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The Art Cars and Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man 2019

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 5 days ago Motor Trend Staff
2019 Burning Man images by John Rettie 14© Motor Trend Staff 2019 Burning Man images by John Rettie 14

Imagine you're in a dusty city with a population of almost 80,000 people that covers a land mass pretty close to the size of downtown San Francisco. You know there are more than 600 unique and interesting vehicles worth seeking out but they are hard to find at any given moment.


That was the task we set ourselves as we hunted down some of the best Mutant Vehicles (formerly known as Art Cars) at this year's Burning Man that took place during the last week of August. The annual extravaganza—don't call it a festival—takes place on the Playa at Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada that has coincidentally also been the venue for several land speed record attempts over the years.

The temporary city, naturally named Black Rock City, is built from scratch each year and is called home by Burners—the majority of whom return each year to enjoy the magic and reconnect with friends made over the years.

The popularity of Mutant Vehicles (MVs) continues to blossom each year, and this year was no exception with over 1,000 applications for just over 600 vehicles that would be allowed on the Playa. MV owners have to submit their plans to the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) several months ahead of time. Several groups of DMV volunteers check the applications and decide who will be invited to bring their MVs.

The standards for what is accepted rises each year as builders continually improve their MVs. Even those who have brought them for several years have to reapply each year and are expected to modify their MV in one way or another to give them a fresh look. The main requirement is that the base vehicle should not be visible or identifiable. Ahead of this year's festivities, we got to see what goes into building a Burning Man art car.

a large truck: 2019-Burning-Man-images-by-John-Rettie-56.jpg

Some vehicles are obviously very expensive to build while others are "home-built" on a shoe string budget. Creativity is the key, and to be fair the DMV invites small golf cart-based MVs all the way up to ones built on a bus chassis.

Mutant Vehicle owners are expected to share the experience with all Burners and to that end they give free rides to anyone who wants to take one, if space permits. Many of them have on-board bars and even dance floors while others can only accommodate one or two guests. We got to ride on a couple of MVs this year including Henry Chang's giant Flux Capacitor which is always a big favorite as well as David Cox's fire-breathing dragon, named Torch, which is built on a Chevy Astro and a more simple two-story MV based on a Chevy Suburban.

Most MVs are trailered to Burning Man since they are not street-legal. Yet some such as the Monaco sailboat, albeit with masts lowered, are driven to the Playa. Others like Walter the giant VW Bus and Big Willy are street-legal but can only be driven short distances due to their low gearing.

Without further ado, here are 50 Mutant Vehicles from Burning Man 2019 for you to feast your eyes on.

a group of people posing for the camera© Motor Trend Staff

Before any Mutant Vehicle (MV) is allowed to roam Black Rock City it has to be approved by the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). The lines during the first few days were as long as those at the DMVs of the real world. But Burners didn't seem to care as they happily renewed acquaintances, compared experiences, and shared tribulations.

a large ship in the background© Motor Trend Staff

Greg Barron, captain of the Monaco sail boat, organized show 'n tell sessions when groups of Mutant Vehicle owners described their endeavors. Believe it or not, Walter the airport firetruck-based VW and Monaco, which is built on a 35-foot long '83 GM Monaco camper, are street legal. Monaco can even sail on the open Playa as it is fully rigged.

a close up of a fire© Motor Trend Staff

For much of the year Dave Cox's Torch dragon graces a suburban street in Orange County, CA. But it comes alive as the sun sets on the Playa as the flame throwers are lit. Torch is built on a GMC Safari van with the controls extended up through the roof to the upper deck for the dragon's pilot.

a group of people performing on stage in front of a crowd© Motor Trend Staff

This brilliant fire-breathing octopus is always a crowd favorite—named El Pulpo Mecanico—it was designed and built by Duane Flatmo and is based on a '73 Ford-250 4x4 chassis.

a person riding a horse drawn carriage© Motor Trend Staff

The Ohm Kar is street-legal once the rear ornaments are retracted. It's built on a Ford F-250 chassis and powered by a Chevy Astro engine! Butch McIntosh, the builder extended the controls from the front to the rear end.

a close up of a truck© Motor Trend Staff

ShutterBuggy from Vancouver, Canada, is a working studio and has been seen at festivals in the Pacific Northwest. It uses a custom welded aluminum frame built on an electric cart.

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Rumble Bee is built on a scissor lift bolted onto the bed of an Isuzu lift truck.

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You'd never guess it but underneath this MV is a Ford E-250 Econoline van. Change the hubs and you too could put tractor tires on your own mutant van.

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We like the look of this Geo Prism more than the original car!

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You'd never guess but this was once a golf cart—in Mutant form it has a Ford F-350 grafted on its rear end.

a small boat in a body of water© Motor Trend Staff

It's amazing how creative artists can turn a Hyundai Elantra into a sleek boat with flame throwers to light up the night sky.

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When we asked the shark driver about the base vehicle, he said, "Can't you tell? Take a look at the wheels." We did—inside its belly lies the heart of a Cadillac sedan!

a close up of a horse drawn carriage© Motor Trend Staff

Take the body off a Suzuki Samurai, then spend countless hours fabricating some unique art and you have yourself a Burning Man-worthy Mutant Vehicle.

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Paul Chaklos' GMC Yukon is his daily driver, but once year he takes it to Burning Man and mutates it into Boogie Bug—a cheerful, inflatable MV—using PVC tubing as a frame. His regular gig: supplying those inflatable attractions to draw your kids into car dealerships!

a person standing in front of a birthday cake with lit candles© Motor Trend Staff

You'll find a Mercedes-Benz E300 underneath this roaming mattress and LED-flashing brain. Kevin Marion constructed this MV using a wooden frame in the garage at his condo.

a truck that is sitting on a cart© Motor Trend Staff

Each year, Dan Chase subtly modifies Tikivision, which is based on an old Chevy Beauville with a diesel engine.

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Another of David Shields' many MVs he builds for himself and others at his workshop where he normally creates props for Hollywood.

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Yes, Manta Ray—a sister MV to the Ohm Kar—does have operating caterpillar tracks that allow it to crawl around Black Rock City.

a truck that is sitting on top of a car© Motor Trend Staff

Sadly Scott Miller's small radio-controlled 6WD Electric Toadstool, which he built from scratch didn't have much chance to display its myriad of LED lights this year as gremlins kept it sidelined in Scott's camp much of the week.

a lit up city at night© Motor Trend Staff

At the upper end of the scale, Stone Larkin's giant RV-based Savage Kingdom MV with its fold-down side dance platforms was a favorite even though it remained stationary for much of the time due to its size.

a car engine© Motor Trend Staff

David Shields took a Ford Crown Victoria, stripped all but part of the roof and C-pillar off the car, and crafted a new steel body along with a giant air intake. Sadly, we did not get to see it in action either during the day or at night.

a group of people on a beach© Motor Trend Staff

Benny Parkes masterly welded together a frame for his Radiolarian Mutant Vehicle that's based on an electric cart.

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This year Bill Real, owner of Art Car Garage in Pasadena, CA, added wings and some copper panels to his Bumble Bee MV, based on an electric golf cart.

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Huggzilla is a bright cat with geometric Plexiglas panels that illuminate for light shows at night. Not sure what's underneath but it looks like it's a bus chassis judging by its size.

a man riding a horse drawn carriage© Motor Trend Staff

Merrilee Proffitt and Keith Johnson used to ride around the Playa in a couple of electric cupcakes. But once Merrilee had a child they needed something bigger. Between them they created this whimsical electric-powered Cinderella carriage from scratch. Yes, there are some auto parts—namely the race-proven Wilwood brake system and a VW Jetta rear axle beam.

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Henry Chang's "Flux Capacitor" has to still be one of the most amazing tubular creations ever made—it inspires even the best pro fabricators.

a man standing in front of a car© Motor Trend Staff

We were lucky enough to spend some time with Henry Chang cruising around the Playa going as far as the edge of the deep Playa, which is two miles from the center of Black Rock City.

a person riding on the back of a truck© Motor Trend Staff

Although Mutant Vehicles are essentially not allowed to show any of the vehicle on which they are based, art cars and those registered to Burners with disabilities have more relaxed rules. Nonetheless, many owners still get pretty creative.

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In our opinion, Mike Cee's '87 Chevy R30-based Xuza MV is one of the most colorful Mutant Vehicles at night. Every year he improves it while it's parked in his backyard in Las Vegas. The eyes are actually a couple of LED TV screens and they move in mysterious ways.

a group of people on a beach© Motor Trend Staff

The dusty air on the windy Playa makes the Golden Gate Bridge, mounted atop an old bus, look all the more realistic.

a bright light in a dark room© Motor Trend Staff

This colorful MV, the Bioluminescent Slug, cruised by us while we were checking out the Golden Gate Bridge. Since it's covered to the ground there's no way to see the Ford F-350 flatbed under its clothing.

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Zulai is a Mutant Vehicle created by the Mazu art crew from Taiwan. Originally debuting in 2016, this Buddha with a giant, outstretched hand appears to be based on an Isuzu NPR box truck.

an old fire truck© Motor Trend Staff

The owner of Big Tow, which is built on a Yamaha Golf Cart, changes the design every three years. Despite its diminutive size it can and does haul broken MVs.

a palm tree© Motor Trend Staff

This mobile bar cruised by us and we did not get a tip off as to what keeps it going. Perhaps it's powered by alcohol?

a group of parked cars© Motor Trend Staff

MVs are encouraged to drive on Black Rock City streets and give rides to anyone who wants one.

a truck driving down a dirt road© Motor Trend Staff

Big Willy, built last year by Ian Liljeblad, has now been painted green and has a few new tweaks. It's parked here at Catworld Camp alongside Movement of Jah People, another of Ian's creations that also appears every year at Burning Man.

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Sasha's Love Bunny is built on a '46 Chrysler. Its engine went kaput last year and David Shields replaced it with a Toyota Tacoma engine this year so she could cruise the Playa reliably all week long.

a large white building© Motor Trend Staff

Scrubby is the name given this MV. It's built around an old '53 Chrysler firetruck that used to do duty at the GMC Truck and Coach facility in Pontiac, Michigan.

a truck cake sitting on top of a car© Motor Trend Staff

The Enterguise EV MV built by Chris Germano in his townhouse garage is one of the most impressive EV builds. The external panels and battery holders were printed on a couple of small 3D printers. The suspension and steering are from a Mazda Miata. Otherwise, everything has been designed and built from scratch with aluminum extrusions bolted and glued together.

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How'd you like to lounge on an MV based on a backward-facing Toyota Tercel?

a truck is parked on the side of a vehicle© Motor Trend Staff

Soul Train is based on an '83 DodgeRam pickup

a person in a costume© Motor Trend Staff

Yet another cat MV cruises by with The Man in the distance at its rear and Joy Cat a static cat statue near its front.

a lit up city at night© Motor Trend Staff

One of two double-decker buses we saw on the Playa; this one is now a quad-decker that could probably carry over a hundred revelers.

a close up of a car© Motor Trend Staff

Two ladies from Colorado built this unusual MV. If you look carefully, you might get an  inkling of the base vehicle—a PT Cruiser.

a tractor in a room© Motor Trend Staff

This Mutant Vehicle was built on a Mitsubishi pickup truck.

a boat sitting on top of a green truck© Motor Trend Staff

Little Peanut is the name of this vessel created around a GMC 2500 4x4 pickup.

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Grasshopper is another electric cart-based MV. Although the Playa is not its natural habitat, it seems quite at home.

a birthday cake with lit candles© Motor Trend Staff

Grasshopper survived when it was parked near El Pulpo Mecanico as it performed one of its magical pyro displays.

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Dusty Rhino is an MV built by Peter Sheridan on a Ford F-350 pickup truck.

a group of people on a boat© Motor Trend Staff

Pyrobar is built on a '56 Ford C600 cabover flatbed pickup. It suffered from some engine problems this year and owner Mark Goerner is now looking to install a more modern engine—maybe a 2.8-liter Cummins diesel.

a group of people on a beach© Motor Trend Staff

This somewhat jumbled up MV is not exactly what one might see in default world suburbia. It looks like there's an overloaded van underneath.


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