About Ralph

Ralph Savelsberg, also known as Mad physicist, is an actual physicist, but he's not all that mad. He has been building with LEGO ever since he could first put two bricks together. He primarily builds scale models of cars and aircraft. You can find most of Ralph's stuff on his flickr pages.

Posts by Ralph

The S-37 “Berkut” is big, bad and black

The Sukhoi S-37/ Su-47, also known as the “Berkut” (“Беркут” or “Golden Eagle”), may look like something from Japanese anime or Ace Combat, but it was very much a real-world aircraft. A little less than twenty years ago, the Sukhoi design bureau (ОКБ Сухого) proposed this sinister-looking jet as the next-generation air superiority fighter for the Russian Air Force. It was a big black beast, with forward-swept wings for added agility and an internal weapons bay. Sukhoi also planned to add thrust-vectoring engines and an aft-looking radar. Although the design seemed promising, eventually things didn’t quite work out. The advanced features were never finished and only a single prototype ever flew.

In 2018 and 2019 I was part of a group of LEGO builders in Vietnam War and Cold War collaborations, for BrickFair Virginia. For the 2020 event, we’re planning another collaboration. We’ve themed it: “eXperimental Military”. It’s all about X-planes, prototypes and technology demonstrators. S-37 is my first contribution. To fit the styles of the other builders involved, I’ve once again adopted a slightly different aesthetic from my usual studded look. The model is almost completely studless. Rather than using plates and wedge plates for the wings, I built them using bricks mounted on their sides. Hinged sections at the leading and trailing edges hold slopes, to make them less blunt. Minifig scale is quite small and minifigs are a bit awkward. Nonetheless and despite the undercarriage bay underneath, the cockpit can house a minifig pilot, with the canopy closed. The real aircraft was not a success, but it sure makes for a badass looking LEGO model.

The typical Tokyo taxi is a Toyota

New Dehli had the Hindustan Ambassador, London the FX4 and New York the Checker Marathon and the Ford Crown Victoria. All of these taxis became instantly recognizable icons for their respective cities. What about Tokyo, you may wonder? On a visit Japan, you will occasionally see modern MPV-like vehicles, but the typical Tokyo taxi is a boxy contraption called the Toyota Comfort. They seem to be everywhere. I must have taken about ten taxi rides during my own trips to Japan and I’m pretty sure all of those were in a Toyota Comfort.

Toyota started building them specifically for use as taxis for a whopping 22 years, starting in 1995. You may expect them to be high tech, but these cars are actually fairly basic. A particularly Japanese exception is that the driver can open and shut the rear doors at the push of a button, from behind the wheel. The doors are an important part of the build, of course. On most of my LEGO cars, the rear doors cannot open without the front doors being opened first. However, I wanted this particular model to look good with the rear doors opened. They are attached to a little arm that slides in and out and I have added appropriate window frames. I also added a “Kawaii” passenger. The Comfort may not be as iconic as London black cab, but my collection of Japanese cars would be incomplete without one.

Workhorses fit for a minifigure army

LEGO Minifigures are oddly-proportioned little fellows. Because I am fussy about the scale of my models I rarely use them with my builds. However, thanks to a number of collaborative builds I’ve been involved with, which all involved minifigures, I’ve grown to appreciate them a bit more. Recently I have been steadily building a collection of minifig-scaled military models. These are the latest two: a US Army M936 wrecker truck towing an M1025 “HumVee” armament carrier. There are countless quotes about how logistics are at least as important to fighting a war as tactics. Equipment used in combat may capture people’s imaginations, but modern armies include vast numbers of support vehicles that are true workhorses. To me those are at least as interesting as tanks or artillery.

What constitutes minifig scale can be difficult and LEGO themselves have muddied the waters. When I was growing up, LEGO cars were just four studs wide. About ten years ago, most LEGO city cars were five studs wide and trucks seven studs wide, including their mudguards. With the recent Speed Champions sets the width of a supposedly minifig scaled car has been bumped up to nine studs, again including the mudguards. The cars look cool and seat two figures side-by-side. However, if you pose a figure next to the vehicle, it’s clear we’ve moved firmly into silly territory. I based my scale on the figure’s height. The wrecker truck ended up being seven studs wide. The HumVee is only six studs wide, which is much smaller than most minifig scale HumVees that are out there. Despite this small scale, both vehicles still have enough space inside for a driver.

Juxtaposition in Japan

It’s a bit of a cliché, undoubtedly, but Japan is a land full of contrasts. Last year I was lucky enough to travel to Japan in order to attend Japan BrickFest. It’s a two-day LEGO exhibition that takes place on Rokko Island, an artificial island in Osaka bay, off the coast of Kobe.

Read more about Ralph’s LEGO adventures in Japan

With a full interior, this 6ft long LEGO model of Air Force One looks fit for a President

We’ve featured LEGO aircraft models by Jack Carleson before, but his latest model of Air Force One completely dwarfs them. This stunning model is a whopping six feet long and has a wingspan of five-and-a-half feet.

The aircraft is a modified version of the classic Boeing 747 airliner, used as the US President’s personal aircraft. Its official designation is VC-25A, but “Air Force One” is its popular name. It is the radio call sign whenever the President is on board. Whatever you may think of its current occupant, this model of his aircraft simply oozes class.

Jack’s model isn’t just pretty from the outside. It has a full interior, including the President’s stateroom and meeting room, and also a galley, an operating theatre and space for Secret Service agents and the White House press corps that accompany the President on his trips. It also has working folding stairs, for direct access to the aircraft’s lower deck. Whether the model also features an escape pod, as depicted in the 1997 movie Air Force One, is, of course, classified.

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A tale of Persian Tomcats

The last of the US Navy’s Tomcat fighters — the plane of Top Gun fame — made its final flight more than a decade ago. However, Tomcats continue to soldier on in one other military: the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Given its strained relation with the US, it may seem strange for Iran to have some of these iconic jets, but it is due to a quirk of history. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, Mohammad Reza Shah ruled Iran. His rule became increasingly autocratic over time, but he was pro-Western and eager to modernize his country and its military. Iran was also a useful buffer between the Soviet Union and the other oil-rich states surrounding the Persian Gulf, so the US was willing to sell the Shah 80 Tomcats, as well as hundreds of long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles. My latest LEGO model represents one of these Persian Tomcats.

After the 1979 revolution, relations between the US and Iran soured. Subsequently, the US suspended weapons and spare parts deliveries. The serviceability of the Iranian Tomcat fleet dwindled, but their Tomcats had some successes in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Details are murky, but according to Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, the Iranian planes shot down dozens of Iraqi fighter aircraft. Forty years later, thanks to illicit parts acquisitions and reverse-engineering, some survivors are still flying, and I finally built one.
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The F-16 Viper is still sleek after 40 years

Almost two weeks ago, the first example of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be based in the Netherlands arrived at Leeuwarden Air Base. It marks the beginning of the end for the forty-year career of the F-16 with the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The F-16 is officially named the Fighting Falcon, but commonly known as the Viper. I’ve been thinking about building a larger scale version of the Viper for years. A reason why I didn’t was that the 1/18 scale model by Everblack basically was just too good.

However, the arrival of the Viper’s eventual replacement and the 40th anniversary finally made me decide to bite the proverbial bullet. I picked the same scale, 1/22, as most of my cars and my Top Gun Tomcat. The F-16 was a lighter and cheaper alternative to the F-15 Eagle and, as such, it’s a fairly small aircraft. The large scale does make the model quite a big beast, with a span of 56 studs and a length of more than 80 studs. However, it also allowed me to add more details and to more accurately represent the jet’s sleek shape. I couldn’t have done this on a smaller scale or without some of the new parts that LEGO has released in the last few years.
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Muscle cars look best in Bright N’ Obnoxious colors

I have a guilty pleasure: I like watching TV shows such as Fast N’ Loud or Bitchin’ Rides, in which cars that are typically American and rusty are transformed into mean street machines (usually along with plenty of scripted drama). I’ve been using my LEGO bricks to build classic American cars for years. Inspired by these shows, I finally built a classic car garage last year to accompany my car collection. While the cars I already had were pretty cool, I couldn’t help but feel there was something lacking: they simply weren’t all that Fast N’ Loud nor particularly Bitchin’.

That had to be rectified. I started leafing through one of my classic car books, picked two American muscle cars and built them in bright and obnoxious colors. The cars in question are a 1971 Buick GSX, in “Limemist Green” and a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302 in “Grabber Orange.”

There are subtleties to the real cars’ shapes that are hard to capture on this relatively small scale, but I got pretty close using sloped elements angled in different directions. When combined with the slightly larger tires I use on my cars, the wheel covers LEGO introduced for their Speed Champions sets mimic the rims. Black accents, such as the side striping and hood stripes, contrast nicely with the bright body colors. Front and rear spoilers finish the distinctive look. I didn’t go down the custom car route with these builds; most of the features on these cars were factory options. However, they will certainly brighten up my garage showroom. I’ll be taking them and the garage to the Great Western Brick Show in the UK this coming weekend.

Coastal Defence the East-German way

I live in a Dutch seaside town that lies mostly below sea level. So, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of coastal defences is the seawall visible at the end of the road. However, there’s an entirely different type of coastal defence of a less peaceful nature. The “Rubezh” coastal defence system looks like something straight out of a GI Joe cartoon, but it was a Soviet mobile anti-ship missile launcher. The version I built served with the East-German Navy, until German reunification at the end of the Cold War in 1990.

In early August, I’ll be at BrickFair Virginia, displaying LEGO models in a Cold War military collaboration. I’ve written about several of these in the last few months. I also intend to highlight some of the models by other builders who are participating. I’ve mostly built Western systems for the collaboration, so I wanted to build another Eastern block model. I specifically wanted it to be East-German because the division between East and West Germany was central to the Cold War.
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The Atlas ICBM, the pinnacle of fifties rocket science

In two months’ time, I’ll be displaying Cold War LEGO models at BrickFair Virginia. This is part of a collaboration with several other builders. I previously built a Soviet SS-20 ballistic missile launcher and an American Ground-Launched Cruise Missile launcher. Continuing my theme of nuclear-armed missiles, my most recent build is another classic: an American Atlas-F.

The Atlas entered service seventy years ago in 1959 as the first American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It could be launched from the continental US, fly through space, and then deliver a 3.75 Mt warhead (more than 200 times as powerful as the weapon used against Hiroshima) to a target in the Soviet Union, more than 8000 miles (~13000 km) away.
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A small fire engine for a large city

Home to almost 40 million people, greater Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area. Space is at a premium, so houses tend to be small and built closely together. To fight fires in the dense urban areas, the Tokyo Fire Department has a large fleet of exceedingly small fire engines. They are narrow enough to fit the streets between the houses. They also have a relatively short wheelbase, so that they can navigate tight corners. In preparation for a visit to Japan Brickfest later this year, I’m building a small collection of Japanese emergency vehicles. I’ve been looking forward to building the fire engine the most, so I’ve kept that for last.

At a first glance, it may not look all that small, especially if you are used to LEGO minifigure-scale builds. However, if you compare the pumper to the two fire fighters, it is obvious that it is a lot smaller than pumpers from Europe or the US. It is only about as wide as a typical American car and not all that much longer. Nonetheless, it has everything you’d expect from its larger counterparts and a little more. It is nice and red, obviously. It has pump control panels with connections for fire hoses, a few ladders stored on top and lots of compartments for tools. Typical for Japanese pumpers, it also houses a little separate wheeled cart in the back. Fire fighters use this to transport hoses down even narrower alleys. The model is like a miniature version of a miniature fire engine.

Please make way, Ambulance coming through

In a few months’ time, I’ll be attending Japan Brickfest in Kobe. I always find the prospect of displaying a model at an event motivating. So, for this occasion I am building a few new models with a Japanese twist. I presented my Tokyo Police car a little while ago and I’ve now completed an ambulance to accompany it. The typical Japanese ambulance is a Toyota HiMedic van.

Mine represents an example used by the Tokyo Fire Department. At a first glance it may look like a box on wheels. That box is a lot wider near the bottom than near the top, though. I got the sides to taper by attaching them to hinges, but getting all of this to fit was a challenge, in particular around the windscreen. Despite the angled sides, all the doors open, including a sliding door on each side of the van. I really enjoyed making the stickers. I got to draw kanji letters and little emblems that depict Kyuta-Kun, which is the super cute Tokyo Fire Department mascot. The end result looks very Japanese and suitably futuristic. Picture this with two nacelles instead of wheels and it wouldn’t look out of place in the shuttle bay of the Starship Enterprise. Befitting a culture known for politeness, these ambulances have a PA system with recorded sentences that kindly warn other road users to make way. That detail, unfortunately, is missing from my LEGO model.