In The Beginning
It all starts with a big pile of wood, purchased just prior to Coronavirus going ballistic in the States. Specifically, I got two 4’ x 8’ sheets of half-inch plywood, one 4’ x 8’ sheet of quarter-inch plywood, a pair of 2” x 4” beams, some 2” x 6” pieces, 16 feet of precut oak corner trim, an assortment of hinges and metal corner braces, a ginormous box of wood screws, and a quart of Pecan Gloss stain. I already had the car seat from the Mk4 cockpit; I’d ultimately repurpose the fold-out steering wheel legs and table as well as the seat base. All total, I spent just over $100 in materials.
My design would be an evolutionary improvement from the Mk4, which was also a transforming table that worked well as a racing cockpit but had many flaws, such as the seat not actually fitting inside. As such, Mk5 would be a bit taller at 29 inches, a bit longer at 42 inches, and a bit narrower at 33 inches.
Warped Like The Starship Enterprise
I was trying to keep the cost of materials under $100, which is another reason I went with thinner plywood. It was the cheapest of the cheap, and honestly, it didn’t look bad at the store. Once I cut it into smaller sections ... the photo above says it all. There was no way I could use wood this warped to basically build a big wooden box, so I set about trying to straighten it out.
I had multiple pieces warped badly, so I tried the water-in-the-sun trick. Basically, the plywood warps because one side is dryer than the other, causing it to shrink. Unfortunately, early April in western South Dakota still had chilly temperatures so I compensated by pouring boiling water into a bottle, spraying the bejesus out of the concave side, then dropping the pieces on smooth parts of workshop floor with my summer wheels on top to help straighten everything out. Long story short, it sort-of worked. More on that later.
Another consequence of the cheap wood was that it was rough. Very rough. Pre-sanded sheets of plywood are available, so on the off chance you decide to actually try following my lead on this, spend the extra money to get the pre-sanded stuff. You’ll still need to do a final sand before finishing but it will save so much time, and your lungs will be happier too.
So, it turns out a bottle of Everclear is the exact circumference I needed to create the leading edge of my opening door. At 190 proof it’s also good for sanitizing tools and spicing up your strawberry Kool-Aid. I can neither confirm nor deny this affected my judgment on making straight cuts, but I will say this: Measure twice cut once only applies if you measure correctly, then cut correctly with power saws that do not have bent blades or misaligned guides. Sadly, two pieces of plywood were lost in this realization.
Yes, the Mk5 has a functional driver door. Mk4 did as well – how else do you get into a big wooden box 29 inches tall? Despite Everclear’s best efforts, this cut at least came out clean.
Frustrating First Day
My plan was to have everything cut and assembled on day one, followed by staining/coating on day two. Between the warped wood, two bad cuts that required considerable sanding to fix, numerous broken screws, busted drill bits, and a general lack of planning, I only had one side finished after several hours of effort.
Day Two, Still Warped
After spraying the severely warped side a second time and leaving it the entire night, this is what I woke up to the next morning. It was better, but not nearly good enough to use for a side of the cockpit. I make a second run to the hardware store for a new sheet of wood, and I bought more hardware in case I ran into other unexpected problems. At this point I was winging it, as my threadbare plan was pretty much out the window. But I was determined to get it right, or at least, get it done with some manner of eloquence.
With a straight side piece, I finally got the shell assembled. I used thinner quarter-inch plywood for the back, reinforced with a 2” x 4” frame. This was one area where prior experience paid off. With the flexible nature of the thinner wood, I could compensate for very minor differences in length between the two sides by simply flexing the back a bit. As it turned out, when all was said and done my sides were 42 inches on the dot.
I was still trying to straighten the cockpit’s front section, so I took some extra time to try and formulate a new plan for installing the pedals. This was an issue I never really solved on Mk4 – I wanted some measure of adjustability while being secure, and my solution was an elevated base incorporating a “pocket” that the pedals slide into. At the front, notches in the supports hold a crosspiece that can be inserted into different positions for front-back adjustability. As my completely professional drafting blueprint shows, I spent a good minute or two considering all aspects of this design. You’ll see how that worked out later on.
I previously mentioned some parts of the Mk5 were borrowed from the Mk4. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I simply used the 2” x 6” seat base and fold-out legs for the steering wheel table, which had been painted olive drab in the old rig. If the seat looks too far to the right, you’re not wrong. The adjustable base actually shifts the seat further in that direction, so it’s necessary to mount it further right in the cockpit to have a central seating position. Also, I wanted to leave a bit more room for the six-speed shifter to mount near the door.
First Test Fit
Day three finally saw the Mk5’s front piece of plywood mostly straight. Yes, I say mostly – there was still a slight warp but with it designed to fold down for the pedal base, I decided to move forward with the hope it would straighten a bit more over time. Spoiler alert: it didn’t, and in fact, it got worse. When this pandemic is over, the front will get replaced with something straighter. For now, it serves its purpose.
With the test fitting for the seating position and controls completed, this penultimate step finally had me attaching the hinged front section to the cockpit frame. This was also my scientific "stress test" to see how it would cope with forces from various directions. Dropping it on its top produced no damage, so I call that a successful test.
Table Top Assembly
The original plan called for a one-piece table top hinged on the right side that would lift up and flip over. I neglected to consider size in that "plan" and it didn't matter anyway, because I cut the wrong section on day one and the one-piece table was far too short to fit. It was the final piece of the puzzle and I totally botched it. To say I was not pleased with my dumbassery is a tremendous understatement.
But then I remembered the Mk5 wasn't just a cockpit or a table. It was both – a freaking Transformer! And what makes modern Masterpiece Transformers so awesome? Double-hinged sections that make big parts small. So I promptly took the straightest sections of plywood I had left, bolted them together with hinges, then bolted that assembly to the Mk5 with two more hinges. Did it work? You'll see later on.
Finally, at approximately 9:00 PM MDT on day five, primary assembly of the Mk5 was finished. One last test fit with the G920 gear and the folding table confirmed that everything seemed to work as advertised. Considering I went into this with basic dimensions in my head and nothing else, I was grateful to have something that might actually function as advertised.
Prepped For Finish
Unfortunately, an early spring snowstorm chilled the workshop below freezing for two days, delaying progress even further. When temperatures warmed, I busted out the orbital sander for an aggressive final sand to remove as many imperfections as possible, not to mention all red pencil scribblings and tire marks that would show through the stain. My wife Michelle was in charge of the finish work; she chose a light shade called Pecan Gloss that would be topped with a polyurethane coat for added durability. And boy did she do a good job, as you're about to see.
Mk5 - Table Mode
Here’s the final product, and despite all the issues, I’m pretty happy with it. Michelle’s finish looks great and it matches well with other furniture in the house. At 29 inches tall it’s the typical height for a dinner or game table, and the slight table overhang on the side gives us room to flip this thing around and have a nice meal while kicking back on the sofa watching the telly. With carpet friendly furniture sliders underneath, it moves easy as you please.
A Peek Inside
With the table folded to the side, you can see how everything stows inside the cabinet.
The Double-Hinged Table
Yes, I know this isn’t technically a double-hinge setup. But it uses two sets of hinges to create a smooth, sturdy table when extended, and it folds neatly onto the side for racing. In a project that had many frustrating moments, I chalk this up as a major win. Once the pandemic eases up I’m already planning a new folding table, with larger overhangs on all sides.
Mk5 - Sim Racing Mode
Converting from table to cockpit mode takes perhaps 30 seconds. Fold the table over, lower the front pedal section, flip out the steering table support legs, bring the seatback upright, install the headrest, install the steering table (held in place with velcro), then fasten the shifter and wheel into place.
Still A Work In Progress
It's not all hugs and puppies here. After just 10 minutes behind the wheel, I discovered the shifter was actually too far back, the adjustable pedal setup couldn’t take the strain of hard braking, and the steering platform was too loose. This wasn't entirely unexpected – fine-tuning during gameplay has been part of every previous build, and despite all the problems from my ill-conceived plan, the Mk5 had relatively few issues to dial in.
The pedals are already reinforced and the shifter is moved forward. I have a plan to button down the steering table that I'll hit in the next couple of days, but as it stands, the Mk5 is fully functional in all aspects. Considering the problems I had, I'll take it and run.
Got any suggestions for a Mk6 cockpit? Before you jump into the comments on that, peruse the few remaining slides to see my previous mad-scientist cockpit creations.
Thankfully, no photos exist of the Mk1 cockpit. That’s good, because it was basically one piece of wood with a rickety chair and an old wheel precariously perched in the middle. Mk2 (pictured here from 2001) incorporated a mega-comfy chair pilfered from a conversion van, built with wood shelves given to me from the car dealership I worked at. The steering table was hilariously wobbly, but this cockpit and Tokyo Extreme Racer on PS2 are the reasons why I failed Music 150 in college. Twice.
When Gran Turismo 4 debuted for the Playstation 2 back in 2004, I knew I needed a new rig. The Mk2 had been dead for several months before Mk3 came about, assembled late in 2004 and designed to be a modular setup that was easy to transport. The two sections were connected by angle steel, and it survived for five years with just a few modifications to fix the twisting frame. It wasn’t much to look at though, so it went away in 2009.
The first transforming cockpit came to life in 2012 while living in Michigan. It wasn’t really designed to be a table, but rather, a storage bin to hold our supply of games (we love our games at Casa de Smitty) while not looking like some janky race car in the middle of the house. The seat didn’t fit inside, and the tabletop was simply velcroed in place with a flimsy hinge sticking up in the middle. But it served valiantly until just a couple of weeks ago, when I disassembled it to make room for the Mk5 in my small South Dakota home.
The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks for joining me on the adventure.
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