At Burning Man, you’ll see lots of crazy driving: cupcake cars, an octopus, even a mobile phone

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In the early years of Burning Man, the annual festival in the Nevada desert that celebrates what it calls "dreamers and doers," there were Art Cars: automobiles so baroquely decorated that the only rational reaction was to stop and gape.

When the event migrated from a San Francisco beach to the Nevada desert in 1990, there were but a dozen such conveyances.

The most iconic was “Oh My God!” -- a vintage VW festooned with knick-knacks. It was the brainchild of Harrod Blank, who later made the film "Wild Wheels."

If the policy of letting people doll up their passenger cars had continued, the event, which began Tuesday and continues through Monday, would be inundated with customized Fords and Toyotas.

As attendance grew, the dangers of that route became evident. So in the late 1990s, the Burning Man organization revised the rules.

Art Cars were out; Mutant Vehicles were in.

“A Mutant Vehicle,” Burning Man says, “is a unique, motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to [its] original form, or to any standard street vehicle.”

Burning Man does more than define what a Mutant Vehicle is. There are immutable rules governing every MV’s lighting, safety and sound. They must also be interactive (not just for the builders) and truly mutated: There must be a “wow factor.”

One of the first true Mutant Vehicles to register with Burning Man’s DMV (clever, that) was the “Mobile Living Room ” by Pepper Mouser -- a wheeled platform sporting a carpet, bar, lounge chair, lamp and stripper’s pole. It carried about eight people.

Today, about 700 Mutant Vehicles are registered to ply the playa, some with a carrying capacity of well over 120.

This year’s Burning Man event will be my ninth since 2000. It will also be my first year out of my hot, cramped tent. I’ll be piloting an unusual vehicle of my own: a Champ camper van from JUCY, a New Zealand group that tricks out and rents mini-RVs for casual road trips.

I plan to photograph the most outrageous and hilarious Mutant Vehicles on the Black Rock playa --and to share the remarkable stories of the people who created them.

El Pulpo Mec&aacutenico

Every year, Eureka-based graphic artist and designer Duane Flatmo goes to Mexico to recharge his creative batteries.

In 2010, he started picking up weird junk he found on the Mexican roads -- tuna cans, sandal flaps, string, pacifiers, shotgun shells -- and piecing them together.

He made a small model octopus, about 2 feet tall, with eight moving legs.

A year later, Flatmo and his friend Jerry Kunkel, an electrical engineer, decided to build the cephalopod to scale.

First, they got an old Ford Econoline van from a wrecker. Then they brought the van into Arcata Scrap and Salvage, where Bonnie, the owner, helped them out.

“We gave her a chunk of money,” Flatmo said, “to be able to come into the back lot and get all kinds of rusty stuff.”

The fruit of this vision was El Pulpo Mec&aacutenico: a two-story kinetic scrap-metal octopus that shoots bolts of fire 25 feet into the air.

Hilarious and monstrous, it’s one of the most beloved Mutant Vehicles on the playa.

El Pulpo also has a powerful sound system, connected to a loaded iPod -- so the artists can play songs that fit with what’s happening around them.  

“The beauty of El Pulpo,” Flatmo said, “is that people see things in it that they recognize – like stove tops, old vents, muffin tins, pie tins.

“And a lot of them have the same reaction," he said, laughing: “'I thought it was art, but it’s just a bunch of junk!'”

Telephone car

When Howard Davis was a kid, he was constantly tinkering with telephones.

“I found them fascinating,” he said. “And I decided, at 19, that I wanted to work for the phone company. Unfortunately, the year I applied they were actually laying people off.”

Instead, Davis began collecting antique and used telephones, and telephone-related objects. He now has about 5,000.

In 1983, when he was in his early 20s, Davis decided to build a drivable telephone. It took about a year, but his freeway-legal push-button desk phone is fully equipped with all the necessary lights and mirrors, and registered in Massachusetts. It can ring up the road at 65 mph.

The body of the Phone Car is built of shaped aluminum, the keys of marine plywood. At 32, it’s recognized as one of the earliest Mutant Vehicles; you can barely tell it was once a 1975 VW Beetle. In its current incarnation it can seat two, and there’s room for storage in the back.

Davis, now 57, has been going to Burning Man since 2003. His day job back in Avon, Mass.?

“I started my own telephone company, Datel Communications,” he said. “It’s a successful business, and I enjoy it. But it’s strictly an offshoot of my lifelong obsession with telephones.”

Cupcake cars

“The cupcake cars were originally going to be muffins,” said Lisa Pongrace, who met me before this year’s Burn in her Berkeley garage. “But Greg and I realized immediately that cupcakes allowed more in the way of creative interpretation.”

Compared with some of the other Mutant Vehicles, the cupcakes are bite-sized and -- from a distance -- completely convincing. Blueberry, chocolate-frosted, rainbow sprinkles -- they actually look delicious, despite the human filling. It seems amazing they don’t melt in the heat.

When things do go awry (because the high desert is a harsh environment), Lisa and Greg are ready. “My basic muffin repair kit consists of a hairbrush, large safety pins, a sewing kit, upholstery screws, a glue gun, carpet tape, zip ties and beer,” Lisa said.

The only real “problem” with the Cupcake Cars, Greg and Lisa agree, is their popularity. They can’t go 20 feet without someone stopping them for a picture.

Raygun Gothic Rocketship

No, you can’t actually ride in it, at least not in the way you might wish.

But the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, which made its first appearance at Burning Man in 2009, ignites a deep-seated desire to, as its makers say, “explore the moons of Asimov III ... ogle the remains of a Bovinian Lengua from Omega V ... or get to another dimension, really fast.”

The classic spaceship stands 40 feet tall and weighs 6¾ tons. It’s as sleek as a salmon, as evocative as a jetpack.

I will never forget the afternoon I first saw the Rocketship perched on the alkaline dust of the Black Rock desert.

It seemed so fitting, such an exquisitely appropriate ornament upon that otherworldly environment.

I’d hoped to go up the high steel gantry for a peek at the bridge -- predictably loaded with dials, screens and buttons -- but the line stretched halfway to Alpha Centauri.

It took about 120 people to visualize and create this marvel of aluminum and nostalgia.

The chief artists were Sean Orlando, Nathaniel Taylor and David Shulman. They’re part of a collective called Five Ton Crane and describe themselves as “a diverse group of artists, geeks and inventors from the San Francisco Bay Area.

"The name implies the intention: 5TC does the heavy lifting that the individual artist couldn’t do on their own; by pooling resources, interests and talent to create opportunities for bigger, better and bolder Art.”

And what project bolder than a galaxy-cruising spaceship? The RGR now travels across the country to lend an atmosphere of steampunk star-trekking to public spaces. Its most recent home was Pier 14 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Today, the oversized vehicle, like an orphaned prop from "Destination Moon," is available for your Triffid garden party. Contact the responsible rocket scientists at Raygun Gothic Rocketship


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