Kokomotive: The Fertility Train

David Thibert made his art car dream come true this past year on the Playa. He unleashed his metal work skills, engaged some creative friends, and indulged his love of steampunk style. Throw a kickass gifted limo into the mix, and the Kokomotive was born. Read on to hear David’s account of how his art car changed his perception of the Playa and what he’ll do differently this year.

Photo by Lanny Headrick
Photo by Lanny Headrick

How many years have you been going to Burning Man?
I had been to Burning Man four times before building the Kokomotive. This was my first attempt at something like this. I’ve seen so many amazing pieces of art and vehicles out there that were so inspiring that I really wanted to have something to share with my friends and to bring to the Playa. It’s where the gear-heads and the nerds bond, ya know? And from all the help that I got from unloading it, to taking it to the DMV Hotties, to their response and interacting, it’s just been a great way to meet people and to share the accomplishment.

What inspired the Kokomotive?
I do really cool stuff and know a lot of people who do really cool stuff. There’s no excuse not to create.

How long did it take to put it all together?
I began project in April and launched it in August. Life off the Playa is so challenging. This project was an escape for me. It was therapeutic. I find solace in a creative process. So I left capitalism and practicality behind and immersed myself in this.

Tell me a bit about the creative process behind the Kokomotive.
I decided I wanted to build it so I put together a drawing, a paint rendition of something. Like a 2-D cave drawing, something easy.

I’d never built something like this before, so if I was going to haul it out there I wanted to assure it was met favorably by the DMV. I thought if somehow I could incorporate the theme that it would be good and appropriate. Honestly, I was a bit practical initially in ‘how to succeed.’

I knew I wanted to be very steampunk and very old styled with this thing. I had in mind a black steam engine with accents in copper. Then I got the idea of making a mobile out of this cage I’d obtained. It’s like a human-sized birdcage with a motor drive underneath it.

Also, I work with a lot of people with a lot of surplus equipment. I was gifted antique sheave pulleys and hand made the hubcaps. It was really just engineering on the fly. I built around the known things, the major components of the vehicle. The whole project worked sort of like the Phantom of the Opera: Design and fabricate the tough stuff on one side of the mutant, and move on. Duplicate later. The second half was a real push.

The authenticities of the gauges on the front fenders are real deal. They were refurbished and about seventy years old.

Then, a friend of mine suggested having our own old railroad logos. This friend happens to campaign racecars and helped me out by using a vinyl cutter and vector file for the logo “NorCal Black Rock Railroad.” It all just came together.

Photography by Lanny Headrick. View the entire gallery here.

Tell me about you’re background in metal work.
I am an engineer for SRI International. I’ve been designing and engineering forever, having had a rural upbringing with a background in fabrication and machining.

What’s the story behind the gifted 1986 Cadillac limo?
I put the proposal together before I actually had the foundation for the project. And I really should have obtained it (the foundation) first, but it was a major endeavor to get: the 1985 Cadillac stretch limo. Around the same time I got approval for concept drawing, I got the word out to some friends. This is where the limo came about.

The owner of limo was a girl whose father had recently passed away. He had had a limo service. He often found himself giving locals rides homes from bar.

She liked idea that her father would have appreciated this project and was happy to donate the car.

The limo was packed full of garbage and things growing inside. The wheels wouldn’t turn. But I had infrastructure to take this on and was determined. We pulled the limo out of an overgrown ravine where it had been for nearly a decade and transported it to my warehouse in Hayward, CA via trailer.

I pulled the truck and trailer through town and the local drama club from Grass Valley High school was having a carwash. They hosed it down and got the moss off. Then back at my warehouse, we filled it with fresh gas and used a compressed air tank, to force fuel into the carburetor that hadn’t started in 10-15 years. It started right up! There were only about 60,000 miles on the thing.

I closed the hood and never worked on engine again until the last week before Burning Man, which was a mistake- not exactly a good assessment of the mechanics of the car. Oh, well. It all worked out in the end.

I chopped the top off first and laid out rails like a boat would have. I had researched locomotives designs, looking at key elements of the cars. I liked the way those “cow catchers” -actually called pilots– looked and wanted the front to look like an actual train.

Photography by Ilya. View the entire gallery here.

What did you learn from making the art car? Did it significantly change your experience on the Playa this year and how?
The magical thing really was the people that I got to share the car with, which was probably like 60-80 people over the course of being out there. I met a professional photographer and pretty girls and couples, all as passengers. We had photo shoots on two separate days. The girls all really dolled themselves up. Memories were created. Decompressing from Burning Man is kind of tough and it’s nice to be back there, even virtually.

We camped near 9:40 & Esplanade. We were really good friends with the Sk8 Camp crew to begin with and it was a coincidence we were camped side by side. We all spent a lot of time on the car together and being able to share those images with the folks from Free Style Palace and Sk8 Camp after the Burn was fun and nostalgic.

The BLM Rangers actually hung out with us on a couple occasions. People were really friendly and cool. We gave them t-shirts and enjoyed each other’s company. The relationship with the law enforcement was great. I didn’t know how that was going to pan out.

Another thing that was profound to me was being sober the entire time that I was out there and so happy to be sharing the car with everybody. There was no compulsion to catch a buzz other than the feeling that I had sharing my art with other people.

Photo by Lanny Headrick
Photo by Lanny Headrick

Did the Kokomotive survive the Playa and will it be returning in the future?
We received a tremendous amount of attention with the Kokomotive, on and off the Playa. It will definitely be back. On the way home from Burning Man, we were invited to the “Motive Tower Festival,” which was about two weeks later in Willits, California. It’s basically a big steam engine festival that coincides with “Kinetic Carnivale” with families and young people and music, all very steampunk with timepiece costumes and a hand-powered locomotive race. People of all ages loved the Kokomotive car, like how all people love trains. It seems to bring smiles to every generation. We also went to Decomp in San Francisco.

What would you do differently in the future if you were to make another art car?
My intention for this year – now this is scary because I’ll have to do it if I tell you I’m going to do it- is to create a whole new back for the car that probably, this year, will employ fire. I want to have icons or some sort of a structure that is symbolic of the theme for this upcoming year and highlight it with fire. The back of the car was 18ft off the ground and 14ft wide or something. It’s a nice canvas- a dynamic moving canvas. If it were flaming, it would be even cooler.


Many thanks to David for sharing his experience with us and we fully expect to see some flame effects on the back of the Kokomotive this year! And this should be a lesson to all Burners who want to build art cars – all you need is an old ‘85 limo, years of engineering experience, a lot of hard work and some amazing friends. 

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