The Black Car Project!

September 1, 2007

How you can make a Black Car!

The Black Car Project was a collaboration effort of three people. It took a long time to finally decide on what look we wanted for the car in our attempt to decommission it. We went through a variety of different ideas. These ideas went with general themes that followed roughly the idea of the death of the auto. We were messing with the ideas of tombs, gardens, and mosaics. We had a whole host of artistic ideas that may still be followed through on in the future that didn’t involve the car but involved sustainability, carbon, and art. After much boiling down we decided on the black car as being simple and meaningful.

For that reason I am writing a how to guide to help people through the hurdles that we suffered in creating this original project. The effect should be to make the process more realizable for people who would want to make the pledge but perhaps don’t have the time or resources that we had.

Basic ownership requirements:

To start with you must have a car. A little about this. My car was not a piece of shit. It was a faltering pain in the ass for sure, but it had some value. I could have sold it for profit and been done with cars and had a slight chunk of change in my pocket. This I feel is the threshold. Is this car worth something to someone as a means of transportation? If it can be driven and can be sold, even if it isn’t in the best shape (mine had a dented corner and some clutch issues), then it can be used for a meaningful artistic statement.

Is it the only vehicle you personally own and will the loss of the resource be felt in your life? This is another threshold for the vehicle to pass. I want to distinguish that I don’t think that never riding in a vehicle again is what this implies. On the contrary everytime you catch a ride with someone else you are actually halfing their pollution level per ride which is a benefit to them and no extra cost to the environment depending of course on their going to that place whether you are in the car or not. You can also chip in for gas money for your friend, and should (because nobody likes a mooch.) I am even willing to allow for switching over to Flex Car and renting a vehicle once or twice a year as being a sanctioned and non-hypocritical action. I think arguments could be made that small use like this (not abused) would make cars sustainable especially if the car is alternative fueled and carried multiple passengers.

But ultimately it is up to you. Do you feel like you could defend your action from the attacks of critics? Their will be critics by the way. I got a nice split of comments from high praise and encouragement to some rather testy and downright mean accusations. Both were welcomed and for the critics I was thoroughly prepared to respond with thoughtful stances.

Where are you going to put it?

Well you have a few options. If you own a house you could put it there in your driveway. I definitely want someone to do this; it would be a great conversation piece and a landmark for neighborhood kids. It would also perhaps be easier to manage and take car of (yes, there is slight upkeep to worry about). I also see only nominal items to worry about from complaints. It’s your property and as long as it is safe (which it will be) then what’s the big deal? If there are complaints then that could be great for publicity!

Next would be the University parking lot. That is where mine is. We put it in a very prominent location. There was an approval process that took some effort to sort through. We went to the campus land use committee with a proposal. They asked a number of questions to do with safety, aesthetics and care. We had our bases covered in these areas thanks to a knowledgeable faculty member. It proved important to say yes to their demands on permissions. They asked us to inform the parking department, police services, and come up with a maintenance plan. We were then able to take their tentative approval to those other departments and get them to sign off on the project. With the bureaucracy it tended towards convincing them that they were not going to be held liable for anything. The most effective way to convince them of this was by saying this other department approved so they were responsible. It’s unfortunate that in approving anything slightly controversial everyone needs an alibi for cover. It is also effective to seek out a friend in some sort of position of influence who can understand reason.

Thirdly would be in a private parking lot. That would obviously involve finding a friendly business and convincing them that giving up a parking space for art would be beneficial and that you and your friends would be happy to do it. I don’t know how this will swing. Let’s just say the businesses that look at you crazy you shouldn’t pursue. How about that favorite cafĂ© you always go to and know the owners of? Or the new green apartment complex that wouldn’t mind a little art? I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect that not only would space be possible to find but that money for making it could be provided. Watch out though! If you end up selling it, make sure they sign an agreement that says they can only maintain it as is and that under no condition can it be used as a billboard. If it is a green enough business I don’t see anything wrong with them using its picture as part of the overall image. Anyway, you decide since you will have to deal with the consequences.

The next would be government land in a park or school. I would seek out the “friends of” group at a park. They would have the knowledge of the process needed for approval. Many cities have funding for public art that can be tapped for this sort of project. Look into the art institutes for help!


Did you get approval? No? Well try some more and don’t get upset if you hit a stumbling block. Part of the fun is navigating through the different possibilities and generating a buzz for the idea. Hopefully you can refer back to our project to make approval easier. Remember the people who were excited about your project and go back to them when you need to.

How are you going to pay for it?

We were able to get a grant to cover the material costs. That was our way of getting it done what will be yours? Stuccoing an SUV and painting it black with no discounts or freebies, which is an unlikely situation, costs in the $550-$950 range. I think that this is a reasonable amount to pay out of pocket. The reason is because of how much income you will save from no insurance, maintenance or gas costs even with the addition of public transit costs and other costs you could easily save more than the cost to build in a year. I also think that there is a tax write off possibility that I haven’t pursued.

Another way is by writing grants, selling it, or asking for donations. I think that the idea here is to break even, not make money. If for some reason you were able to make money by selling it the morally responsible thing would probably be to recoup the cost of building only, and use the rest in a charitable way. Remember, this needs to be motivated for the right reasons (I’m a notorious stickler for good intentions) and profit isn’t what we are going for here. Promotion can cost money and putting money aside for maintenance makes sense as well. Of course, I leave it again up to your own ethical discretion as to what to do with any form of profit.

How we built it.

Here’s the gist of it. We used 1200, ¼” to ½” self tapping screws to form a metal lathe tightly to the frame for the stucco to adhere to. This took us about a week of afternoons and a weekend to finish, mostly because we had to figure out things as we went, and didn’t rush. I’ll bet if supplies are gathered it could be mostly finished in a solid two days with 2-4 people working steadily all day. The wheel wells were boarded up with scrap wood and the tires were tricky to attach the lathe to. We went with a bit of wire ties. The lathe formed well with some hammering around corners and we probably spaced the screws every 3 to 8 inches. We used metal strips from window screens across the glass which we drilled the lathe onto. That worked fine although we could have gotten it more solid.

Before we finished lathing the wheel wells we jacked the car up and put it on concrete blocks. That way the bulk of the weight was off the tires and on the blocks if the tires were to go flat. We also blocked the suspension so it barely wiggled instead of bouncing up and down if we stood on the bumper. We drained the gas tank by siphoning (no complex gas tank removal operation) and drained the oil. We also yanked the battery out. As far as the other fluids we left them in figuring that they weren’t going anywhere. If there ever is a leak the underside is accessible and we can drain it and clean it up.

Of slight concern is the strength of the roof and hood. It is reasonable to expect people to be climbing on it. What we found is that the stucco was a terrific stiffener and could take a tremendous amount of abuse. The sides were fine. The top and hood were strong but not so strong that people could safely climb or jump on it without the possibility of cracking. What we didn’t do enough of was blocking on top of the motor towards the hood and similarly on the inside. Another idea is to put a piece of plywood across the top. We didn’t do any of that and it hasn’t cracked other than some micro fissures on the edges. That was partly caused by our not keeping the stucco wet enough for the first two days. The paint does a good job of hiding small imperfections. You be the judge of whether you think the location warrants heavy reinforcements.

We chose to keep the side mirrors but we removed the rack on top. Those little decisions of detailing will vary per car. You may need to strengthen some areas and hide others. Remember people won’t notice omissions or slight changes in appearance. Take the time to do a good job at this part and stuccoing will be a snap.

Stuccoing is a two or three step process and is best done with help from someone who knows what they are doing. We had someone in our group with that kind of knowledge. He was the person who suggested the idea of stucco. If you have someone who knows how to use some other covering then you can try that out instead! Basically, stuccoing is a snap, so don’t worry.

We rented a cement mixer. This is a small machine that looks like a spinning cauldron. We had some trouble mixing, the machine wasn’t very good and we tried in futility to dye the stucco black. Please don’t listen to people who sell it to you. Dying stucco black is not really possible in this size project. It turned a dark grey and was hard to keep evenly colored. Anyway, get safety glasses, rubber gloves and dust masks. We slid on a base layer and roughed it up with a rake like tool so that the next layer would have something to cling to. Stucco comes in multiple varieties. We used a base layer and a finishing layer but you do it with what you think you need.

After the first rough layer we were stoked! It looked awesome then we waited for several days before the next layer. Refer to your bag for those instructions. The second layer was easier to spread because we used the finishing grade and it slid on smooth. We were thinking we would use three layers but went with two because of time constraints. My one regret is not following through on the “keeping it moist” instructions because we found a few areas with tiny cracks. After that we had to let it cure for at least six weeks before painting it. Each layer of stucco took less than a day to apply.

This time delay might seem annoying between segments. The interesting thing was that it wasn’t annoying at all. In fact, because the art piece was built in the spot that it was staying we had a lot of people come by during production. Probably 200 different people got to talk to us over the two weeks we worked on it. That became an important part of the art work as we went to talk to people about what we were doing and why. It allowed us a chance to really develop our responses in an eloquent clear way. It also convinced us that we should work to make the art a part of the community and encourage others to do the same.

Plan a party!

We had a couple days were we sat outside the art work and answered questions leaving a comment book for people to sign. During those two days we had graduation and a large crafts fair bring people to the campus. Several thousand people walked by and several hundred took flyers, we were always running out. It was unfortunate at the time that the website was not up yet and that it wasn’t black but each stage of the project looked good to viewers. It was a big payoff to see, hear and read peoples’ reactions!

We also decided not to have a sign for it. We let a whole lot of people know what it meant to us and passed out flyers stating its purpose. We have a website that we may eventually add a tag to the license plate so that people can go to it for more information, but it is nice to not have all the answers spelled out. Let people ponder the reasons they might come to different conclusions but we figured out that everyone came to the conclusion that was most right for them.

Link up to us!

This is the most important. Add your images and story to our website and promote the project to one or two other people successfully. If we can do that then we can hopefully create something that is bigger than our own part and maybe make people thousands of miles away think about whether they value the freedom of the automobile over the sustainability of the environment we live in. Please pass this along to anyone who might be interested and e-mail me with your ideas!

1 comment:

Green Idea Factory said...

That sounds like fun. The not using the car part is clear enough, but then there are the Cadillacs sticking out of the side of Hard Rock Cafes, which preceded your action by 25 or 30 years. And then there is the Cadillac Ranch (1974).

There is still the space issue, well, at least one of the spaces which this car would use.(I'll give you that). Then there is recycling, etc.

Won't most drivers think it is just funny, and a waste of space? How can they be really engaged by this?

That's why I like projects (from Rebar Collective, etc.) which reclaim the space used by the car. Again, reclaiming the resources used by the car also means recycling it.

Three-and-a-half out of five stars for nice bits but also un-addressed issues.