The Making of the Presidential Limo, a Pinewood Derby Saga

This past weekend was the Pinewood Derby, which is a big item on the Cub Scout calendar. Based on our previous three years experience, my son had no notions of actually winning the race, but was instead focused on building something cool, with an eye toward winning some other award (Most Creative, Most Patriotic, et cetera).

With only two weeks to go, the boy decided he wanted to do either a car that looked like an iPhone (which he’d seen on the internet) or a presidential limo that played “Hail to the Chief,” using the noisemaker thing from a greeting card his grandparents had sent him. We settled on the latter.

The first question was how to cut the block of wood, since I have hardly any tools. As the days ticked down, I decided to spring for one of those Fein Multimaster-type multipurpose tools ($60, for a knockoff brand), figuring maybe someday I’d use it for other stuff.

We copied the outline of the plain wood block onto a piece of cardboard, then drew the outline of the car on that, cut it out, then traced around it in pencil onto the wood block, so we’d know how much to cut for the hood and trunk.

Because the blade is narrower than the piece of wood, our cut wasn’t totally smooth, but it was serviceable. And we were able to carve some creases into the hood to make it look more like a car and less like a block. We sanded it down with the sander attachment and then did a bit of hand sanding.

After three years of poor paint jobs, I finally got hip to the idea of using primer ($4) before the spray paint ($4). We even did a bit of light sanding after the primer coat. This resulted in a much smoother finish than we’ve been able to get previously.

The big issue was sound. Unfortunately, I had tossed out the card, which proved to be a fateful mistake. We went to 5 card stores searching for another one, to no avail. Finally, I asked my parents where they got the card; they said Barnes and Noble. I had them revisit their Barnes and Noble but there were no more. We went to two other Barnes and Nobles and couldn’t find it either. Finally, we found one—the last one—at Target ($5).

We ripped the card apart, removed the noisemaker thing, and glued it to the bottom of the car. The question was how to activate it. It needed a little tab to push on it, so we used a piece of plastic from a drywall anchor, held in place by staples and by a nail. Finally, we had sound.

And then we didn’t. The next day, the boy came stomping into the room and announced that the sound thing wasn’t working anymore. Indeed, the device, which is probably designed to play the song only a couple of times, had crapped out after our playing it a couple dozen times.

We went to one more Target and one more B&N, but couldn’t find another card. So the only hope was to replace the 3 tiny, disc-shaped batteries. I hit up 3 more stores before finding the right ones ($18), and they worked.

There was also the issue of decorating the car. I figured we could use foil tape for the chrome bumpers and grille—which was good because I had that already. For the windows, I was going to use contact paper, maybe in silver or light blue, but after checking out half a dozen hardware/drug/dollar stores, I never found any in the right color. A trip to the craft store proved more fruitful, as I snagged flag stickers, presidential seal stickers, red crystal things for the taillights, clear crystal things for the headlights, a silver Sharpie marker to outline the windows, and even tiny flags on sticks for the fenders ($18 for all). The boy raided his ample Lego supply for a Lego guy to be the President, waving from out of the sunroof.

We finished the car on Derby Day with 20 minutes to spare. I was relieved when nothing fell of it off during the race. We were happy not to finish last in our heats (the car came in 3rd every time). More importantly, though, the car won the award for Most Original—and one for People’s Choice.