When I got my first beater car as a proto-hoon of 16, my dad had some excellent advice, straight from the Midwestern heartland where he learned about wrenching: "Son," he said, squinting at my barely-running Corona, popping the top on his can of Old Milwaukee, and taking a mighty swig, "You need to get yourself a JC Whitney catalog!" He knew the address by heart: JC Whitney, Chicago, Illinois, so that's what I wrote on the postcard requesting my first catalog. Soon the first of many wonderful pulp-paper treasures appeared in my mailbox, straight from the City Of The Big Shoulders...
...and the thing that caught my attention, each time I scanned its wondrous pages, was the Winky The White Cat listing. Soft, Fluffy... and Safe! Red Eyes Flash Warning!
I wanted Winky for my car, to keep me safe with his soft fluffiness and his acrylon-like fur. But I was young and foolish, worried about image. What would my friends think? Could I blast Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables on the cassette and still sport Winky in the back window, all the while keeping some semblance of coolness? Sadly, a victim of teenage peer pressure, I couldn't bring myself to buy Winky. A few years later, JC Whitney stopped carrying him. Winky was no more.
Now, 25 years later, I realize that all is not lost. Yeah, I can't buy Winky (not a real one, anyway), but I can make my own! First, the ground rules for this project:
1. The stuffed animal to be used as the basis for the project must be some sort of feline (no skunks, sharks, lemurs, etc).
2. I must obtain all the necessary parts during one trip to the thrift store and one trip to the junkyard.
3. My Winkyesque Safety Cat must be removable (i.e., not hardwired to the car), so it may be transferred from car to car.
Heading down to my local thrift store, I dug through a huge depressing bin full of cast-off stuffed animals. Stuffed cats are rare!
But eventually, after rejecting many bears, gorillas, and dogs, I found a beige-and-white stuffed cat puppet (with talking "meow box"). Price: $1.50.
Next, a quick trip to East Oakland and the nearest self-service junkyard, where I obtained the following:
A couple of Fasten Seat Belt warning lights from early-70s Volvos. These babies just pop right out of the dash with a little nudge from a screwdriver.
Here's a real junkyard gem: A "Slow Down" warning light from a mid-70s Fiat 128. I'm not sure what triggered the Slow Down indicator, but given the era I'm guessing it was set to the new Malaise-friendly 55 MPH speed limit (and, knowing Fiats, it probably came on randomly and then triggered a wiring-harness fire). I figured I'd give my Safety Cat a "third eye" brake light, in honor of Elizabeth Dole, champion of the Libby Light. It was at this moment when the name for my cat appeared to me, as in a vision from the heavens: Wanky The Safety Cat!
Now I needed some way to disconnect and reconnect Wanky from my cars' electrical systems, so I could move him from car to car. Knowing that when it's time for junkyard electrical hardware it's best to go Japanese, I sliced out both sides of the harness connector for the rear wiper motor on an '86 Tercel wagon- I only needed four contacts for Wanky's wiring (three lights and a ground) but a couple extras don't hurt.
I never have enough of these things in my collection of crimp-on electrical connectors (you always use up the female spade connectors first), so I hacked out a handful from a Saab fusebox. And with all needed junkyard goodies in hand, I hopped in the Crown Vic and headed home.
Dumping my loot on the workbench, I realized that I needed wire for Wanky's connections to the car's light system. Since I'd limited myself to single trips to junkyard and thrift store, I had to think fast. Then I remembered a big tangle of lamp cord in my box-o-broken-electrical-crap in the basement. Eureka! Then it was time to begin Wanky's conversion from talking cat puppet to Safety Cat. To the operating table!
Snip, snip, snip... I pulled out a few handfuls of plasticky "cotton balls" from Wanky's innards and continued the operation.
Once I had access to the inside of Wanky's head, I cut off the mounting anchors for the unseeing plastic eyes.
Wanky's face looks a bit... featureless at this point. But not to worry! He'll soon be sporting some serious bionic safety hardware!
Fishing around in the cranial cavity, I removed the little plastic box that made the stuffed puppet, in his previous pre-Wanky incarnation, emit a horrible electronic meowing noise.
Since Wanky must show more steely resolve than in his previous life as a puppet, I fabricated this armature from genuine heavy-duty coat-hanger wire...
...and inserted it into head and front legs.
Puppet no more, Wanky now stands tall and proud, ready for the next step in his metamorphosis.
Time for a test-fit of the Volvo Fasten Seat Belt Lights in the holes left behind by the old eyes. A little fabric stretching and they fit just fine.
Then a little precision neurosurgery to create the socket for Wanky's Third Eye brake light. Wanky will be have features undreamt-of by the original Winky.
The Third Eye fits perfectly. All systems go!
Sorry, couldn't resist the Primus reference. Once we know the lights will fit in Winky's face, out they come and the soldering begins. I prefer to solder rather than use crimp-type connectors when possible. Each light has its positive lead go to a separate wire on the male harness connector, and all three lights connect to a common ground wire. The extra two leads on both sides of the harness are cut off close to the connector plugs.
Double-wrap the soldered connections with genuine yellow electrical tape. Not sure why I have so much yellow electrical tape, but you use what you got on hand, buddy!
Once all the taping is done, Winky's side of the harness is just about ready for testing.
At this point it's a good idea- well, a necessity, really- to label each of the wires on the vehicle side of the harness, while it's still easy to match them up with their counterparts on the Wanky side. Masking tape and Sharpy work well for this task.
Before implanting Wanky's new hot-rodded innards and stitching him up, the innards should be tested for proper functioning. For this I will need a source of 12 volts DC (or thereabouts); this old wall-wart adapter, with plug sliced off and stripped wire ends, will do nicely. Incandescent bulbs don't care about polarity, so no need to label the positive and negative leads from the adapter.
And the lights all work fine. Here they are, all hooked up to 12 volts together. After the test, into the cat go the lights and harness! Looking good, Wanky!
Wanky, having started life as a puppet, was a bit on the thin side, so I figured some DOT-approved Safety Cat Stuffing Compound (i.e., a pair of old socks) would be just the ticket.
A couple of zip-ties to ensure that the harness stays connected to the backbone and Wanky is ready to be stitched up...
OK, Wanky is getting stapled up. Staples are better-suited than stitches to withstand the massive G-forces sure to be placed upon Wanky when my Crown Victoria hits the Nimitz Freeway with every cubic centimeter of its 4.6 liters screaming for vengeance.
After the stapling is complete, the harness protrudes from Winky's belly. Now it's time to get the car ready to provide Wanky with a new home!
First, there needs to be a hole for the harness to pass through from the passenger compartment to the trunk (although the San Joauqin County Sheriff's Department- my car's original owner- had seen fit to drill about 100 extra holes in the car for their various pieces of cop hardware, there were none on the package shelf). Some quick work with the drill and that's done.
Harness in place in Wanky's future spot. Now all that's needed is to hook up the wires to the car's electrical system.
Fortunately, the SJC Sheriff's had already hacked into the harness feeding the Crown Vic's rear lights, no doubt for their gumball-machine flashers and whatnot (let's not discuss the scary stuff they did to the dash wiring), so I had ample locations into which I could splice Wanky's wiring. So, with a little help from a voltmeter, I ID'd the left and right turn-signal positive leads...
...and did the solder-and-yellow-tape business on them. The Crown Vic's trunk is so big that I can just sit cross-legged in it while stripping and soldering wires; very comfortable. That lamp cord looks high-performance, eh?
It was a really tight fit to get to the harness feeding the center brake light and I didn't feel like getting a sore neck soldering in there, so I just crimped up a little spade-connector jumper-with-lead deal to insert between the two halves of yet another cop-car-gear connector. Can't always be a solder purist.
The now-departed cop-car radio gear required plenty of ground connectors, so I attached the ground lead from the Wanky harness to this conveniently-located one on the trunk hinge bracket. A half-dozen or so zip-ties and the new wiring is all squared away. It looks like the factory did it (well, if the Ford assembly plant ran out of wire and had to start ransacking appliance cords from the office, that is).
Time has come to place Wanky on his throne, where he will proudly survey the landscape behind the car and warn approaching motorists of danger with his soft, fluffy safeness. The harness connectors are joined at last!
Now it's time for a NASA-spec Extreme Safety Cat Testing Regimen. First, the left turn signal. So far so good...
Flip the turn signal stalk to the right and- whaddya know? it's working on the first try!
Wanky's all-seeing third eye (plus his regular eyes, as in the original Winky) will beam a message of safety to tailgaters.
And, when the brakes are being applied and the turn signal is on at the same time, the appropriate eye will blink while the others continue to indicate deceleration. Because Wanky, he is all about the safety, no?
I was a little concerned that Wanky would block my view out the back window, but that's not the case at all. In fact, his acrylon-like fur provides a soothing sense of safety every time I glance in the mirror.
And any concerns that my car would look less than dignified with Wanky standing guard are immediately swept away. Hell, his fur even matches the paint!
So now I've been driving with Wanky for a few days, and I must say the reaction from the driving public has been overwhelmingly... well, if I'm honest... confused. But I haven't been rear-ended nor shot, so I'd say Wanky's safety record has been perfect. So now, even if JC Whitney never brings back the original Winky The White Cat (camped-up reproductions for ironic hipsters don't count), I'll be basking in the safeness of my own custom-made Wanky The Safety Cat. And so can you- so get ye to the thrift store and junkyard!
JC Whitney Online Catalog [JC Whitney]
CHMSL Not Bruce Enough For You? Try Winky The Cat! [internal]