated in my opinion. So I decided to make a foot-steering mechanism. I drilled a 0.5" hole through the deck and two 2X4's. Then I sandwiched the deck between the two 2x4's and bolted it all together. This way I could manipulate the axl under the deck with the 2x4 that is above the deck.

Step 4: Brakes

The rules of the derby stated that brakes were optional. However, I knew I wanted to add them because I did not know the logistics of the race at the time: would there be ample room to slow down naturally? Or would there be some sort of smashing-into-hay-bails type end to the race?

So I decided to make a simple brake mechanism. I contemplated having something rub against one of the wheels. However this seemed complicated and would intrude on the aesthetics of the car. So I read online that old soapbox cars from the WWII era had a pad that would rub against the road surface to slow the car down. I decided that this would be perfect because I could mount the brake inside the cockpit. I cut a lever shape out of an old 2X8" and cut a hole in the floor of the car. I made a fulcrum point using an old piece of metal conduit. For a brake pad I used a piece of an old bicycle tire. With this system I could pull up on the lever to force the brake pad against the ground. A small bungie cord served to snap the brake lever back into place when pressure was released.

Step 5: Body

I obtained a piece of 1/8" plywood from my neighbor (he had been throwing a lot of wood out lately from some home improvement projects he was doing). This would be perfect to form the body of my car. I made a roadster design and included some fins in the back.

Design and Detail: I had comtemplated various themes and design elements for the car before I started building it. In my notebook I had every famous car I could think of from TV, movies , music, and pop culture. But nothing was really appealing. But I recently purchased Dan Reeder's new book Dragon Maker's Handbook. This inspired me to create a medievil themed car. I came up with the idea to have the car be covered with dragon scales and have a prominent dragon hood ornament.

Step 6: Hood Ornament

I am not going to detail how the dragon was made because Dan Reeder does a good job in his book. If you're interested in learning his techniques you should buy it. Basically, it is a series of newspaper balls covered with glue-soaked cloth. My technique differs from Dan's only slightly in that I use some traditional paper mache and also paper towels in places were he may only use cloth.

The dragon would need to be very strong (much stronger than if it would just hang on the wall for decoration). So it was heavily reinforced with wire and paper mache. In order to attach the dragon to the hood of the car I needed to create a mounting bracket. So I cut the bottom of the dragon's body open and inserted a section of wood. This was further reinforced with paper mache (which dries as hard as a rock in about a week). This would allow me to screw up through the car's hood to attached the dragon.

Step 7: Helmet

Race rules state that the driver must wear a helmet. So I got my old dirt bike helmet from my parent's attic. I took off the visor, sanded it, and painted it a knight's helmet. I make a knight's visor out of cardboard and glued it to the helmet. To make it look more authentic I "distressed" the helmet with some black paint and also attached some faux "rivets" which were actually nail and screw heads.

Step 8: Paint

To create the scales I cut an old bedsheet into squares (roughly 1.5 inches). I used two whole bedsheets. I put some Elmer's glue in a bucket and diluted it slightly with water. Normally, for regular scupture I would not dilute it. But I was trying to be resourceful on this project and diluting it woul make the gallon of glue last longer. A handful at a time I dunked the squares in the glue and allowed them to soak. The I squeezed the excess glue out. Each scale is one square of cloth that has two corners folded over. This was applied to the body of the car in an overlapping fashion. It took a while to dry in the cool Spring air

I opted for a red paint job with yellow accents. To achieve this I first painted the entire car solid yellow. Then I lightly painted the car red making sure not to take advantage of the nature texture of the scales and not apply a solid coat.

Step 9: Details

There were a few details of note that I added to the car.
The first was an emblem on the front grill. I made this out of papermache and cardboard. A fancy button finished it off:

I made a Pennsylvania lisence plate for the back. This was also made of paper mache and cardboard. I also made a witty bumper sticker:

I gathered some old knobs and what-not to add to the dashboard. I even put added a key and speedometer (actually an old pressure guage):

Step 10: Post Mortem

As far as the race went, the dragon was painfully slow. It was probably a combination of poor wheel quality and alignment. However, the car did win the crowd pleaser award which in the back of my mind was my real goal anyway. Shortly after the race it was time to disassemble my Dragon Coupe. I decided to save the dragon's head so I carefully removed the dragon and cut the head off with a hacksaw.
I mounted the head, trophey-style, on an old piece of wood and gave it to my dad.