Introduction: Snail Art Car the Golden Mean

"The Golden Mean" a giant Jules Verne hot rod snail art car we built in 2008 in my shop "Form & Reform" in West Oakland. This is my wife Kyrsten's Dream car and together we made it a reality.

Following is the basic process by which we built this amazing art car. This is meant as a process guide for building any kind of art car and not a guide for building this one. There are far too many details in this project and each step could be broken into many different stand alone instructables. I hope by posting this you gather your own team (most of mine had no experience) and make your own dream car together. The sum of the parts make wonderful things!

For more info see: Golden Mean

There is now a fan club for the Golden Mean on facebook
Keep track of the Snail's events and news there

Step 1: Choosing the Base Vehicle

I chose a 1966 VW bug. It's very easy to remove the body, the vehicle is very basic and has a frame to work off of. We picked it up for $400, and sold the body for $200! It came with: new shocks, tie rods, a drop front end, and a new floor pan.

After removing the body I temped in the gas tank and steering wheel and took it for a test drive. this entire process took about 4hrs!

After the test drive we made some notes on what needed to be fixed before we started building the Snail.

Step 2: Tune Up and Repairs

Now that the engine was easy to get at, and before we added any new frame or body work, we gave the car a once over. We started with steam cleaning the whole car then using my old Craftsman hand tools we: performed an oil change, installed all new ignition parts, adjusted the brakes, fixed exhaust leaks, plugged up the old heating system, replaced the axle boots, and adjusted the valves.

Step 3: Frame

One of the things we noticed while doing the drive check was how flexible the frame was without the body. We needed to stiffen things up and give ourselves a platform to weld to later.

We also installed mounting for the 3 batteries.

Step 4: The Base of the Shell

Next, I added steel tubing that would become the base of the shell. I took into consideration wheel clearance and overall shape of the car as I laid it out. I started by chalking the shape on the floor, then bending the steel tubing and welding it to the frame.
I determined that the gas tank would be best placed near the original bug location, low and just behind the front right tire.
Temporary wire mock-ups of the shell are made to make sure it looks right and to use as patterns for making the main shell support arcs.

The crew is starting to think it might work!

Step 5: Shell Supports

With patterns made, we now bend and weld in the main supports for the shell and start to lay out the spiral.

Step 6: Spiral Is Made

With a combination of rolling, bumping, and blacksmithing the metal pipe, we make the frame of the spiral.

Step 7: Door Added and Frame Painted

Door is now fabricated and placed. The door is made by bending two pieces of tube, welding little tabs with holes in them to the inner one, and then attaching a piece of sheet metal. The two bent "U"s are connected with 2 hinges. The door is dressed up with a porthole cutout and 2 decorative straps. With the spiral frame and door in place we can now start to fill in the metal "growth rings" of the frame, but before we weld anything more we need to paint the frame, pan, running gear, and rims.
As the old ones are cracked and don't match, new tires are purchased and mounted.

Step 8: Growth Rings

Using tape, we lay out the growth rings. The tape allows us to fine tune the rings and move them around after checking sight lines for driving and the realism of the look. It is at this point that I introduce the crew to two rules. The rivet placement rule (where the rivets will fall on the metal strapping) is used to make them look consistent and "right". The second rule is known as the golden ratio found in nature, also known as the Golden Mean; and that became the name of our snail car.

With the use of a 20 ton press and dies, we make fake rivets on steel strap and begin replacing the tape with metal parts. Each one has to be custom cut and bent slightly to "poof out" the frame of the shell.

Next, each rivet has to be polished with a wire wheel to give it the illusion of being a separate piece of steel.

Step 9: Head

We start the head with rod that's easy to bend, transfer the pattern to cardboard and finally bend a thick piece tubing to be the "spine" of the head. It's now starting to look like a snail! More growth rings are added to the door side of the shell and we create a window in the center.

Most of this steel is now tacked in place. We stop now and let Hino weld it solid.

Step 10: Air Suspension

After adding the frame and growth rings, we realized that the stock VW suspension was not going to hold all the weight we still planned to add. We ended up with 2000lb on the rear axle, and 1000lb on the front (we weighed it at a truck tire place).

We needed the ability to adjust the suspension for the load (ie: the number of people on board) so the car was drivable at street speeds. Air bags seemed the simplest and Slam Specialties ( offered to sponsor us after seeing the car. We fabricated custom mounts for two air bags to lift the frame off the axles. Once welded into place, we plumbed fill and dump airlines to the 12v control solenoids and regulator used to adjust the psi for load. We were now able to raise the car up and down by filling the bags as high as 160psi.

This system was originally run on co2, but later was converted to an on board air compressor and tank for ease of use.

Step 11: Running Gear and Controls

With the growth rings almost done, door in place, and head placement done; we take some time to finish the steering assembly, gas tank mounts, seats, clutch/gas/brake assembly, and an air bag suspension system. It felt like these items took forever compared to the lightning pace of building the shell frame, but I knew it would be a lot easier to do them before we closed it up with sheet metal work. After we finished the automotive workings, we took her out for a ride around West Oakland, everyone loved it so far! Once the test drive was done, we returned to the shop and made out a new list things that needed to be fixed on the white board.

One thing that I've learned about cars and crews: keep as many people off the car doing jobs that can be done on a bench for as long as possible. Once everything is on the car, only so many people can work on it with out tripping over each other. Welding was one of the biggest problems as no one could work while welding was being done. The solution was to quickly tack in everything at night, when everyone was around, and then turn over the long hours of welding to the day crew, only Hino and I, with full gear on and no one to bother us. Wiring was also done off the car. The entire wiring harness was built on the bench over the weeks, and then installed in one day by Lauren!

Step 12: Shell Patterns

The crack team of Kyrsten, Laura, Jackson, and Tansy had to make 60 plus custom sheet metal parts for the shell. After the growth rings were welded solidly in place, they made paper templates and carefully numbered them all. They then transferred the templates to 22 gauge cold rolled sheet metal and cut them with hand and pneumatic shears and a plasma cutter. Perforated sheet stock was used for the "window" areas.

After cut out, each piece had to be DA (orbital) sanded, cleaned with alcohol and renumbered. From this point on, no one could touch the sheet metal with their hands as this would leave prints in the final finish.

While this work was taking place, the rest of the crew moved forward with finishing all the details inside the car in preparation for the final shell.

Step 13: Fire Effects

An art car, or anything I make for that matter, would not be complete without having a fire effect.

To keep with the oilpunk look and to make sure it always works, I decided on a very low tech approach to add fire to the snail. We mounted the liquid propane tank in the neck and a plenum tank for gas accumulation just behind it. Fittings were welded to the tank to make the plumbing easy and clean.

Next, I forged 2 eye stalks out of pipe, making sure the centers remained hollow. I then welded hollow hemispheres, with pilot rings on top and a 1/2" hole in the base of the bowl, to the eye stalks. The pilot ring is a hollow tube with a slit cut around the entire inside ID with a NP fitting welded to the outside for plumbing the gas. Each eye was then plumbed with a venturi fitting to mix air with the gas for a clean burning pilot. The pilots were then plumbed back to the plenum tank using 1/4" copper tubing, 45 Deg compression fittings and a needle valve to adjust the gas flow.

Then, 1/2" globe valves were plumbed to the base of each eye stock and plumbed using 3/8" copper lines attached to the plenum tank. When these valves are opened a giant fire ball erupts from the eyes. We attached leather reins to the valves that could be pulled from inside the car.

Finally, for safety shut off, a regulator and hose were attached from the liquid propane tank to the plenum tank with a 1/4" turn ball valve.

Step 14: Fenders, Headlights, Access Panels, Palaquine, Fire Wall

The fenders came from a company that makes them for trailers. To make them unique to our car, we cut them down and trimmed them in rivets. Vintage 1947 International truck headlights were custom mounted to the fenders and they were converted from 6 to 12 volt sealed beam bulbs.

Access panels are now fabricated and welded to the floor frame, giving us access to the batteries, electrical subsystems and extra storage areas.

Sheet metal is needed around the frame to seal out dust and water, and to create a "fire wall" between the passenger compartment and storage/engine/fire effect areas. Each piece is first made in paper, checked for fit, then transferred to steel before being welded, screwed and glued into place.

The entire frame is now painted black. Paper patterns of what will become the floor panels are created. The rest will have to wait until the shell is on for a final fit.

We are now ready for the shell!

Step 15: Sound System

The sound system is designed to fit into a single NEMA box dubbed the "disco box". Inside we have a mixer, an FM radio transmitter (to link our sound with our other cars) and a relay to control the 110v power via a 12v dash switch. Mounted outside the disco box are speaker outputs, an iPod jack, a mic input, an inverter control panel and 110v plugs. Inside the snail shell roof we mounted 2 Mackie 450 Watt powered speakers pointed though the perforated side shell panels. Care was taken in the overall electrical plan to route the wiring as cleanly and hidden as possible.

We could now entertain a fairly large crowd and blow out the eardrums of everyone inside.

Step 16: Electrical System

We chose to make two isolated electric systems in this car, one for the function of the car and one to run the accessories. The car operation requires the ignition system, starting system and running lights, while the accessories are things like music, LED lighting and the air compressor. We did this so we never had to worry about running the car.
A 4000 watt inverter was incorporated into the accessory system to power the 110v music equipment.
Both systems batteries are charged via the engine generator with the use of a battery isolator. Because of our large power consumption, we also used a Honda generator for charging the accessory 12v battery bank, two 12v deep cycle batteries. A standard car battery was used for running the car.
All of these items are controlled from the dash switches and the disco box, and are securely mounted under the floor boards.

Early on in the project, we listed everything that we would want to run on these systems and purchased a new automotive wiring harness from Summit Racing. We then mapped out our component list onto the new harness and made our final wiring diagram. We made a mock up of the dash in paper and started to route wires to the different parts of the car. All this work was done outside the car on a large table. Once the dash was done, we added all the pre-made switch bundles to it. As the car was being built, things like the disco box, batteries, inverter, starter, and relays were mounted in the car waiting for the day when we would install and connect the dash and harness to them. While building the frame and shell we regularly met with Lauren (the wire goddess) to make sure we made room and paths for all the wiring.

The day finally came when the welding was done, paint was finished and we could now safely install the dash and harness. Thanks to all the planning, the dash slid right into the mounts, the wiring went down tubes on the right and left of the shell and everything connected right up! The only thing we couldn't get to work the first time was the horn! I was amazed!

Never again will I mess with running wire one at a time. We would have been inside the car for a week doing it that way.

Next time: replace the VW generator with an alternator. We are normally milling around the streets and that's just to slow for a generator to produce a good charge.

Still to ad: dash gauges, built in 12v charging system from 110v and more lights for the shell.

Step 17: Lights

Lights were added for a whimsical quality. We used a string of color changing LED lights from Triklits and replaced the factory covers with carnival "doorknob" light housings. Each LED assembly was filled with silicone and then glued to the housing base. Later, the string was installed by drilling holes through strips of metal, mounting the light housing, and then attaching the metal strips to the underside of the palaquin that was added on top of the shell.

Step 18: The Shell

I started this phase by making an English Wheel that was needed for the compound curves of some of the panels.

After it's completion, we started by installing the innermost panel sections of the spiral and working out. This gave a place to always clamp from at least two sides of each section. We soon realized that our vise grip clamps could not reach some of the bigger panels, so we stopped and made an extra long clamp by cutting off the tips of the clamp and welding long tubes to extend it (see photo). The careful patterning, marking and cutting of the panels really paid off, and 90% of the panels went on with no problems. Care was taken to keep the welds neat and to do enough welds so we didn't get any rattling. The other 10% took twice as long as the first 90% did. These were the panels that had compound curves, awkward shapes and awkward placement that made them hard to clamp. The seams from front to back were covered with 3/4x1/8 strap witch was attached to the frame with countersunk allen head bolts.

Step 19: Patina and Finish

Before we did any patina work, we masked off all the growth rings that we wanted to leave black with tape. All the wiring and the entire engine compartment was tarped over to keep it safe from the patina chemicals.

The car was moved outside and the patina chemicals prepared. I wanted a warm coppery feel to the car so I chose a patina using water and cupric nitrate 32-1, ferric nitrate 32-1 and gun bluing16-1. We used bug sprayers for each chemical. Before applying the chemicals, we washed down the whole car with plain water. Keeping the section we were about to treat whetted, we started spraying the gun blue, then cupric, then ferric. Gun blue was used in combination with the cupric to fill in bright spots. The completed sections were kept wet to keep air from changing the earlier sections we had finished. Once the entire car was patinad, we used a weak solution of baking powder to stop the reaction, rinsed one more time with water and finally dried it off with air nozzles and the warmth of the sun. The crew stared at what was once beautifully shinny shell, now dull rust colored, and wondered "why".

The tape and tarps were now removed and all the growth rings were cleaned with scotch brite pads to bring back the black look. The whole car was dusted using compressed air.

Polyurethane spray cans were used to paint it late that night and, to the delight and relief of everyone, it looked great! Care was taken not to over spray the section we had already done. It took 3-6 coats to seal.

Now it was time to assemble all the parts again.

Step 20: Final Assembly

Now the parts that had been removed for painting could be reassembled. The fenders/headlights, wiring, floor boards, floor mats, seats, mirror, dash, flame effects, palaquin and LED lighting were all installed. A custom stick shift was hand forged, tapped to fit the metric threads on the old one and a ball welded to the top. A final adjustment to the angle of the shaft was done hot on the car to make sure it was just right. An old military spotlight from a Navy ship was added to the palaquin. Seat belts were bolted to the front seats and more attached to the floor for the rear seats. a few throw pillows LED candles....

And finally it was time for a test drive.

Step 21: Done!

What can I say, but WOW!

For more info see: Golden Mean

Step 22: Crew

This was a great project and really pushed each one of us way past the personnel comfort levels of what we thought we could achieve.

Our crew was:
Jon Sarriugarte
Kyrsten Mate
Zolie Mae
Lauren Winter
Tansy Brooks
Christopher Brooks
Alex Chan
Jackson Wong
Laura Casey
Holly Gibson
Tackett Austin
Keith Johnson
Ann Johnson
Mike Winter
Lisa Winter
Hino Vazques

More info: Golden Mean or

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