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

Pushing the envelope with the YF-22

I keep a few folders on my computer, as well as a paper folder, with pictures and drawings of possible future LEGO projects. That paper folder has held a three-view drawing of a USAF F-22 Raptor fighter for at least ten years now. The drawing included a few measurements, for how large it would be if I were to build it LEGO. The reason it was in its folder for so long is that I could never figure out how to actually build it. However, I am still learning new tricks. Furthermore, LEGO keeps coming up with elements that make previously impossible things possible.

Now, I didn’t actually build the F-22. Other people have done admirable jobs on that (notably Corvin Stichert and Lennart Cort). I wanted something different, so instead, I built the YF-22 prototype. This won the “Advanced Tactical Fighter” competition in 1991, to replace the USAF’s F-15 fighters. The F-22 Raptor is its production version. The jet’s design really pushed the envelope, with low observability (“stealth”) combined with high speed and high agility. And building it, I feel I pushed the envelope too.

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Minifigure-scale armor can be pretty tough

In the last few years, I have been building a range of LEGO minifigure-scale missiles and missile launchers. They range from cruise missiles launchers to ICBMs. My latest model is a so-called TELAR, part of the Soviet surface-to-air missile system called “Buk” (Russian: “Бук”; English “beech”). NATO calls it the SA-11 “Gadfly”. Soviet military doctrine emphasized integration between ground forces and their air defenses. Because of this, many Soviet surface-to-air missile systems used tracked vehicles, so that they could move together with the ground forces.

TELAR stands for a transporter-erector-launcher and radar. The name covers what it does quite nicely. The Buk TELAR carries four missiles on top of its turret, on rails that can be erected before launch. It has its own missile guidance radar in a dome at the front of its turret. The crew sits inside the armored hull below. Usually, such TELARs operate together with a few others, as well as a command post and a surveillance radar, which also are tracked vehicles. But, because it has its own radar, it can also operate on its own. Like most of my LEGO builds, it is not actually all that tough, though. It is only tough in the sense of that I found building a minifigure scale armored and tracked vehicle tough going. So, my hat is off to all of you out there who build minifigure-scale armor.  This is one of the first times I have done it and I really struggled to keep it small enough. I wanted the scale to look right with the minifigure soldier next standing next to it. As a result, there is so little space inside that I could only fit a driver.  And, like most of my builds, the model is actually quite flimsy. In fact, none of my models from the last ten years or so would ever be suitable as a child’s toy, even those that aren’t weapons of war. However, I do like the end result; it is a unique addition to my collection.

Daft for Dutch DAF trucks

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun building minifigure scale trucks, instead of, say, aircraft or larger-scale vehicles. These are three of my latest: Dutch DAF trucks. The first represents an XF105 Super Space Cab, with a trailer carrying a 40ft Maersk refrigerated container. It is similar to thousands that roam European motorways.

DAF XF105 with container trailer

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A small truck for mammoth tasks

Like many men my age, at heart, I don’t necessarily feel all that different from when I was six years old and playing with my LEGO train. Besides LEGO and trains, as a boy, I liked fire engines, diggers and trucks, preferably with lots of lights. My latest build still fits that pattern. It is a Mercedes Actros truck with a stepframe trailer, as operated by the Dutch company Mammoet, which is Dutch for mammoth.

They specialize in heavy lifting and transport of oversized and heavy objects. So, by their standards, this truck is actually quite small. Their vehicles have an attractive and distinctive color scheme. It uses a lot of red, but the vehicles’ cabs are usually black. The trailer, built by the Dutch company Nooteboom, has a yellow edge for increased visibility. When I started building the truck, I wasn’t sure what load I’d put on the trailer, except that I wanted it to be predominantly yellow. Ultimately I picked a Liebherr wheel-loader with nicely chunky wheels. As a display base for some future LEGO event, I also built part of a road, which I decorated with some flowers and two road signs, both of which (would you believe it?) I already had as a six-year-old.

Honey, I shrunk the Scania

For years I didn’t really care much for minifigures. I tend to be fussy about the scale of my models and, since minifigures are far too wide for their height, it is awkward to use them with a proper scale model. Furthermore, a larger scale makes it easier to incorporate a lot of details and functionality, which are both things that I enjoy. So, most of my builds don’t feature figures.

Read more about these Scania trucks

Building a tiltrotor aircraft using Circuit Cubes [Review]

We’ve occasionally reviewed non-LEGO products on The Brothers Brick, by BrickArms, BrickForge or Citizen Brick for instance; companies that provide accessories for LEGO builds. A new kid on the block is Circuit Cubes. Instead of (accessories for) minifigures they make LEGO-compatible building sets and components, such as electric motors, aimed at teaching STEM subjects to children. They got in touch with me after reading my article on building a remote-controlled vehicle with LEGO Power Functions. They sent me several of their products in return for providing them with feedback. The sets themselves don’t interest me all that much. However, I would like to know how the Circuit Cubes components can be used to enhance my LEGO models. And this may interest those of you who want to motorize your own models too. So, this is not a traditional set review. Instead, I’m going to tell you about Circuit Cubes and how I used them in my own custom LEGO model: an XV-15 tiltrotor aircraft.

A tiltrotor is an unusual flying machine, but the basic idea is simple: with its rotors facing up it can take off and land like a helicopter; with them rotated facing forward they serve as propellers, with the aircraft’s wings providing lift. So, unlike a normal fixed-wing aircraft, a tiltrotor can land in tight spots or on small ships, but in forward flight, it is faster and more efficient than a helicopter. In practice getting this concept to work was difficult, but the Bell XV-15 TiltRotor Research Aircraft first flew in the late seventies and demonstrated that a practical and controllable tiltrotor was viable.

The challenge when building my RC vehicle was hiding the LEGO motors, battery box, Power Functions IR receiver, and what seemed like 2 meters of wiring. I could only fit them inside by building a van with quite a lot of space inside. Because of this experience, two of the Circuit Cubes immediately caught my attention: the Bluetooth Cube and the Cubit. The former is a rechargeable battery pack and Bluetooth controller in one. It has three outputs, remotely controlled via an app (available for Apple and Android). It is rechargeable using a USB cable. The Cubit is an electric motor. What makes these parts interesting is their small size. The Bluetooth Cube has a 4 x 4 stud top and is only two bricks tall. The Cubit has a 2 x 4 stud top and is also two bricks tall. This is much smaller than anything similar made by LEGO, with the exception of old 9V Micromotors.
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Tiny cars are big in Japan

Over the years Japanese car manufacturers have produced some iconic performance cars, such as the Impreza WRX, the Datsun 240Z or the Toyota AE86. However, unsurprisingly, most of their products are of a rather more practical nature. Few more so than so-called Kei cars or keijidōsha (軽自動車). This literally means light automobile.

Daihatsu Move Canbus Kei car

They are a special class of tiny cars, restricted to a width of 1.48 m, a length of 3.4 m and a height of 2 m (4.9 ft, 11.2 ft and 6.6 ft, respectively). Their engine displacement is at most 660 cc (40 cubic inches). For comparison, this is roughly the same as the displacement of a single cylinder of, say, a V8 Ford Mustang. So, why would you want one? Well, they’re relatively cheap to buy and run and owners pay less road tax. And more importantly, in densely populates cities such as Tokyo, owners need to prove that have a parking space before they can register a car, but Kei cars are exempt. Consequently, about one in every three cars sold in Japan is a Kei car. They are exercises in maximising interior space within limited external dimensions. So they do tend to be small boxes on wheels. However, as these two examples show, some manufacturers do spend some effort on the styling.

Honda N-Box Slash Kei car

The Daihatsu Move Canbus is aimed at a very particular demographic: single women in their thirties. Fewer Japanese people are getting married and apparently this is a sizeable group. In Japan, unmarried women also often still live with their parents, so the car should be practical (with good access, through its sliding doors) and yet cute. The Honda N-Box Slash represents the edgier corner of the Kei-car universe. It’s very boxy, seats four people and has a dinky engine, but its styling is a little bit sportier, with an up-swept beltline near the rear windows and the handles for the rear doors hidden in the C-pillar. I hesitate to think what the marketeers were thinking when they came up with the names, though. I guess English names sound cool to Japanese customers, even if they make little sense.

Building a remote control police van [feature]

As a child I literally dreamed of having a remote control LEGO car. I’m not an experienced Technic builder, though, and the LEGO electronics I had in the eighties weren’t up to the job. So actually making this happen took a long time.

I had to combine different systems for adding electrical functions to LEGO models, but now I’ve finally done it. My new Dutch National Police Volkswagen Transporter drives and steers using IR remote control. It also has a working siren and lights. Nonetheless, it has opening doors and an interior, so it looks just like any of the other vehicles I’ve been building for years.

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Automotive rebellion, the Japanese way

For a long time, I didn’t really get the point of car customization. I can understand why people might want to make some changes to improve performance. Manufacturers aim their products at a particular market segment and operate under constraints such as environmental regulations. So, if you want to use your car differently, say to tear up the drag strip, some changes make sense. Rebuilding older cars using newer components to improve comfort or handling also makes sense to me. What I didn’t get were things that make a car worse in objectively measurable ways: such as stanced wheels and ill-fitting body kits. However, after building my latest car model, I think I finally get it. It’s a Nissan Skyline C110, modified in a Japanese style popularly known as Bōsōzoku (暴走族).

Trying to distinguish between the many different specific styles covered by his name is like an obscure form of zoology. They all do share some features, though. Modifications can include multiple rear spoilers and a deppa, which is the huge front-end splitter. Externally mounted oil coolers, with lines running through the radiator or a headlight mount, are also popular. This stuff is all race-inspired, but none of it improves the car’s performance. The cars usually have large fender flares, with small wheels and negative camber, particularly on the rear wheels. This reduces the ride height to the point of scraping the road and probably ruins the handling. The cars can also have a lurid paint job, often involving purple or magenta, and oversized exhaust pipes, called takeyari, inspired by bamboo spears. It is all very much over the top. And that is the point.

Japanese society is full of rules on how to behave in order to maintain harmony or Wa (和). But more restrictive norms seem to lead to more extreme rebellion. Bōsōzoku cars aren’t about improved performance or about making the cars look pretty. They’re about being different from the norm to the point where it gets obnoxious.

The changing faces of NYC taxis

The image that pops into my mind when I think of New York City is one of urban canyons full of yellow taxis. For decades, taxis in the city that never sleeps were large sedans with big engines. In the last ten years or so, things have been changing, though. NYC taxis are still yellow, but most are now hybrids. And most are made by Toyota, rather than by American manufacturers such as Checker, Chevrolet or Ford.

The Checker Marathon is the classic New York taxi from the sixties and seventies. It was a traditional sedan, with a heavy-duty cab-on-frame construction well-suited for New York’s famously pot-holed streets. Its design changed very little during the two decades that it was in production. It became a New York icon, comparable to London’s black cab or the Routemaster bus. Many movies and TV shows filmed in the Big Apple feature Checker cabs, including Taxi Driver and Ghostbusters, as well as the TV sitcoms Taxi and Friends.
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The distinctive markings of British emergency vehicles

A lot of young boys want to become policemen, firefighters, or paramedics when they grow up. I, too, was fascinated by emergency vehicles. There was something about their bright markings, flashing lights, and sirens. As an adult, I realise that the work done by emergency services can be far from glamorous, but emergency vehicles do make for fun and attractive LEGO models. So, I have built models of vehicles from Tokyo, New York and the Netherlands. For years I’ve also had a collection of vehicles from the UK. In the last few weeks, I had a go at building a few newer ones to replace models of vehicles that are no longer in service. They are a long-wheelbase Ford Transit van, as used by the London metropolitan police, and a Mercedes Sprinter ambulance used by the London ambulance service.

For most builders, myself included, painting LEGO is not an option. I do use stickers, but I build most of the color scheme into the model. Because of this, it can become integral to the model’s construction, and I very much enjoy figuring out how to include a particular pattern. Given their colorful liveries, this applies to models of emergency vehicles in particular. Nowadays, most British emergency vehicles use a distinctive checkered pattern, known as “battenberg” markings, after battenberg cake. On the ambulance, I built its blocks using green and lime green parts. This was not easy. The vertical boundaries between them have to line up with features of the vehicle. Furthermore, the blocks on the side of the van body all have the same length. Due to the scale of my model, I couldn’t recreate them using the straightforward studs-up building. So, I had to get creative. I ended up building most of the blocks sideways, to make them just a plate narrower.

The London metropolitan police switched to yellow and blue battenberg markings in 2012. Older vehicles still use a livery called a “jam sandwich” though. This, too is very distinctive: it’s a gold-colored stripe with orange and blue stripes above and below it. This was a lot easier to build. Frustratingly though, I did have to contend with variations in the gold color of the various elements, including multiples that came from the same set.

A high-visibility pattern of yellow and orange chevrons covers (part of) the rear of both vehicles. As I did with most of the lettering, using stickers for those would have given me a cleaner look. However, I do like the LEGO-like look I get by building them using bricks and plates. My vehicles are unmistakably LEGO models. Yet, almost anybody who knows what the real ones look like will recognise them.

I can’t imagine that Transit vans like mine will remain in service for much longer, but that is just the excuse I will need to build a newer vehicle in a couple of years’ time.

Not all Blackbirds are black

Starting in the sixties, the CIA and the US Air Force operated a fleet of Lockheed Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. At first, the aircraft were top secret, but over the years a lot of information has become unclassified. They were spectacular. Even now many of their speed and altitude records remain unbroken.


The most famous Blackbird is the SR-71 and those indeed were all black, as their name implies. However, some of the SR-71’s older relatives were not black at all or only partially black. My latest model represents one of these: the sole surviving M-21. This was a version intended to launch a ramjet-powered D-21 reconnaissance drone. The model is minifig scale (roughly 1/40), can seat a pilot and launch control officer under two separate cockpit canopies, and carries a model of the D-21 on its back.

M-21 Blackbird

Most of the outside of the real jet consists of unpainted metal. I like that it is not actually black; a lot of the details are much more visible that way. The aircraft still exists and is on display at the Museum of Flight, in Seattle, where I saw it during a trip to Washington State back in 2016. I also find the history of this particular version fascinating. To me it was the obvious Blackbird to build for my own LEGO aircraft collection.
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