Introduction: The Golden Zeppelini, Art on Wheels

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"The Golden Zeppelini" a 1930's Zeppelin commissioned by Mussolini for the Italian war effort. I discovered this rare vehicle with help from the great granddaughter of Rommel. My team and I built it in my shop "Form & Reform" in West Oakland. This is how you can make your story into reality.

Following is the basic process by which we built this amazing vehicle. This is meant as a process guide for building any kind of wheelchair based vehicle and as a loose guide for building this one. There are far too many details in this project and each step could be broken into many different standalone Instructables. I hope by posting this you gather your own team and make your own dream car together. The sum of the parts makes wonderful things!

For more info see: Zeppelini
Other builds
The Golden Mean a Giant Iron Snail Car

There is now a fan club for the Golden Mean on Facebook
Keep track of the Boiler Bar events and news there

My blog:

Step 1: Wheelchair Base

This is the 3rd wheelchair I have done and I love how much time I spend on the art part and how little time I need to work on motors, steering linkages, drive trains and general mechanics of a full car build.

After Building the Electrobite I was contacted by a few people that wanted to give us wheelchairs for future projects. Larry was nice enough to give me Quickie and help me out with some spare parts and programmers.

I checked out craigslist and found quite a few late models for under $500.
Make sure the batteries are good and everything works before purchasing.

Make sure to get the heavy duty ones. Most of these will hold 300-400 lbs. total including your chair. Keep this weight in mind as you design and build your vehicle. Dressed I'm 200 lb., plus the traction/batteries at 75 lb. meant I had to keep my shell weight under 125 lb.

Once you get it back to the work shop use it, play on it, take it to a party and drive it around the neighborhood. You will have a much better idea of what needs to be fixed, its range, how to drive and a very small appreciation for what it’s like to need one of these every day! It's quite an eye opener for how differently people treated me in one, even close friends.

Step 2: Frame

I wanted to build a zeppelin for this year’s Burning Man. I did a lot of research on zeppelins and chose the Macon as the one I wanted to fashion mine off of. We started with a chalk grid on the floor of the shop and scaled it down to fit the chair.

Once we had an outline we liked we copied it into 12 identical pieces that would become the ribs of the airship. This was done in 3/8” tubing.

To facilitate building we welded these pieces to a pipe we planned to cut out later in the build. This worked so well we used this system during the entire build. I gave us a reference point to build off of and allowed us to rotate the ship to work on all sides easily. This allowed me to work alone with no help to rotate to another side to weld.

Once the 12 laterals were in place we welded in the vertical. Each sectional piece had to be calculated for length based on the overall circumference divided by 12. Even then adjustments had to be made to each piece to make the overall section fit. We made sure to alternate from front to back to keep things even and true.

Next we went back to the chalk drawing and copied the outline of the tail fins in 3/8” tubing. These parts were then shaped to fit the curve of the ships frame. After that the vertical parts were meshed with the horizontal ones and welded to the frame. 1/8” half couplers were welded to the top edges and drilled out. These will serve as mounting points for the LED lights later in the build.

With help from my 4 year old girl Zolie we now cut out a section of the frame for the traction motor to fit into and chalked out a new drawing on the floor of the gondola. Even though we didn't start on building the gondola, we needed to know where it would be to move on to mounting the traction motor.

Step 3: Wheelchair Traction Mount

With a hole cut in the frame we could move the traction motor into place and start to think about additional supports needed to keep the airship from falling apart. Thanks to the research I had done of actual airship construction it was easy to following the same bracing patterns they used. I built a floor layer inside the frame giving the ship a very firm spine to attach the traction motor, batteries and rear wheel. I had also planned to crisscross and cable tie it as well but it became clear this was overkill.

The Quickie has a great quick release that detaches the entire traction motor from the frame and chair. I removed the mounts from the chair frame and machined new weldable brackets that I then welded to the airship frame. Now removing the traction motor is as simple as flipping two levers and disconnecting one quick release cord!

After a quick test ride with a temporary rear wheel we reinforced the bottom fin and machine a tube to hold the bearing race for the permanent wheel.

Step 4: Gondola, Chair, Floor, Stoppie Wheel and Ailerons Controls

With the new rear wheel in place and the frame stiffened up it was time to install the gondola. We went back to our chalk drawings on the floor bent the tube to match adding some extra to the width to compensate for the curve of the airframe. Now we curved the flat shape to the frame using heat and a bender then welded in place. We then used a T square to transfer this shape back to the floor to make an accurate flat duplicate for the bottom edge. After making this shape with additional material added front to back for the curves we welded it in place as well. 

Now we removed the center reference pole, and replaced with end caps and bolts so that we could still rotate the whole ship to work on it.

Now it was time to put a seat in. I had hope to hide the operator completely but there just wasn't enough space inside to comfortably sit and once Zolie got a look at the rear space she declared it hers pronouncing where the DVD player goes, cup holder here and bed right here dad. I played around with seat designs, ordered a recumbent bike seat, and even started to make a custom seat when I looked at the pile of wheelchair seats I was going to toss. The one that came with this chair had a gel filled seat, quick release bracket and armrests, suspension and already had a mount for the controller. It could also be move forward and back and tilt. All these things would take me weeks to make, or 2 hours to install as is. I had to move it back from the original position to put more weight on the rear wheel. The original weight distribution was on front wheels and centered more forward of the drive wheels. I then cut a hole in the top for a cockpit.

A second test drive reveled a problem with tipping forward when stopped fast. This created 2 problems that were solved with adding a stoppie wheel and reinforcing the whole front end and gondola. I knew this would also get better once the skin weight was added to the back. In addition the accessory battery was added behind the seat. I'm now learning with some success to use the wheel to do stunt Zeppelin flights.

Now Zolie and I spent a weekend day putting in her floor for the bed she wanted. I'm really glad we did this and we had some great nights on the playa together with her in bed, in the back, by 8pm and me out for the night with my little girl happy as a clam!
It also made it possible to carry stuff and protected the wiring.

There were a few touches I still wanted to do, but with time running short I shouldn't, but me being me I felt sleep could wait and added moving ailerons that I could control from my seat via cables and a retractable step post that could be locked from inside. Both worked out great and I'm glad I took the extra time.

Step 5: Skin and Trim

Every last part of the frame was now welded, ground and cleaned and it was time to skin the ship.

I choose 24ga perforated sheet steel to skin the main frame and 22ga sheet steel for tail, gondola and tips. I thought this would look great lit with LEDs and the perforated would reduce weight by 25%. I also had secret plans to shoot fire though the skin for a "oh the humanity" moment. 

I purchased a new electric sheet metal shear to start with. I chose a DeWalt DW892
nce I learned to use it, it cut like butter but there is no way it could cut the radius they advertised.

To pattern the pieces we cut strips a bit wider than the widest spot on the ribs. We then clamped the pc to the frame and traced it with our patent pending sharpie centering tool. This tool has a deep throat and makes a mark centered on the tube on the top side of the sheet using the side of the tube on the underside. We got much better results than just tracing from the back side. We used this tool for every part of the skin patterning and it will get well used in the years to come.

After patterning the whole ship we started welding panels at the rear fin area because we knew there would be access issues if we left this for last. Using clamps to hold in place we tack welded each panel in place to the tube below. The panels had to be very accurately cut and placed. Perforated steel this thin is very hard to weld without burning though. Play with the settings and practice with scraps before starting, being able to see the weld and timing are equally important. 

Once the bulk of the body was done I refitted the sections I made earlier for the sunbursts at each end and tack welded them in place. Once all the pieces were in place I welded it into a solid piece and ground out the welds. We added the grind pattern to make it "pop" in the sun.

Now the only thing left was to hide all the weld seams on the main body. I had Van Bebber Bros. steel shear and brake at 15 deg. 3/4x10ft strips of 22ga sheet. These were then fitted to length, detailed at the ends, 3/16 holes drilled at the ends and approximatively every 6". These holes were then plug welded to the tube frame covering every seam and ground flat and polished to match the sunbursts. After  some hand finishing to remove the sharpie marks, dingleberries and scuffs she was ready for finishing.

Step 6: LED Lights & Wiring

Using the experience from previous builds the entire car was laid out in scale on a table and the parts were place and labeled. This was done about 3 weeks before the end of the build so parts could be ordered and wiring could begin in tandem with the air ship frame build. This enabled us to cut at least 2 weeks off the build time.

I have 2 electrical systems in this ship. One 24 volt system runs the traction motor and all of its subsystems. This is what came with the wheelchair.
The second system runs the lights, horn, sound, fire controls and Zolie's DVD player.

For LEDs I contacted Oznium  they have great selection of lights made for 12volt systems ready to install. They also have inexpensive controllers that are pretty much plug and play. I didn't have the time or money to scratch build an Arduino board and deal with all the voltage differential problems. We used this dimer/controller. Buy extra LEDs as you will find places to use them and you will wish you bought more later, that and we destroyed a few in the install.

As I built the frame I incorporated mounts for the fans, 12volt plug, and 1/8" half couplers in the frame, nose, tail and fins. I ordered brass lamp parts and mated them to the Super-flux LEDs from Oznium. This system worked great with one problem. The sample had a smaller resistor that fit though the brass parts and the production LEDs resister was too large to fit. All the resisters had to be cut off and moved to different locations. This problem haunted us though out the final build and a better solution will need to be found for future builds. Hoping someone finds a way to do away with the resister altogether. 

For the control box and distribution boxes I got some die cast project boxes. The idea is that a scratch build wiring harness would be built using these, then it could simply be screwed in place once we got the frame done. The resister problem made this impossible, but we were still able to get lots done outside the car.

Step 7: Finishing and Assembly

I had planned to zinc plate the entire car. The morning came to drop it off with the clock ticking down to Burning Man and the company I had been working with for over 2 weeks decided they couldn't do it after all. They were very nice and helped me find a powder-coater who could. I really wanted to keep the wonderful grind patterns we had spent so much time on. Professional Finishing in Richmond CA had nothing in the silver nickel colors that was translucent, but they did have Brass, Copper and Gold! I rolled the dice, choose a color and hoped I didn't end up with a yellow submarine. It worked and I'm glad I did it.
As an added bounce it was very easy to clean after BM and held up really well to the kids.

2 days before we have to leave and body is back!
It was now time to see if all these parts will fit together. We start by giving the old rims a gold paint job and installing all the running gear.

Now it's time for the wiring harness. We begin with the distribution boxes from the inside and the LED brass lights from the outside. All of the threads on the welded in pipes end up needed to be re-tapped and the hole in the frame for wire path enlarged. After this is done the wiring gos in better but only one of us can work inside of the car at a time. Rear distribution box ends up being too small for all the light on the back but we make it work.

Rich Sciortino from SDG showed up with logos for the fins and body. 

After an all-nighter wiring we finally got to turn the key on to see if it worked, 2 lights crossed but otherwise all systems worked as planned!

Step 8: Done!

We test drove it for all of ten minutes in the parking lot, loaded it up and headed out for the Blackrock desert where the land speed record was set. 

Stunt flying at night!

Jon Sarriugarte Designer, engineer, welding, fabrication, sheet metal and....
Hino Vasquez Fabrication, welding, sheet metal, electrical, shop foreman.
Pavel Tovarek Fabrication, welding, sheet metal
John Behrens Electrical
Mike Winter Electrical
Lisa Winter Electrical
Joshua Lajciak Fabrication, sheet metal
Tansy Brooks Sheet metal
Rich ScirotinoSheet metal, graphics
Kyrsten Mate Graphics, finance, research
Zolie Mae Sarriugarte Interior design, fabrication
Scottie Chapman Electrical
Amir Electrical
Amir Senior Fabrication, sheet metal

Big thanks to the above crew! I couldn't have pulled this off in 29days with out their help, late hours and expertise!  

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