2005 NAO Design JL421 Badonkadonk

(from NAO Design Press Release)  In September of 2002, reports of a "strange, brightly lit, armored hovercraft cruising about" began to come from the campus of Stanford University. Perhaps it was the pounding music emanating from it which betrayed its origins as not military, but rather entrepreneurial. And recreational.

Meet the JL421 Badonkadonk ( just sound it out- "ba-donk-a-donk" ), one of the more ambitious creations to date from the renegade NAO Design company (www.naodesign.net). Founded in 2001 by designer Neal Ormond IV, NAO has quickly established itself as a new creative force across a wide variety of design fields, ranging from graphics and web design to architecture and automotives. "The graphics and home furnishings pay the bills", explains Ormond, "but the real fun is in battle tanks and robots and flamethrowers, rightogon;”

Well, whether you’re more in the market for a modernist cantilevered table or a drum that shoots fire at the instant of each hit, you can’t beat the JL421, or “Donk”, as it is nicknamed, for uniqueness and utility among NAO’s products. To look at it, one might think it to be a hovercraft, but in fact it runs on four wheels, concealed by a unique industrial-strength rubberized flexible skirt that shields and protects the wheels to within an inch of the ground, while still allowing for enough flex to give clearance over bumpy and uneven terrain. The Donk can transport cargo or a crew of five internally or on the roof, and can be piloted from within the armored shell or from an exposed standing position through the hatch, thanks to special one-way steel mesh armor windows that allow seeing out without others seeing in, and a control stick that pivots up and down to allow piloting from the standing or seated positions. The interior is fully carpeted and cozy, with accent lighting and room for up to five people. A 400 watt premium sound system with PA is mounted to project sound both into the cabin and outward from behind the windows. The exterior is a steel shell with a rust patina, and features head and tail lights, turn signal lights, trim lighting, underbody lighting, and fixed slats protecting the windows. Master power, ignition, all lighting, and stereo features are controlled from a single switchboard to the left of the driver, accessible from either the seated or standing driving position. Power comes from an air-cooled, 6hp Tecumseh gasoline engine, with centrifugal clutch, giving the Donk a top speed of 40 mph.

The concept for such a vehicle came to Ormond and associate Frank Pollock in the spring of 2002. Despite the wide array of design skills already under their belts, this would be the first powered vehicle either had designed or built. “We knew we wanted something which was at once both malevolent and benevolent, being battle-ready and armored, yet cozy on the inside and irresistible to people with its lights and sounds” says Pollock. The build started with a go-cart chassis and engine, but the similarities to most vehicles end there. A reinforced steel shell was built off the chassis, the roof and hatch were installed, the special control stick and pilot controls were developed and rigorously tested, and once the bare bones were functioning properly, the plethora of accessories and goodies were added; the inside was fully carpeted and upholstered, electrical and sound systems installed, camera and monitor, horn, fog machine, storage compartments, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored headlights, brake lights, turn signals, rope lights, strobes, underbody neons, and LEDs were installed. And because every tank needs a good defense, they even designed a modular pneumatic cannon that can be mounted to the vehicle or carried by its personnel.

So where can one operate something like the Donkogon; Well it’s not strictly street-legal in its home state of California, but that doesn’t hinder this ship. Its debut was on the desert sands of the Burning Man festival in Nevada (www.burningman.com) in August of 2002. The miles of wide-open alkali flats are ideal conditions for this vehicle, and every year it returns for a week of “Donking”. The other 358 days of the year it can be found at its home garage back on the idyllic campus of Stanford University. Both Ormond and Pollock are recent graduates of the University, and in fact became acquainted in the drum section of the infamous Stanford Band (www.stanford.edu/group/lsjumb). The band maintains a number of active alumni, and as such Ormond puts his Badonkadonk to good use. During the day, at band and sporting events, it is used as a transport for drums and other band equipment, and as the current flagship to be seen at the head of the Band’s ranks, as well as a method of intimidation and eradication of the errant UC Berkeley student that wanders onto Stanford land.

But come nightfall, the Donk transforms into party-mode. With a designated driver at the helm, the lights and music set the scene as it glides around the campus, looking for trouble or fun. Its mere presence has the ability to draw out a crowd, and its accessories and crew tend to keep that crowd interested. On more than one occasion, the Donk has reportedly rolled up to waning local parties and “stolen” the party away from the inside and reinvigorated and relocated it to the JL421.

Of the public’s reaction, Ormond and Pollock describe the early days as “shock and awe” while observers tried to figure it out. By now though, it has become a prominent fixture on campus. Still, its creators get a lot of questions from passers-by. “Is it hovering’ and ‘Are there Jawas inside’ are the most frequent ones by far. And my answer for both is always yes” reports Pollock. ‘Jawas’ is a reference to the Star Wars characters, and this guess is not far off, as the designers admit the ‘Sail Barge’ from Return of the Jedi was a heavy influence on the form of the Jl421. Other common references include the Daleks from the film Dr. Who, and the old iron-sides ship USS Merrimack. Just don’t call it cute.

The JL421 Badonkadonk has been offered for sale on naodesign.net for a year now, but just this past October it became available through Amazon.com. That’s right, for $19,999.95 you too can find yourself at the helm of your very own Badonkadonk! Production is on an order-by-order basis, and each one is highly customized to the buyer. “To be honest”, says Ormond, “the Donk caters to a very specific niche. Everyone likes the Donk, but recent publicity has spurred as much or more interest in some of the other one-of-a-kind projects NAO has done”. And it is the technology behind some of these other, newer projects that Ormond is incorporating into plans for NAO’s recently-announced follow-up to the JL421. “Follow-up maybe isn’t the right term”, he says, “because it will be an order of magnitude more advanced than the Donk, and look and move nothing like it. We’ve come so far since the summer of 2002; our abilities in metalworking are much advanced, we’ve begun implementing microprocessor controls, and we now have the experience of several vehicles behind us. Plus we’ve recently added flamethrowers and fire of all sorts to our repertoire”. If this next vehicle turns out to be all it’s supposed to, the JL421 Badonkadonk will finally and sadly pale before such a mechanical leviathan of steel, sound, and fire. “Don’t worry”, says Ormond with a hint of irony, “we’re professionals”.

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