Friday, November 19, 2010

Mini-Update: LED Dome Lamps

Just another little Mini-Update:

When I was ordering some other parts from JC Whitney, I needed a few more items to get to the free shipping threshold, so I went ahead and ordered a pair of these Ultraflex LED Dome Lamps, in the 2.5"x1.5" size, in order to retrofit them into the dome lamps on the Astrolander conversion.

These are a 24-LED array, but they needed a flat place to mount, so I had to do a little work.

The kit includes a variable-size shunt that fits in place of the original incandescent bulb and provides a 12v/gnd connection. Then I notched the enclosure with a couple of slots.

Then I cut this shelf from a piece of scrap ABS plastic. Excuse the crude work, I was going fast trying to finish before returning to my Daddy duties on a Saturday. The ABS was from an unused portion of a drawer organizer in the recycling bin.

The tabs on the ABS mate to the slots in the housing. Two on one side, one on the other. The ABS is about an 1/8" thick, but is fairly flexible, so easy enough to bend to insert and remove from the slots, which is important since the mounting holes for the dome lamp assembly are behind it, on either side of the original bulb.

The LED matrix then is affixed to the ABS with the supplied double-stick tape (already applied to the back of the PCB). The mating connection is plugged in to the shunt adapter.

In this location it has 1/4" or so of relief from the diffuser lens. Unless you're really looking, you can't tell there's anything different under there.

Until you turn it on. Compare the brightness against the incandescent map lights. These will get converted to LEDs too, as soon as I find an LED kit with an appropriate bulb adapter or have time to make a few from hacked bulbs.

This is a daylight shot, and you can already see the brightness of the LEDs (foreground) versus the incandescent bulb (background). These have made a huge difference in the ease of buckling baby into the car seat after dark. They are NOT a perfect white, they do cast a bit of a blue hue, but for this purpose and the price, I am quite happy. When I do the map lights, I may be a bit more careful about the color temperature as map reading, etc. is hard under bad lighting. I'm also considering red LEDs for the front map lights at least, as an option to help preserve night vision.

(Large pics as always on my web album).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Side Project: Swivel Passenger Seat

OK, with this update, I should be more or less "caught up" with documentation vs. the state of reality on the project, at least with respect to things with a significant time investment.

I finally got around to finalizing a GOOD fix for my issues with the swiveling seat. A rearward-facing seat (at least in the front passenger position) has been a core part of my interior design from almost the beginning. As soon as basic measurements and layout attempts proved to me that I would need to use some variant on a VW Weekender/Westy layout, I wanted to have the expanded living space of the front row facing aft.

As usual, more complete and larger images available on my web album. I will also make reference to some other photos from the first draft installation.

My first attempt at this was to buy an off-the-shelf "bolt-in" swivel mechanism from Discount Van-Truck (hereafter "DVT"). The idea is that this swivel plate bolts in between the stock seat and slider rails. Unfortunately for the Astro/Safari version, although the bolt-spacing is correct, it doesn't really take into account that the seat rails and seat bottom are curved. In order to accommodate this arch, I had to add some spacers to the bolts:

Combined with the swivel plate itself, this adds up to over three extra inches of seating height. This made it tight, even for shorter passengers. With the headliner removed to do all of my other work, I was pretty uncomfortable letting anyone too tall ride in that seat, lest they risk a head injury on exposed metal.

The other problem with this design is that the stock seat has some rearward rake built into the rails. This lifts the front of the seat and makes seating more comfortable, especially with the limited legroom. As you can see in the above picture, though, this incline is static and below the plane of rotation of the seat, so as you swivel the seat you go from a sideways slant to the front edge of the seat being much LOWER than the rear when fully swiveled. This was VERY uncomfortable.

Both of these "features" alone warranted a new plan of attack.

When I scored my donor van, I was pretty excited because it included TWO swivel seat bases. I also liked that these had a very beefy locking prawl so they felt securely locked when facing forward. Unfortunately they shared the same design flaw with the rear-rake built-in below the plane of rotation.

That wasn't the worst of it, though. It seems that GM had made some small but significant changes in the interior portions of the Astro/Safari van somewhere along the way. Despite having an identical outer unibody, the 1995 donor van had a few key differences to my 2003 van. Under the rear of my front seats there's a small duct outlet that blows HVAC air onto the feet of the passengers in the middle row. At first I thought I could utilize the GTRV donor swivel base by just notching the back of the plate to clear this outlet. I quickly went after it with a plasma cutter before I really understood what was going on. It turns out, that the vent outlet has ducting behind it (duh!), in the form of a very wide and flat plenum that sits under a good portion of the seat. This is why the passenger seat is up on those riser rails you can see in the first picture. Where the feet touch it is flat, but most everywhere else sits 1-2" higher with ducting, carpet, underlayment, etc. These flat-bottom seat bases just weren't going to work.

I looked at a variety of ways of just trying to put little "feet" on these bases to use them, but it always stacked up to making the passenger seat too high again. With all of the clearance needed for the various levers, there just wasn't an easy way to chop two or three inches out of the design without basically rebuilding it from scratch. Rather than head off down that road, I decided to leave the swivels intact for resale, and went after making the original DVT swivel base work "right".

After a lot of back and forth, I built these. They're pretty simple, just a couple of short sections of 1.5" x 2.5" tubing, with some angle stock welded on. The second project from my new-old welder. The more I work with it, the more I realize it will need a minor overhaul to fix the design issues with it. Fortunately others have gone ahead and documented how to do that.

Here you can see everything stacked up. Unfortunately I still have the "curved" slider track under the swivel plate, but this was sort of necessary because if the slider was on top of the swivel, you'd have too much of the locking lever sticking out between your legs when the seat was fully rearward. This keeps the lever handles in a better position. More importantly, you can see that the plane of rotation is now mostly flat (depending a little on the slider position), and that the rake is built-in above the swivel plate. In this photo the swivel is "facing" rearward, and the 1" tubing spacers on the left raise up the front of the seat in all positions.

Here's the swivel plate "mid swivel", and the detail of the locking lever. One problem with both original swivel designs is that they only locked in the forward position. When facing rearward, reaching to grab something off the dash or trying to adjust your position with your legs would make the seat turn instead of moving your body, like pushing one of those shopping carts where all four wheels swivel, or a boat with no keel. Sort of annoying.

Fixing this was the easiest part of the whole project, I just nibbled out another notch with a cutting wheel on my grinder, so now the seat locks in the rearward position as well.

It is hard to see here unless you know what you're looking at, but the other minor improvement was to heat and bend the locking lever slightly, so that the handle comes "up" a bit and fits the contour of the lower seat a bit better. It gets it out of the way so you're not banging your heel on it if you cross your legs under while seated.

All told, the passenger seat now sits almost 3/4" lower than stock, instead of the 3+ inches higher than stock. The extra headroom just makes me feel that much safer for passengers since the GTRV reinforcing ring does seem to sit a tad lower than the original roofline, but I didn't want to drop things too much lest the armrest in the door be wildly out of whack against the arm rest on the seat. Building my brackets this way also moved the seat rearward about and 1.5 inches. This makes up for the awful passenger foot room more than you'd think, since the foot well is tapered. Any further and I was worried the upper seatbelt pickup would be too far forward.

As currently mounted, the edge of the seat just clears the B-pillar if I swivel the seat clockwise. If I want to go counter-clockwise, I have to move the seat back to the fully upright position first. I still could move the seat inboard another inch-and-a-bit if I use the other mounting holes, but so far this seems fine.

And now I can finally enjoy a proper "living area" facing the bench seat opposite with enough space for a table for eating or cards.

Two answer two popular questions:
1) No, I wouldn't use the seat in this position while traveling. The seatbelt anchors aren't really in the right place, and it would make my wife carsick faster than an alpine road anyway.

2) Not sure if I plan to do the same to the driver's seat or not. Because of my planned layout, my Edgestar fridge will most likely be behind the driver's seat when camping, so I wouldn't be able to swivel without a lot of shuffling around. I could test to be sure, but I also think the driver's seat would have to be inclined to an uncomfortable angle to clear the steering wheel anyhow. That said, having "facing" seating for four adults would be cool if we got stuck in a rain or something...

Top Transplant - Relocate Wiring and Overhead Console Project

Here is more of my retroactive documentation. In this installment, I tackled the relocation of the overhead dome/map lamp and add an overhead switch panel.

As always, more/bigger pictures on my web album.

The main push for this part of the project was to deal with the aftermath of having removed the forwardmost structural rib from the Astro van roof. The GTRV steel reinforcing ring took care of the structural element, but there was also a couple of wiring harnesses that passed over this rib, one of them to feed the forward dome lamp and map lights that also hung here. The GTRV donor van had an aftermarket RV dome/map light in the overhead space between the reinforcing ring and the windshield/rearview mirror area. I liked this placement, but I was pretty sure I could make mine look more factory by reusing the original GM light assembly.


Top Transplant - Lifting the Top

At this point in my documentation, I need to deviate from counting the "days" I've been working. Due to changes in work demands, a sick infant, and my wife's waning patience at being left for whole days or weekends at a time while I toil away at my buddy's shop, I'm just not getting whole days to work on the project. The upside is that since things have reached a certain level of completeness (see the last update), I was able to bring the van home again, and work on things for an hour or two here and there in the driveway. Progress comes in bursts, on afternoons when I can get away from work a little early and weekends when the baby naps or I can leave her with Mommy for (shorter) periods of time.

Instead, I'll try to capture "projects" as they are completed. Please remember that some of these projects span many days of short bursts and are often interposed with other projects, so things may appear out of order slightly.

Here then, I will cover the saga of "Lifting the Top". My goal, at the outset, was to be able to raise and lower the top on electric power, since I wanted my wife to be able to operate the top as easily as opening a sunroof. With the GTRV design, after releasing the latches, you must lift the top for 8-10 inches before the gas springs kick in and raise the top the rest of the way. When lowering the top, you have to hold it a bit above "fully closed" while you tuck the corners of the tent fabric away from the latches. For me this means putting my shoulder up against the top and standing up a bit. My wife is obviously smaller, and not quite as strong, so I was hoping to avoid this for her.

As always, more/bigger pictures on the web album.

The problem with electric lifting actuators in this situation is packaging. The GTRV top is very low profile (lending the "Garagable" part to "Garagable Top RVs"), which doesn't leave much room for a bulky actuator. I was excited, then, to find these "tubular" actuators from Firgelli Automations.

The trick to this design is that the drive motor is contained within the actuator tube. This makes for a compact design, one that doesn't take up much more room than the gas spring that was included in the original design.

First I tackled the upper brackets, where the actuator hits the pop-top. These brackets came from Firgelli, and I thought they were nice and compact until I started messing with them and found some oddness. First, the drilled holes weren't exactly square to the material, which made tapping them less than fun. Why tap? Well, I was concerned that if the mechanism ever failed while in the "down" position, it would be difficult (or impossible) to service the actuators since they'd be trapped under the cap, and a burned actuator would prevent me from raising the top manually. So instead, I tapped the brackets themselves then used button-head cap screws from the outside to bolt everything up. This way, if there was a problem I could simply unbolt the bracket from outside and raise the top manually. Its a good thing I did it this way.... read on.

The Firgelli brackets weren't going to work on the van-side of things. They advertise "almost 180 degrees of rotation" from the bracket. I only needed about 40 degrees, but in an arc that wasn't compatible with the pinch-points on the brackets, so I had to make my own. I started by clipping a couple of corners from some 2" x 3/16" bar stock, then transferred over the critical measurements. The red is layout fluid, which when brushed on, makes it easy to transfer marks and measurements over to the steel. This is one of those things that (as an Electrical Engineer, not an ME or pro-machinist) I was glad to learn about when I was building Battlebots back in the last decade.

After a bit more cutting, a little drilling and grinding, and some less-than-ideal welds, I have a couple of these brackets. These are the first project done by my "new" old welder. I've had this welder since the aforementioned Battlebot-days, got from another Bot-builder friend, but I'd never gotten off my butt and set it up until now. It's an old SIP design from Italy, with a few quirks which I will get around to fixing later, but for a hobbyist like myself, it should do ok.

After paint, I made a couple of pads from cork/rubber gasket material. These should help seal against leaks and keep the roof damage to a minimum.

The lower bracket and actuator in place, complete with stainless sheet metal screws.

In the up position, everything was looking good. The actuators, even "unlocked" had enough holding power to keep the roof up without any struggle. "Locking" the actuators by shorting the motor terminals was built-in to my design and proved more than adequate to keeping things from moving. I started "small" by just moving the actuators a few inches, and everything was fine.

After I tried to run the actuators all the way down, though, I found a significant problem. After a bunch of blown fuses and swear words, much probing, and disconnecting and reconnecting of wiring and bracketry, I was able to find the problem: The actuators aren't really built to take the load I was putting them under, despite the 150lb rating. The motor assembly is held in the actuator tube by a pair of plastic (!!!) standoffs that fit the extruded profile of the tube. Under heavy compression load, these standoffs were compressing and sliding, and the motor was hitting the cap on the actuator tube, pinching wires and shorting things as it happened. There may still be hope for this design, if I can get some metal motor mounts machined up, but for now the electric lift design was DOA.

With a heavy heart, and 8 extra holes in the van roof :(, I gave up and fitted the original GTRV gas springs to the top. This isn't a "bad" design, it just wasn't what I was hoping for. Once again I have the problems of manually lifting/holding the top while raising/lowering, but so does every other GTRV owner...

On the upside, I was able to get to this point prior to the San Diego ExPo Meet-n-greet, so I was able to show off a mostly-functional pop top! :)

More to come...

Top Transplant, Days 4-6

OK, I have been seriously slacking on the documentation end of things, but I HAVE been working. Here is an attempt to get caught up.

As always, there are more/bigger pics here:  Day 4, Day 5, Day 6.  

At this point in the build, it was time to attach the tent canvas to the van roof. The GTRV design basically sandwiches the canvas against the roof with this vinyl trim. When tight, this creates a (theoretically) waterproof(ish) seal against the van, sort of like a set of shingles.

I used the salvaged vinyl strips to lay out the tent spacing and get everything lined up.

In order to avoid more holes in the vinyl and canvas, I went ahead and used the strips as drill templates too - predrilled a dozen or so holes in a time.

It was easiest to fill the strip with a line of screws, then stretch the canvas onto the screws using the existing holes, and finally drive everything tight against the van roof. This was especially important in the back corners because the tent is under extra tension from sewn-in elastic to keep things taught. I imagine when GTRV originally build these, they had a method for doing things without tension, and could just drill through the vinyl, canvas, and steel all in one go.

And voila', several hundred holes and screws later, the tent is now attached to the roof of the van, making it theoretically weather-tight. At this point, the lifting struts are not installed, the pop-top was supported by a 2x4 from inside the van while I worked.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zombie Walk 2010

My week of Nerd-related activities got extended slightly when a friend let me know that there was a Zombie Walk going on with ComicCon this Saturday.
From ZombieWalk_2010-07-24

Needless to say, I had to drag the family along.  My costume was pretty rudimentary, but there were some really talented and dedicated folks there, including my favorite, the "50's Comic Book Zombie", who was kind enough to pose with me for the picture above.

The walk was organized by Zombie Walk San Diego, as a fundraiser and organ-donor signup event for Donate Life California.  By my estimate, there were somewhere between 500 and a 1000 Zombies who showed up.  Awesome!

More impressive than the sheer number of Zombies was that I was able to get Kimberley and Annika to come along.  Annika was a bit young for makeup, so she wore her "Zombie Snack" bib, while Kimberley was sporting possibly the most subtle costume in the walk, (but she was definitely in-costume):
From ZombieWalk_2010-07-24
Bonus Zombie points to anyone who "gets it".

I was honored to be asked to pose for many photos.  Lots of people thought the sign was great, but I can't take credit for the joke -Think Geek sells the shirt.  My really "big moment", though, was spotting the illustrious Patricia Tallman standing off the curb taking pictures of the shamble as it went by.  I only gave a subtle wave and mouthed "I love your work" as we went by, because the last thing the star of Tom Savini's remake of Night of the Living Dead needed was to be recognized on the street and surrounded by five hundred Zombie fans.  This would be equivalent to someone spotting Mark Hamil watching a parade of the 501st Legion going by.

We were too busy wrangling the stroller amid the shamble of Zombies to take many photos, but I managed a few good ones here, and a quick video snap of the Thriller breakout.

I have found quite a few other good collections of photos, though, so here are the best:
Flickr Set from Mike Rollerson
and another from Sebastian Jesperson
and one from

Searching "Zombie Walk San Diego 2010" or "Zombie Walk ComicCom 2010" should net many more videos and pictures...

Friday, July 23, 2010

W00tstock 2.4 has ended. It was awesome.

Well, I'm still reeling from my experience at W00tstock 2.4 last night.   I'll let the rest of the digirati cover all the juicy details, since I'm sure it was live-blogged, tweeted, and streamed to no end.  I love events like these, where I come away reminded that I am part of a greater, and growing, community of like-minded devotees of all things geek. 

My favorite specific bit from last night's show, though, was the sequence of events surrounding Wil Wheaton's retelling of his first experience with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There was a cascade of funny that began with a heartfelt reminiscence of life as a teenager in 1980's LA. Then while recounting the gathering of some slightly burned white toast, onto the stage wanders Aaron Douglas, complete with BSG "Chief Tyrol" flight-suit costume, setting up Wheaton for the gag: "No, we asked for toast, not a toaster!", which of course slayed the audience as intended.

Funnier yet is what came next.  After Douglas stomps of stage yelling "Frak you, Wil Wheaton", our storyteller turns to the audience and says (in seemingly one breath): "So its pretty cool when you're friends with Aaron Douglas and you hear he's going to be at ComiCon so you call him up and ask him if he'll come to your show 'cause you have this idea for a bit that you think would be really funny!  Then he calls you back and asks 'Hey, what if I wore my flight suit? Would that be OK?', and you say 'That.... would... be... AWESOME!', then I went into my backyard and screamed to the heavens 'What did I do to deserve this bitchin' life?'".

It came across as completely genuine and reinforces everything else I've heard about Wil Wheaton and his view of this place in the world.  In any case, I laughed until my sides hurt.

There was much more awesome, including a brief Astronomy lecture and sneak-peak at a new upcoming Discovery Channel show from "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait, surprise cameos from a variety of other geek celebs, and I even got to spend a couple of minutes chatting with Mythbuster Grant Imahara whom I haven't spoken with since we were competitors at a Battlebots event a million years ago.  All in all, a great night, and I can't wait for W00tstock 3.x!

Addendum: I can't believe I forgot to mention this.  So security was stupid.  Like really stupid.  The show started like an hour late because they were doing thorough pat-downs and bag-checks which doesn't sound bad until you remember that 1/2 the crowd came straight from ComiCon and had those massive Swag-bags.  It took FOREVER to process the line.  Worst still, they confiscated my Leatherman Squirt S4, because it was a "weapon".  OK, they didn't confiscate it so much as take it and put it into a plastic bin without any sort of claim ticket whereupon it was gone after the show, even though we had to leave a few minutes before the end.  Oh well, I think the a-hole guard now has a beatup, dull Leatherman on his keychain.  Maybe letting people know before you tear their tickets that there's a "no re-entry" policy, eh?  My car was just around the block.  Moreover, if you're looking for "weapons", maybe you should pat me down a little better, 'cause the farkup rent-a-cops missed my 3.5" Ritter RSK Mini-mk1, which is razor sharp and probably better at the "murdering other nerds" they seemed to be so concerned about.  Obviously I didn't volunteer that one, since I wasn't about to hand over $100+ cutlery.  OK, rant-over, W00tstock was still awesome!  Besides, now I have an excuse to purchase the new Leatherman Squirt PS4 instead!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Heck of a line (around the block) for the W00tstock show.

Can't wait!

-Sent via Blackberry

Summary only...

Monday, July 12, 2010

GTRV Organ Donor Teardown, Day 2

Saint Kimberley the Luscious (aka Mrs. Herbie) granted me another big chunk of time this weekend, so I was able to make some more good progress on the teardown.

As before, my annotated image log is here.

The primary goal on Day 2 was to get the steel reinforcing ring separated from the rest of the van. After drilling all the fasteners on Day 1, I found that a significant amount of adhesive had been used. This stuff was STRONG. If I pulled hard on the steel ring, the roof sheet metal would flex some, but the adhesive didn't budge. Well, when in doubt, apply heat:

I worked my way around the perimeter with a propane torch and a wide putty knife. In most cases a little heat and sliding in the putty knife would get things separated nicely. In a few spots things were obviously under a bit of tension because just applying heat would cause the gap to separate.

In a few other places, more heat and a bit more aggressive application of the putty knife were needed. Mostly where the adhesive was laid on thick and there was a lot of mating surface area.

Eventually though, the glue surrendered and the ring came away, leaving just the sheet metal and what remained of the original reinforcing ribs.

The carpet/glue residue looked pretty nasty after "burning", and in a few spots I really did have to burn the paint to get the glue to let go, but that's one upside of a disposable donor, I don't have to care!

And here's the ring after separation. I was pleasantly surprised to find the ring is "open" at the right-rear corner. This made removal much easier and should make re-installation much simpler also, because in several places the horizontal surfaces of the ring slot in between the roof sheet metal and the stock cross bracing. This thing will have to be maneuvered into place around several such interfering areas, so the fact that I can "pinch" the ring slightly will be a help. Once in place, all of the mechanical fasteners should make it at least as strong as if the ring was welded around the entire perimeter.

The remaining white is more adhesive that I'll scrape off later. I really want to brush or blast this whole thing and at least give it a coat of primer. I hate seeing the start of rust on bare steel.

I also had time to start tackling transplanting the passenger seat swivel base into my van.

I had originally installed a different swivel that sandwiches in between the slider track and the seat bottom:

The problem here being that the added thickness of the slider plus the spacers needed to clear the "arch" of the slider track make the seat dangerously high. (Without a headliner in my 2003 van, a couple of my taller passengers are too close to the roof unless they recline the seat quite a bit!) My hope is to be able to transplant the older swivel base into my van.

After removing the seat, I had to get past the massive amount of brushed on bedliner that covered everything on the floor of the donor van. Mostly I just brushed it off the nuts so I could remove the base plate.

The next problem was that my 2003 van includes an underseat heater duct for the 2nd row foot area. At first I thought I could clear the duct by just notching the rear of the baseplate (underside in this photo):

However it turns out that the stack-up of ducting, insulation, and carpet means the studs aren't long enough to meet the baseplate. (The OE seat mount in my 2003 has a raised bracket with feet that extend to meet the studs, rather than a flat plate.) I'm still brainstorming on the optimum solution here. I may try to turn some sleeved nuts to reach down to the studs, or I may build a similar rail/foot system to clear the floor area entirely, but that will raise the seat back UP, so I may have to compensate by cutting down and re-welding the extension tube in the swivel.... ugh.

Anyhow, more to come, stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

GTRV Organ Donor Teardown, Day 1

Due to the long holiday weekend, I actually had some time to spend starting the teardown in order to prep my "Organ Donor" GTRV for the top-ectomy and transplant to my 2003 recipient van.  Mostly this was about getting things out of the way, and figuring out how the original conversion was constructed.  It was a very productive day!  My full photo log, complete with all the gory details is available here.  
From GTRV-Teardown

Please forgive the seemingly inane annotations on some of the photos, but they are there to remind myself what I was photographing, in case I have to refer back to these pictures a month or a year from now. 

After a full day of removing hundreds of screws and drilling hundreds of rivets, I'm now very close to being able to remove the steel reinforcing ring from the donor van's roof and separately lifting the top assembly off altogether.

From GTRV-Teardown

Most importantly, I have learned a lot about how the GTRV conversion are constructed, so I now feel very confident I can complete this transplant with minimal problems. The biggest casualty thus far is the headliner carpet from the donor. It was glued into place for the entire perimeter of the access portal, and removing it was destructive. It will need to be replaced when I'm done with the mechanical transplant, but I will be brainstorming for ways to avoid having to have the new headliner glued in the same way.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Kite Photography

We got to spend a portion of our holiday weekend visiting some friends at Fiesta Island.  Since I'm neck-deep in my camper-conversion project, I didn't do a very good job of prepping the van for a day at the beach.  On the plus side, I did bring my kites and new carbon fiber KAP rig, so I was finally able to get some aerial shots with my little $40 Canon SD450 from Craigslist.

From FiestaIsland-2010-07-03

I used the Canon Hack Developers Kit (CHDK) running a script called "UltraIntervalometer" to run a timelapse program, taking a shot about once every 3 seconds. I just launched the kite and tied it off, then started the script and walked down the kite line a little ways and attached the rig, then let the kite fly! This was just my opening experiment, so I didn't spend very long taking shots or changing the aim point. I built my Picavet suspension rig in about an hour from some scrap carbon fiber, so its totally static, (making it very light!) but it means I'd have to walk down the line to change the aim. My biggest lesson learned was that I'll need to spend more time with the actual camera settings. Shooting mostly beige sand left the majority of my photos a bit washed out. I'll work on that. Read More...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Major Step forward....

My "Astrolander"/Zombiemobile project has just taken a major step forward.  This past weekend I flew to Vancouver and picked up a GTRV-equipped Safari donor van.

A few weeks ago, I found a high-mileage and beatup GTRV Safari on craigslist. 380,000 km (236k miles), and what the seller generously described as an interior "in need of TLC", but the top shell, tent, and hardware are all in excellent shape. Moreover, it was selling for an incredibly low price, cheap enough to justify buying the van just for the parts. Van was in North Vancouver, BC, but the owner was hesitant to deal with me, he thought I was a scammer! Once I explained that I would pay his asking price because the top shell, tent, and other hardware alone were worth that much to me, he agreed to sell. Then it was just a race to get my passport renewed and hope that nobody else stumbled across the advertisement and thought it was as good a deal as I did! Of course, any good road trip has an adventure story.  Here's mine in Reader's Digest:

Finally flew into Vancouver last Sunday, took the SkyTrain and SeaBus to North Vancouver and met the seller. We looked over the van, covered some of the problems, but confirmed that the pop-top and tent are in excellent shape. Concluded the deal, including purchasing a 1-day BC insurance package, and I head for the border.

Border line was massive, almost 2 hours just to get to the kiosk so I can get pulled into secondary to start the process of importing the vehicle to the USA.

First CBP officer at secondary didn't know as much about vehicle importing as the CBP website (and thus me), so we wasted some time with him telling me I couldn't import the van because the speedo had kph on top. (!!?!) After I insisted that the van had all the proper labelling (CMVSS and EPA labels, etc.) and that it was an HS-7, part-2B import, he handed me off to a second CBP officer who within five minutes confirmed that all was well and I was on my way.  It helped that the van was actually built in Minnesota (for the Canadian market, but still), since there was no duty to be paid.  The EPA sticker even confirms California-emissions compliance, so this made things much smoother.

Made my way into Bellingham, WA and stumbled into the driveway of my friend Tom, already besieged by the Sportsmobile of fellow internet denizen Brian. Hey, Pop-Top Party!! After comparing Tom's van to mine and the minor evolution of the implementation, we had some decent beer and some grub, all in all a too-short visit.  Its worth noting that though Tom and I had been conversing for over a year at this point, we'd never met in person.  The internet has truly changed the world.

I have to stop here to thank Tom, Jen, and Brian for such a warm welcome and their fabulous hospitality. By-far the best aspect of the trip was meeting you all and thinking forward about the next visit when we can actually enjoy your beautiful surroundings!!

We picked up my co-pilot Kevin from the Bellingham airport, gathered a few supplies, and aimed the van south.  By 11pm, we were on our journey, and here's where we started finding some of the "features" of this wonderful machine. First, the instrument lighting in the dash was out. Lots of fun trying to avoid a speeding ticket in an unfamiliar machine on the very dark northern stretch of the I-5. With the creative use of the map lights, my EDC Fenix E01 penlight, and/or my ipod, we were able to keep tabs on instrumentation until dawn. Other "features": Door locks are broken in an inconvenient combination of ways (lock cylinder on driver's side, power lock switch on passenger side, etc.); water temp gauge reads 40c constantly; no cruise control; and a few other niggles.

We went straight through, stopping only for bio breaks, fuel, and breakfast. By 10am we were far enough into California that it started to get hot. Real hot. The little thermometer on my REI zipper-pull said 100+. Before 11am. Oh, and it turns out the van's AC doesn't work either. Crap. Oh well, windows down, we soldier on. The upside of our late departure from Bellingham was that we had missed any sort of traffic going through pretty much all of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. The downside is that we hit central California in the middle of one super-hot day. 105-110°F in Sacramento, Bakersfield, etc.

By 4:30pm, we were at the base of the Grapevine. Citibank's Fraud Detection division helpfully declined my card at this fuel stop, because they'd noticed what they thought were "too many" gas purchases. Um, I'm on a roadtrip back from Canada, hello? The guy starts reading off charges in Washington, Oregon, Northern California.... oh, all moving south. Duh. Sorted out that little issue and back on our way.

For most of the afternoon, it seemed the Water-temp gauge had been "waking up". It had slowly begun to register, then read near the middle of the gauge. As we got into the serious climb of the grapevine, it started to move more quickly toward the top end of the gauge. I wasn't sure whether I could trust it, but figured discretion was wise so we took a casual pace up the hill. On the descent the gauge settled back to just south of the middle, so we pressed on. With a last-minute move into the heavy-truck lane, we narrowly missed getting stuck in a massive backup due to a recent accident where the passenger and truck routes of the grapevine rejoin, then had clean sailing all the way through LA. Somehow we'd timed the drive to miss EVERY bit of rush hour traffic on the entire west coast of America.

We entered into San Diego proper by 9pm, dropped off my copilot, and headed for home. Stopped at the store to get some milk, and then.... crank but no fire.

Yep, after 1400+ miles, two countries, three states, and 22 hours, the van has died within two blocks of my house. Oh well, it could have been much, much worse.

I walked home, took a shower and went to bed. The next morning I got up and started trying to debug the van. After half a day of checking the easy stuff, the manager of the grocery store who's parking lot the van had died in got sort of testy about me crawling around the van checking things, so I just had it towed to my friend's shop. Getting it running would have been convenient, but as it stands is not strictly necessary since the donor wasn't expected to survive the transplant procedure anyway!

Next steps? Start taking pictures and pulling parts. We'll probably start this weekend.

One last note, I have to say that this acquisition is also a personal milestone for me. By my calculations, and including my wife's car (which is titled in my name, so its fair), this brings my aggregate horsepower to 1022. Yes, I've entered four digits, and I now have an aggregate horsepower equivalent to a Bugatti Veyron plus a Honda 250cc dirtbike. This is short-lived of course, as I still plan to shed one "real" car from the fleet and the donor will take a trip to the scrapyard as soon as I've stripped it for useful goodies, but still...