Most likely cruising down the road somewhere around Hendersonville, Asheville, Marion or Morganton, you might catch a glimpse of a unique steampunk vehicle created by Gary Burns, Old Fort resident and owner of Burns Concepts.
And when you see this car, or if you already have, you will certainly know it.
For those not familiar with the style, sector and genre of “steampunk art,” Burns said he helps explain it by showing published books from artists around the world. Steampunk art dates back to the 17th century, mixing a functional style of machinery with a science-fiction twist, pulling elements from the Industrial Revolution and steam engines.
“Most of the people that see the car will ask me if it is a time machine.” Burns said during an interview in Old Fort. “I find my things at multiple hardware stores, electronic shops or antique shops. Anywhere I see something unique, it just comes to me, and I know where I’m going to put it. That’s steampunk. It’s complex.”
Fifteen years ago, Burns was introduced to steampunk by a friend. His reaction?
He outfitted his first installation of the art by creating a breather and headpiece cap, which took over 100 hours to complete. (You can see it on his website, steampunkburns.)
He bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser in 2001, and “steampunkin” the vehcile started when the original custom muffler tip broke off. After visiting a muffler shop, the idea came to him.
“I wanted to build a little steam- punk muffler tip. I built it using an electrical box and plumbing parts. The man welded it on; I sprayed it gold, copper and bronze; and that’s how it started,” Burns said. “Then, every day, people would honk at me driving with the new little gold muffler tip.”
At that time there was nothing else steampunked on the car, said Burns.
“People would tell me daily how super cool my new muffler tip was anywhere it was parked,” he said. “It was like a hot ember in a dry forest after that. This was the momentum that started this amazing creation. Continuous ideas kept coming, as you can see.”
Burns’ steampunk style includes basic everyday items turned into meaningful layers and pieces that tell their own story. From bronze and gold piping, to the depiction of a prehistoric eel, to a glass head on the hood, each piece is strategically handmade and has its own story of how it came to be.
“You can steampunk anything, and the uniqueness of this art is the more out-of-balance and more it’s embellished, the more fascinating it becomes. With steampunk, the world is open,” Burns explained.
The vehicle currently weighs about 1,100 pounds over the original weight with all the wood, metal and tin, but is only about 60 percent finished on the outside, said Burns.
“The other 40 percent coming includes real steampunk effects, train horns, laser lighting, exterior and construction factory sound effects playing through towers. There are going to be several video projectors mounted to the headliner inside, shooting video art onto all the exterior glass, including two big steampunk eyes opening and closing on the left windshield glass while it’s parked,” said Burns.
As of now, the car has fewer than 75 LED exterior lights, but will grow to about 500 LED lights. In addition, all four fenders need to be completed, with one being a small pipe organ and another covered with macaroni sprayed in gold and embedded in plastic with backlit amber lights and smoke coming out, flowing from the rear-hatch pasta food strainers.
“Yes, it’s true and real,” Burns said. “I’m also working on creating a full-body steampunk costume.”
The left front fender will feature old-timey milk and pouring cans as light holders. The other front fender is going to be re-created from a 1976 Buick Riviera shape, and the left wheels will be covered in old carriage-wheel skirts as covers. The right-side wheel skirts will be covered in trash-can lids with antique ship lights.
“People truly love to see the car lit up at night. Eventually, I want it to look like one of the flying saucers from the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ just flying down the road at night,” Burns said.
And if that wasn’t enough, then he has to start on the inside. The driver’s area is going to have aviation gadgets, equipment and gauges because one of his many professional titles is commercial helicopter pilot.
“I have loved flying most of my life. I’m trying to acquire an old F-4 jet-fighter seat or possibly an old Russian MiG fighter seat,” said Burns. “The passenger front-seat area is going to be something like the set from the movie ‘The Matrix.’ I’m going to use an old barbershop chair with lots of computing monitors and cables with jack-in ports.”
Burns said many people ask him if that is his car, and he always replies, “No, it’s God’s car; I’m only using it temporarily,
“This project has given me numerous opportunities to talk about my Father in heaven and his blessing he has given me, and for me to share about his son, Jesus, to so many. It’s given me so many fellowship opportunities. You can’t put a price on that.”
He points out to interested onlookers the cross on the rear glass and the peace-sign hand that is mounted to an old rear wiper arm that moves back and forth. Below that is a sign that says, “PEACE BE WITH YOU,” from John 20:12. “Especially while you’re driving,” he adds. On the top of his dash is where he keeps his Bible and pictures of Jesus.
“I also show folks the front grille area where there is another cross laid over a metal heart, a fork and a spoon,” Burns said. “They also ask, ‘Did you do that by yourself?’ and I say I have some special helpers.”
An artist since he was a child, Burns has worked on his Cruiser for almost two years, integrating his own artistic vision. But, with meaningful art comes attention, mostly positive, Burns said. “Especially the very young children that stop their parents to look. Even when I’m driving on I-40 there will be four to five cameras coming out of SUVs to take videos or pictures.”
It’s been worth every penny, (about $3,000 so far) and all his time, he added. He can come out of a store and have 12 to 15 people standing around his car.
“Everyone young and old loves this car. From a 2- to a 97-year-old. It crosses all demographics. After all of my years of being a creator and a visual artist, which is basically what I am, this is by far the most amazing creation I’ve ever made,” said Burns. “This style of art allows it to be that way.”
To say the car attracts attention is an understatement. During the hourlong interview with Burns, most people walking by stopped to take pictures or have their photo taken with the car. “It is spectacular,” one woman said as she took a photo with her phone.
During a photo session at the Old Fort Finishing Plant, someone hollered across the train tracks, “I love your car!”
Although the attention the car brings can sometimes be tiring, Burns said, he draws his strength from his faith and the joy he sees on the faces of the people he encounters.
“Every day on the highway, semi truckers honk at me, construction workers wave at me. State troopers will run up on me and give me the thumbs-up or blue-light me just out of curiosity,” Burns said. “I have sheriffs and police all know the car, and they love it.”
All of his additions have a goal of being completed in 2021 so he can take the car on tour around the nation to be featured in steampunk events and auto shows in hopes to get the car promoted and publicized.
“I want to put it on display at the world’s largest custom auto show in Las Vegas, called SEMA, and put this finished amazing car on public auction there so I can start on my next steampunk auto project,” said Burns. “The prayer that I keep most about this is safety. It’s just been this perpetual-motion machine that hasn’t stopped. But it is going to have a stopping, or finished point. As with most art or artists, is it really ever truly finished? Because with steampunk art, it is easy to just keep adding and keep going.”
To learn more, visit the car’s page at Steampunk Cruiser on Facebook or contact him at email@example.com.