And Now For Something Completely Different...

IMG_9027 Both Randy and I have been into cars for longer than we can recall, and have been customizing them regularly for most of our adult lives. Whether it was our own cars or customers' cars, there always seemed to be a project at hand, which is what eventually led to our company being founded seven years ago. While cars will always be at the heart of what we do, it seems to me that when you've been doing something for over twenty years, it's only natural that your focus may drift into another related field where your expertise and skills can find a new outlet, if only to be introduced to new challenges or to stay sharp. It's possible that I'm only trying to make sense of my most recent obsession, but let me explain...

A few years ago, I was first introduced to the world of two-wheeled motorized vehicles through a friend who picked up a Stella, which is a reproduction of the 60s Vespas with newer components. While his bike wasn't my style, I rode it once and had to have something. I was looking for a bike that had comparable performance to his, since the point was to ride together, but it took a while to figure out exactly what I was looking for.

This was my first attempt - it's a 1983 Honda Passport C70, which is a derivative of the Honda Cub that has been around since the 60s. This particular model has electric start, a 70cc 4-stroke motor and a three-speed semi-automatic gearbox. It'll do about 55, and isn't particularly slow or fast getting there. I spent about 6 months trying to convince myself this was the bike for me, but it wasn't. I sold it pretty quickly.

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The main benefit of this first bike was that it got me involved with a group of guys in Atlanta who have a real passion and interest in the smaller displacement bikes that have been offered through the years. They all shared a common dislike for scooters, but small displacement dirtbikes, enduros, street bikes, step-throughs and most of all mopeds (yes there's a difference between a scooter and a moped) were all on the table. I never knew any of that stuff existed - my knowledge of motorcycles really being limited to the choppers and full-fairing street bikes I'd seen zipping around. Believe it or not, mopeds can be both extremely fast (relatively speaking), and really good looking.

After hanging around for a bit, the thing I appreciated most was that all the bikes these guys rode were self-built, and that there was a noticeable lack of ego and competition going on. It was just about having fun. I knew I could go out and pick up a modern bike that would be reliable, fast and great to look at, but there was something about the personality in all these guys' bikes that really got me. It reminds me of cars in a lot of ways, but these mopeds are so cheap to get into that you don't feel all that bad if something goes terribly wrong.

So here's what came next. A 1980 Puch Magnum II that was built up by a company in Michigan. It has a 2-stroke 70cc motor with a two-speed automatic gearbox, a seat that will fit two people uncomfortably, a top tank and pedals. It would do around 60 and get there pretty quickly. Certainly looks a whole lot better than the Passport above, if you ask me.

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This bike was definitely pretty fun, and I spent a lot of time riding it. Really the best thing about my Magnum was that I didn't know the first thing about how it worked. I would just get on and go, and it never broke. Excellent! The problem was that I didn't know the first thing about how it worked...I'm not the kind of person (clearly) who just gets something with a motor and leaves it as-is, and I'm really not the kind of person that has things I want built for me. It's always been a curse and a blessing. So while the Magnum is one of the most desirable mopeds, and this one was great, I sold it after about 10 months. I had to build one for myself if I was going to be riding these little things around...

Next I spent maybe 6 months building and perfecting this little guy - a 1983 Honda Camino, which has a 70cc 2-stroke motor with a CVT transmission, funny ape hanger bars, a bell on the bars, white BMX-style mags, a tiny, uncomfortable seat and pedals. I loved this thing. It was just the right amount of goofy and nimble, fast and ridiculous. The fastest I ever got it up to was 63, and it was terrifying at that speed.

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But...I wanted two things now. I wanted to solve the inherent problems I had seen with mopeds (way more on this later), and I wanted an actual motorcycle to be able to ride around with two people on comfortably. The Camino stayed around for a little while longer while I started addressing these wants, but I eventually sold it to a friend once one project (the motorcycle) was done, and the other (we're getting there) was well underway.

So, here's the motorcycle - nothing too big, just a 1976 Honda CB125 that has a 125cc 4-stroke motor with a 5-speed manual transmission. After rebuilding the motor with a friend's help and doing a lot of cosmetic stuff (tank, seat, blinkers, exhaust, etc) along with the electrical that any bike this age is going to inevitably need, it would do 80 and was pretty quick getting there (again, speaking relatively).

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No problem with this bike at all. I really, really liked it. Sure it's a bit smaller than what most people ride, and if you rode for over a couple of hours it got a little less comfortable, but it did exactly what I wanted it to do, and looked how I wanted it to look for the most part. You would think at this point I'd just call it good. Nope. I sold it and began putting way, way, way too much time, thought and effort into the bike below. Another moped. Why?

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Well, truly answering that question is going to take a lot more words and a lot more photos, so I plan on breaking this build up over a number of posts. It took me over two years to get to this point, and there were some really big technical challenges along the way, so I thought it might be worth a read. I'll be checking out the stats to see if I'm right, and there will certainly be more to come if it seems to be catching anyone's eye. Regardless, taking the time to think this thing through and execute it has definitely had the desired effect - I've learned a lot, and things always seem to trickle up from these projects into our products. It's basically our innate need to do something that hasn't been done before, and to make it as absolutely perfect as possible. We're showing no signs of stopping...

Volkswagen Jetta MK2 / Corrado Cluster Project

We have a long-time customer that owns one of the cleanest MK2 Jettas in the country or perhaps the world, which we've been helping him out with here and there for about ten years now. It seems like every show season, Russ calls with some wacky idea that would be a challenge for any fabricator. Thus far, he hasn't presented an idea that we can't handle, and are happy to as it ties in with our Volkswagen roots and keeps the fabrication skills polished up, not to mention we like helping people realize their dreams.  

This year, he wanted to swap his original MK2 Jetta cluster out for a Corrado instrument cluster and add some gauges for the air ride system we were going to be helping to get up and running as well. This essentially meant coming up with a solid and serviceable way to mount the new cluster and gauges, and building a brand-new trim bezel to fit within the confines of the dash opening that looked like something that could have come in the car if Volkswagen had done it themselves. Here's what he brought us...nice, right?

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The first step was positioning and mounting the cluster, which is deeper and larger than the original. We used some flat steel bar stock to bend up brackets that mount to the firewall and dash structure in exactly the same way that the OEM brackets originally did. This photo shows the bracket screwed into place for mock-up, but in the final result these were riveted to the car for more strength over time.

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Next came the fun part - fabricating the new dash bezel. Originally we thought it best to make an entirely new piece from scratch, but after a little bit of working through the best way to do this, we decided to cut all the now unnecessary pieces out of the original bezel and then rebuild the entire center section to match the new design. Basically, all that we kept from the original bezel was the outer border and two points for mounting to the dash once the piece was completed.

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After cutting away all the excess and making a front ring for the cluster out of 1/4" acrylic using our laser cutter, we ended up with this as a starting point:

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We also luckily had an original Corrado dash bezel laying around the shop, so decided to use the portion of it that rested on the face of the cluster to go behind the piece we were making to lend some OEM feel to the part. If you're familiar with these older VWs, you'll recall the row of raised lines that are molded into the floor of this piece. We really wanted to keep that feature intact.

The next step was to lay out the rest of the features of the bezel - namely the air ride gauge locations and two other openings that replaced the auxiliary switch locations and air conditioning controls. These openings were needed for having access to the mounting points of the bezel and also fit in from a design standpoint...more on these later.

Some more 1/4" acrylic was cut using the laser, and all the pieces were mounted in place using cyanoacrylate adhesive in preparation for fiberglassing. We pulled a quick tub for the cluster using grille cloth and fiberglass mat to get to this point:

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Now we're getting somewhere! The tub around the cluster was (as expected) a bit rough, but the point of any project like this is to get to a point where all of your precise openings are in place and there is some solid structure to add body filler to in order to sharpen the details of the finished piece. After a good amount of filling, sanding, spot filling and blocking, we were really starting to get a feel for what the finished piece was going to look like. We really tried to retain some details that were reminiscent of the original dash design, such as the lip to the right of the gauges and the overall shape of the cluster opening.

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This is the point of any project where you want to make sure you've figured out how the piece is going to mount, and that everything fits perfectly. It's no fun taking a grinder, drill or any other more destructive tool to a finished painted piece! You can see in the above photo that the bezel mounts in a very OEM fashion - behind a removable insert panel and behind the center gauge. A round of our favorite Featherfill G2 epoxy primer, finish sanding and painting, and we're well on the way to being done!

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I mentioned the two rectangular openings earlier, which we felt were really important to the OEM look of the finished piece, so I'll take a moment to talk about the fabrication of these as well. This was a feature of the dash that really had Russ scratching his head, but we had a pretty good idea what these were going to be for all along. The panel below the gauges needs to be there in order to access the bottom mounting point, and the vertical opening is really just decoration, but having a large blank area would simply spoil the look.

We eventually decided to use the lower panel to label the gauge functions, and the vertical panel was used to display a modified version of the information sticker found on original Porsche Speedster windshields. The diagram indicates the shift pattern and shift points, which were of course updated to specs for Russ's VR6 5-speed motor and transmission setup. We used the laser to cut 1/4" acrylic backing plates for the 1/16" black anodized aluminum panels (these were cut on the router), and then used the laser to engrave the design through the black anodization. The shift pattern is epoxied into the dash bezel permanently, while the lower panel simply presses into place.

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And here's the finished product! Looks like it came straight out of Wolfsburg in 1992. Perhaps Russ has a better photo than this one we grabbed off of Instagram...

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We truly love doing these kind of one-off things to keep ourselves fresh, and to keep the ideas coming. You truly never know where inspiration is going to come from, and it's really great to have friends and customers that challenge us almost daily! Since Russ never knows when to say when, the Jetta is currently undergoing some major engine bay upgrades, rumor is that new wheels are on the way and even more parts are getting polished and chromed. I have a feeling we're going to be getting a call with another zany idea any day now, but we wouldn't have it any other way! Thanks for reading, and stay tuned - always more to come...

SK8 or DIE Show Submission - How It Was Made

From tunertricks.com April 29, 2009. So, this one really doesn’t have much to do with 2point5, but I did use our facilities and many of the techniques we’ve learned over the years to see this one through. Just thought I’d post up the process photos with some description for the perusal of those out there who are curious! This Saturday is the fourth iteration of the SK8 or DIE show at YoungBlood Gallery in Atlanta, in which a certain number of artists and skaters are given a blank deck to do with whatever they see fit. This year, there are 106 artists and boards represented, and it should be a great show, so swing by if you’re in town! Now, let’s get down to it:

Here’s where the process began. I bought a few plastic bowls and picked the two that most closely represented the shallow and deep ends of a peanut-shaped backyard pool. Of course, they also had to fit within the confines of the board itself, which is roughly 7″ wide. I cut the two to fit together roughly, then glued them to a piece of 1/4″ MDF. I followed this up by using clay to smooth out the seams between the two bowls and the wood base. Finally, the entire mold was coated multiple times with wax to ensure that the fiberglass cast popped right off when it was done curing.

To make the fiberglass casting, I began by coating the mold with resin using a paintbrush, then went back in with three individual layers of long-strand fiberglass mat torn into small rough pieces to ensure full saturation of the mat with resin. Each layer was applied piece-by-piece and then wet down using more resin and a paintbrush. I finished the casting off with short-strand fiberglass to mimic the look of a prefab pool base.

This cured overnight, and popped off the mold easily the next day with minimal effort.

I then used an old trick with an oversized router bearing and Sharpie to draw a line about 3/4″ away from the edge of the “pool” and simply cut away the excess with an airsaw and a right-angle die-grinder. A little 80-grit sandpaper was used to finish out the edges.

Right off the bat, I didn’t feel like the shallow end was shallow enough to make a good transition to the deep end, so I cut and added a piece of 1/4″ acrylic to increase the distance between the two halves of the pool.

This piece and the rest of the pool were smoothed and finished out using Rage Gold body filler and a lot of tiny pieces of 80-grit sandpaper.

The stairs were also added in using small pieces of 1/4″ acrylic during this process and blended into the pool using Metal Glaze spot filler and some more small pieces of sandpaper.

Before I could attach the fiberglass casting to the board itself, the board needed to be widened about 3/4″ larger than the diameter of the deep end to ensure that the board stayed in one piece as I cut the opening, and for cosmetic reasons. I accomplished this by using aluminum foil tape to make a temporary mold of the shape I needed and filling it with more Rage Gold body filler. This was then rough-sanded in preparation for the next step…

Which was to glue and airnail the fiberglass casting to the board from the backside before roughly cutting out the opening in the board with an airsaw.

Next, I flipped the board face-down on our table-mounted router, and cut the opening perfectly with a 1/4″ spiral flush-trim bit. This bit has a bearing that rides on a surface (in this case, the edge of the fiberglass casting) and cuts to match the spot the bearing is riding on.

You may have noticed in the previous image that there was quite a gap between the fiberglass casting (which has a flat outer edge) and the hole in the board (which is convex when viewed from the bottomside like we are here). This gap was again filled with Rage Gold body filler and some more sanding, as were the remaining nail holes and any other imperfections in the board or castings’ surfaces.

So, this part was pretty tricky. First, I needed to find flexible plastic rod about 1/8″ in diameter to form the edge of the pool’s coping. I considered a number of materials like stainless steel or wire before settling on plastic weed-eater string I found at our local Ace Hardware. This material proved perfect for its look, but also its flexibility and adhesion to the cyanoacrylate adhesive I used to attach it around the perimeter of the opening. Before attaching the “coping” I used a very small rabbet bit to cut a 1/16″ channel around the perimeter of the opening to consistently seat the plastic string into. As I went around the pool, I glued and taped small sections at a time to keep everything in place.

After a good look around to make sure I didn’t miss any flaws in the board, fiberglass, acrylic or body filler, I got to do my favorite step, which was to prime the entire board with a nice, heavy coat of Fetherfill G2 Epoxy Primer. It is a 2-part catalyzed primer that is nearly a liquid body filler, which saved a lot of time filling sanding scratches and any small gaps between all the components of the board. It hardens very well, and requires very little finish sanding before moving on to paint.

While the primer was curing (which takes 12-24 hours), I turned my attention to the small details that no pool can do without! I used a small incandescent 5V light bulb and a stainless steel washer to create the pool light, a piece of 1/4″ acrylic and some 1/8″ stainless steel tubing to make the diving board and I pressed the drain using a faucet screen, center punch, hammer and socket.

Here is a shot of the board after the surface was sanded down to 1000-grit smoothness, and after the holes were made to receive the pool light, diving board and drain. At this point, the board was ready for painting

Before I could paint the face of the board, however, I needed to clean up the backside with body filler, more sandpaper and satin-black paint…

The board has three different types of paint on it to simulate both the color and texture of the materials used in a typical backyard pool, so the painting process took a couple of days of masking, painting, unmasking, waiting for paint to dry, remasking, painting, etc. A great help in this process was having a couple of different types of fineline tape (plastic and paper), as well as masking paper and tape ranging from 3/4″ to 4″.

The last steps involved installing roughly 60 “tiles” around the permieter of the pool (these are actually self-adhesive scrapbooking letters painted blue), installing the pool light, diving board and drain.

The light is functional, and takes two “N” sized batteries, which are replaceable. I also put in a switch so that the light could be turned off without removing the batteries or unhanging it from the wall.

…and there she is.

If you’ve made it all the way through this, and are around, please come by to support all the artists who put their time into making this show possible, and thank you so much for checking it out…I can’t wait to see what the other 105 boards look like!

GTi MacMini - Upgrade!

From tunertricks.com March 3, 2009. As some of you may know, I installed a MacMini in my 2001 Volkswagen GTI a little less than three years ago, and received an enormous amount of press, praise and support of the project over the years since then. The car ended up being featured in a number of print and online publications, my blog was Slashdotted (requiring purchasing a lot more hosting) and - most importantly - the buzz around the project way back when gave myself and my business partner the necessary push to quit our jobs and go full-time with 2point5, not to mention booth space at Macworld 2006 to premier spec.dock - our company’s iPod/iPhone integration product - alongside the GTI in San Francisco. It’s been a little like a strange dream come true to have the MacMini installed in the car since then, making it simple to access my entire music collection, surf the internet, check mail, etc…However, I recently realized that I have ended up mostly using the MacMini only for music and some video, but not much more. Further, it has become a bit of a chore to keep my primary computer and the car’s computer in sync and up to date with each other via file transfers. Also, my iPhone 3G has taken over a lot of this functionality, allowing me to continue listening to music via the MacMini, while keeping up with emails and the occasional website (when I’m at a red light, of course)!

So, I decided it was time to switch it up a little and update the GTI with some new Apple componentry that would solve the issues mentioned above which presented themselves over the past few years as our company and Apple’s product lineup has grown…What device could I replace the MacMini with that was solely dedicated to audio and video, but that would also be easy to control in an automotive environment and simple to update whenever I made change to the iTunes library on my primary computer? You likely already have a good idea that I’m referring to an Apple TV.

In this post, I’m going to detail briefly the process of integrating the Apple Remote into my GTI’s shift knob - a device that I’m becoming increasingly familiar with through mods such as the NES Controller and Atari Cartridge projects. Since there’s no longer anything in my dash besides the climate controls and a 7″ LCD monitor, I figured that the shift knob was the most ideal place for the remote, since my hand’s on it 75% of the time I’m driving around town anyway!

I began by completely gutting one remote and cutting down the portion of the circuit board dedicated to the five primary control buttons - left, right, up, down and play/pause - into a circular shape that would fit inside the top of my pre-existing Momo shift knob after removing the aluminum insert in the top of the knob and using a Forstner bit to remove as much material as I could while still retaining the strength, shape and functionality of the top portion of the knob itself. I then carefully soldered five wires onto the back of the board where the contacts for these five buttons trace back to the output of the remote, adding in a sixth wire for ground, which all the buttons short to when they are pressed.

The wiring I used is a 12″ section of Alpine Ai-Net cable, which just happens to have six wires inside of an outer shield that turned out to be perfect for protecting the small-gauge wires as they run from the shift knob down the shift lever and into the center console - but more on that later. Once the functionality of these five buttons was confirmed and reconfirmed with a multimeter, I insulated the back of the board with 400-degree hot-melt adhesive we use in the assembly of the spec.dock product.

The next step was absolutely the most tedious and frightening, as it involved a lot of cutting oil and milling out the original aluminum trim from the top of the shift knob to accommodate the Apple Remote’s buttons, but I am pretty familiar at this point with aluminum fabrication, so it went pretty much according to plan - luckily, since I only had one shot at it! I used our endmill to drill the appropriate-sized hole through the middle of the aluminum disc, and then switched the bit out for a 45-degree chamfer bit to remove the remaining material required to countersink the buttons into the trim piece. This not only looks pretty nice and matches the dash bezel I made, but ensures that the buttons aren’t ever accidentally pressed while I’m shifting. I then assembled the aluminum ring, buttons and circuit board temporarily with more hot-melt adhesive.

Then, it was back to the endmill one more time to create a channel inside the steel and hardwood shift knob itself for the Alpine Ai-Net cable to run through.

Before assembling the knob and remote into a single piece that could go back into the GTI, I split the knob into its bottom and top halves and stripped the original perforated leather off, as it was looking pretty worn after eight years of use! I recovered this portion of the knob with black suede to match some other accents I have added to the car over the years. All four pieces were then permanently reassembled with cyanoacrylate adhesive and the hot-melt adhesive I mentioned earlier. This not only insulates all the contacts, but essentially molds to the inside of the knob, creating both structure and adhesion to keep everything tight and functional.

The Alpine cable was simply wire-tied to the shift lever and substructure (making sure there was enough slack for the lever to operate properly) after remounting the shift knob with the three original allen-head set screws that held it in place all these years. This cable is routed to a second Apple remote hidden in the console which actually performs the transmitting functions to the Apple TV (more on this in a later post).

So how about the menu button? I already had an empty switch blank on the dash where the MacMini’s power button and status LED used to reside, so I simply took the remaining piece of the circuit board from the original Apple remote, soldered two wires to it to make the connection points, mounted it in a new switch blank and routed these wires as well to the transmitting remote in the center console.

I’ll be making a few more posts over the next week or so with the other details of this new project such as mounting the Apple TV itself, power supply and image conversion (composite to VGA), but I can tell you thus far it has been a real pleasure to simply click through songs, videos and photos without having to operate a touchscreen, trackpad, PowerMate control knob and the like! The interface looks amazing on the screen as well, since my MacMini was the first model released and did not have the infrared eye or FrontRow installed, so I’m used to browsing a huge iTunes library on a 7″ screen! The best part so far, however, has been that I simply drive up to work and leave the car turned on for ten minutes or so inside the bay while the Apple TV and my office computer sync automatically and wirelessly - a far cry from the process I had to go through before…So, enjoy, and thank you for reading - I wouldn’t be able to do any of this fun stuff if it wasn’t for you guys (and gals), so believe that I appreciate all of your support! More to come…

 

Atarimote - Another Apple Remote Mod

From tunertricks.com December 27, 2008. A few months ago, I built an Apple TV remote into an NES Controller for a friend of mine in appreciation for some graphic design work he did for the company, and I was very pleased with the results, so I decided that a perfect Christmas gift for another friend would be an Apple TV remote in a different piece of old tech. My original thought was to get an Atari 2600 controller and add a button to the top of the joystick to give full access to the Apple Remote’s features, but I wasn’t able to find one in time, so I decided that an Atari 2600 cartridge might actually be a more interesting choice, since there is plenty of room and I could modify the labels to reflect the repurposing of the cartridge! I scanned the original Asteroids labels and artwork, made a few subtle changes, then printed them out and (after much scraping and grinding) removed the old labels to make room for the new ones. Integrating the Apple Remote worked out nicely as well, and only required milling down the face of the remote, cutting some precise holes here and there, and carefully assembling the whole thing. I made sure - as I did with the NES Remote - to allow for easy replacement of the battery so that the end user wouldn’t ever have to disassemble the final piece for maintenance. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and the gift was truly appreciated! Happy Holidays to all, and stay tuned…

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