Midsummer Night at Obtainium Works
Bay Area steampunks explore the whimsical contraptions of “New Hibernia”
Obtainium Works leader Shannon O’Hare, otherwise known as Major Catastrophe, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the organization’s art cars and mutant vehicles during a “Midsummer Night” steampunk gathering on Saturday, August 11 in Vallejo, California. Obtainium Works is best known for the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled three-story Victorian house seen at Burning Man, Maker Faire and other events. But that’s just one of many contraptions on display in the group’s vehicle yard, dubbed “New Hibernia.”
Three—a Wine Trike, Pirate Ship and the Kristy’s Flyer steam car—were seen in a recent episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC. Some will be cruising the Burning Man festival this week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Obtainium Works also had a prominent role in “Vintage Tomorrows”, a 2015 documentary about steampunk.
“I’m going to be talking in two different realities,” O’Hare said as he began a tour of the yard. “One reality is that we’re an art studio. We build strange contraptions for art events here in Vallejo and in California. Sometimes we get invited to take our art to other parts of the country, and sometimes other parts of the world.”
But “we’re also Victorian fantasy explorers. We have been charged by the Ministry of Insanity of the Hibernian Steam Empire to circumnavigate the earth without the use of a zeppelin.” In this alternate reality, they were granted use of the Neverwas Haul to travel “halfway across the globe” to their current location near San Francisco.
The vehicles are made largely from “obtainium,” defined as “any item, found or obtained for free.” Many are built from disability scooters or golf carts.
O’Hare defines an art car as “anything that’s mobile—a vehicle—and it’s art.” But to drive around Burning Man, a mere art car won’t suffice. There, the contraption must qualify as a “Mutant Vehicle” by meeting the stringent requirements of the DMV (Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles). Among the criteria: It should not be recognizable as a “street or stock vehicle,” it should provide an “interactive experience,” and it should meet specified safety standards.
“A mutant vehicle gets a special license plate,” O’Hare explained, and an additional plate is required for driving at night. The registration process is “harder than getting a smog check and insurance for a normal car,” he said. If you don’t have the plates, your vehicle cannot leave the campsite.
One vehicle sporting the required plates was the London Speedster, which was commissioned by a wealthy individual in the UK. O’Hare explained that the client wanted a Star Wars Landspeeder to drive at Burning Man. It’s built on a golf cart, using plywood covered in foam and fiberglass. The crew brought it to Burning Man in 2016 and was planning a return trip this year. The client pays Obtainium Works to keep the car in the yard.
The star of the tour was the Neverwas Haul, which was built in 2006 on the base of a fifth wheel travel trailer. Powered by an 18-hp Honda utility engine, it reaches a top speed of 3 MPH, or 3.5 MPH “if we have it tuned really well,” said crewmember Joe Phillips. Of course, you probably don’t want it go faster. “A three-story building does not stop on a dime,” he said. Also known as Professor Horatio Birdbath, he's the vehicle’s “chief driver.”
Driving the house requires at least three people. It’s steered by means of a large ship’s wheel, and it won’t move unless someone is holding a “dead man’s” switch (down for forward and up for reverse). “We did that deliberately, so that one person could not drive the vehicle,” O’Hare said. Another crewmember watches the gauges and keeps the engine running. Additional people walk outside the vehicle, some to prevent passersby from jumping on while it's moving. The house can carry 25 to 30 passengers.
The event was the latest in a series of Northern California steampunk field trips organized by Charlie Wong of Clockwork Alchemy, the Bay Area steampunk convention. See the gallery below for a visual tour of New Hibernia.
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