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

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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

A terrible name for a pretty plane

Despite the cancellation of the event where I was going to display them, I’m still building a collection of LEGO minifig scale experimental aircraft. I like building them, and there’s always next year (or the year after that). The latest addition is the British Aerospace EAP. This stands for Experimental Aircraft Programme. Americans may object to the spelling of “programme.” However, they should bear in mind that it is British. The name is still terrible, though. It just doesn’t have the same ring as, say, Spitfire, Hurricane, Lightning, or Tornado. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest that it refers to an actual aircraft rather than to some study.

It was designed in the early eighties, as a technology demonstrator for a new fighter to counter the Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker. These jets were far more advanced and agile than most of the jets that served NATO. Italy’s fighter was the ancient F-104 Starfighter. The RAF and German Air Forces still used F-4 Phantoms, from the sixties. The new Soviet jets outclassed all of them. New Tornado jets entering service wouldn’t fare much better, because they were fighter bombers. The three countries started collaborating on a new fighter. However, as is common with European defense programs, the collaboration soon ran into political difficulties. Germany hoped to collaborate with France, instead and withdrew its funding. Nonetheless, the UK’s defense industry forged ahead, with private and with UK and Italian government funding.

British Aerospace built a single prototype. It’s a very pretty aircraft, with an elegant fuselage, a cranked delta wing, and canard foreplanes. It first flew in 1986 and was retired five years later, after about 250 flights. The French would only collaborate with Germany if the French industry could have the lead. So, when the time came to build a production aircraft, Germany joined the UK, Italy, and Spain. They built the new European Fighter Aircraft, popularly known as the Typhoon. Now, that’s a good name. The British, with their EAP, paved the way, though.

When greed was good and spoilers were big

The eighties: hair and shoulder pads were big, smoking was cool and greed was good. If you wanted to show off your financial success, the car to buy was the Porsche 911 Turbo. Because of the weight of its rear-mounted engine and the massive turbo lag, flooring the throttle pedal whilst driving through a slippery curve resulted in a fair few investment bankers wrapping their Porsches around a tree. However, in the hands of a good driver, these things were rally monsters. Dennis Glaasker brings us 1/14 scale LEGO models of two of these classic racers.

This pair competed in the 1984 Ypres Rally in Belgium. Henri Toivonen, with Ian Grindrod as his navigator, won the rally in the white and dark blue car in ‘Rothmans’ livery (a tobacco company). The red and white car failed to finish, though. Belgian racers Robert Droogmans and Ronny Joosten didn’t wrap it around a tree, fortunately. They retired from the race because their gearbox failed. There is much to love about the models. For instance, note how the B-pillars (the struts under the roof at the back of the doors) are sloped slightly aft, just like on the real car. Everything opens and the cars have realistic interiors, with racing seats and roll cages. Dennis recreated their colour schemes using a mix of different coloured parts and perfectly matching custom stickers. Best bit: those iconic whale tail spoilers.

Porsche 911 SC/RS in Lego 1:14

Taking the gasser to a car show

Earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was looking forward to spending three weeks away from home this summer. At the end of July, I was going to attend BrickFair Virginia. After that I’d fly to Denver, to make a road trip with a friend. I’d subsequently return to Virginia for a work meeting before finally jetting home. Now, of course, none of that is happening. Instead, I’m currently having a short “staycation” at home and will actually be working most of August. In the hope of putting myself into a relaxed vacation mood nonetheless, I built a Chevrolet Express conversion van a couple of weeks ago.

It is a very American concept: convert a regular passenger van into a luxury cruiser with captain’s seats, rear seats that can be folded into a bed, tinted windows, a raised roof, cool rims, and some snazzy graphics on the outside. SUVs have cornered much of their market in the last decade or so, but this is the kind of vehicle I imagine would work well for long road trips and family vacations. I particularly enjoyed building the pattern into the sides, with dark tan and old dark grey plates. However, as much as I enjoyed building it, the end result was a bit underwhelming. So, to fit my vacation theme, I considered building a trailer for it, with a jet ski or an all-terrain-vehicle. However, I wasn’t looking forward to building either.

I finally got a little bit excited thinking about putting a custom car on the trailer instead. Custom cars generally don’t float my boat, but since I liked building the pattern on the van so much, I relished building a car with a paint scheme with flames. To fit the van it had to be American, of course. So, I picked a “Gasser”. This is a particular type of classic drag racer. It uses a body shell of a stock car, with really fat rear tires, a stripped-out interior, an oversized engine, and a jacked-up front end. The flames are optional, but I built mine using yellow, bright light orange and orange plates. The car is a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air, which is just about the most American car I can imagine. It isn’t quite the holiday vehicle I had in mind, but at least it’s fun.

New York’s Best and Bravest are life savers

My hair may be turning grey, and I have a job, a professional reputation and responsibilities, but hidden just under the surface is the same six-year-old boy who marveled at his first LEGO fire truck, back in the eighties. With the pandemic, for many of us, the last few months probably haven’t been easy. For me, personally, things could be a lot worse. I am healthy and so are my loved ones, I have job security and can work from the comfort of my home. Nonetheless, I am stressed by the uncertainty and by a never-ending amount of work, in combination with not being able to do many of the things I usually do to relax, such as traveling, meeting friends and attending LEGO events.

One thing that does help is being able to channel that six-year-old. I pop up to my loft and put some LEGO bricks together almost every day. And what does my inner six-year-old lifesavers? Well, fire trucks, of course. With a few decades of building experience under my belt and an adult’s disposable income, they’re obviously going to be elaborate. This pair of vehicles represents a Seagrave ladder truck and an ambulance, as operated by the New York Fire Department (FDNY). They are life savers in a real-world sense, but building them also kept me from going nuts.
Click here to continue reading

New wheels for my LEGO Ambulance service

Some LEGO fans primarily collect sets; others focus on building their own creations. I’m very much in the latter camp. That doesn’t mean I don’t collect anything LEGO-related, though. I don’t just build for the sake of building and sharing pictures on-line. Most of my models fit into collections, like my Japanese cars, that I display at shows. Because they are part of a collection, I tend to keep them around for a long time. However, as a result, by now some of my vehicle models are so old that their real-world counterparts were retired years ago.

Case in point: the Dutch Chevrolet Express Ambulance that I built in 2009, as part of a collection of Dutch emergency vehicles. If I were to display this at a show, some of the children there might not even recognise that an ambulance used to look like that. So, even though there aren’t any shows in the foreseeable future, due to the pandemic, I felt my Dutch LEGO paramedics could do with a new set of wheels. The current type in North Holland, where I live, is the Mercedes Sprinter. All its doors, including the sliding doors in the sides, can open, to give access to a detailed interior. The lights on the roof have a snazzy aerodynamic shape, which was fun. I particularly enjoyed building the colour scheme. Ambulances in the Netherlands are yellow, with a complicated pattern of diagonal red and blue stripes. As I did with the old Chevy, I recreated this using stacked plates. Stickers would have given me a cleaner look, but to me this looks more authentic as a LEGO model. It is good to go for a few more years.