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Saturday, July 11, 2009

From Cars and Trucks to Autobots and Decepticons

"This is kind of a special movie in that the cars are characters in the movie," explained Transformers director Michael Bay. In other words, as much care was taken in casting the vehicles as there was in casting the human actors. And if the right vehicle wasn't available for a role, the production company would simply build one. That's tough to do with human actors.

"It's a big show," said Picture Vehicle Coordinator Steve Mann while Transformers was still shooting. "Before we're done we'll have used over 100 cars and doubles of those cars — somewhere between 100 and 150 vehicles. We have six car haulers on this show and four mechanics. And everyone has been putting in long hours."

We've already reported on our drives of both the 1976 Camaro and the new Camero Concept that portray "Bumblebee," the most prominent and heroic of the Autobots. Now it's time to meet the supporting cast — including a villainous Mustang Decepticon that's not a Mustang, and Optimus Prime, the universe's most noble Peterbilt.

Autobots, Decepticons and General Motors
In the Transformers universe there's an ongoing, thousands-of-years-old battle between good robots — the "Autobots" — and bad robots — the "Decepticons." Both the Autobots and the Decepticons have the ability to transform themselves from ordinary, unthreatening forms into furiously athletic, immensely destructive and just plain immense robots. It's all based on several successive cartoon series that, in turn, drew their inspiration from a line of ludicrously popular toys Hasbro launched in 1984.

Toys were, in fact, a major consideration the filmmakers had in mind while choosing their mechanical actors. Because, no surprise, there is a series of Transformers toys being produced based on the new film, and all the Autobots and Decepticons had to be based on vehicles whose manufacturers would license their design to Hasbro. If your car is one that transforms into a heroic Autobot, that's one thing. It's something else if your car's role is that of an evil, fascistic Decepticon.

It was General Motors that got the call to supply most of the Autobots and with the exception of Optimus Prime, their wise and paternal leader, all the Autobots in Transformers are GM products. "I have the best relationship with GM," director Bay said. After all, he had directed commercials for the corporation before and was one of the first buyers to take delivery of a Chevrolet SSR truck. And GM was eager to be part of what promises to be a blockbuster.

"I didn't hesitate and immediately saw the opportunity," avowed Steve Tihanyi, GM's general director of marketing alliances and entertainment. "We've done a lot of things together with Michael Bay. I look for true integration into the film — for the vehicles to be real characters with real importance to the story. At GM we have a very clear vision of what we want to do in the branded entertainment space. We know what works and doesn't work. This is going to be a giant opportunity. A cornerstone activity going into next year."

The Decepticons are mostly played by military equipment including an MH-53 helicopter and an F-22 Raptor fighter. But there is one evil car, and at first sight, it's exactly the car fans would want to see going up against the Bumblebee Camaros. Only it's not a Mustang.

Barricade — the Evil Saleen S281
For Ford there would be little upside to seeing its Mustang take on the role of "Barricade," the berserk cop car Decepticon that is Bumblebee's archrival. Or for that matter, having a generation of kids grow up pretending to do vile, nasty things with Barricade toys that look just like the company's pony car. So in Transformers, Barricade isn't a Mustang at all. Instead it's a trio of Saleen S281s.

Of course, the Saleen S281 is based on the Mustang. But Saleen is officially recognized as a small manufacturer by the United States government and the S281 is a product of Saleen, not Ford. There's plenty of upside for tiny Saleen in getting its limited-production products up on the big screen, and it was fine with licensing the car to Hasbro for the villainous side of its toy line.

At Saleen's facility in Michigan, while the company's Show Car Body Shop was furiously refitting two Pontiac GTOs with fiberglass replicas of the Camaro Concept's body to portray Bumblebee, the three S281s that would star as Barricade were making their way down the regular production line. Like every S281, they were fitted with all the external body parts, suspension pieces, 20-inch wheels and tires, and interior trim items that make them distinct from a Mustang. However, unlike regular S281s, these were painted black and white, and instead of the 335-horsepower 4.6-liter SOHC 24-valve V8 "Z Motor" other S281s get, they have the Mustang GT's 300-hp version of the same engine under their hoods.

It's no surprise that the Barricade we were able to pilot for a few minutes around the Transformers set drove exactly how we expected it would: like a new S281 but with slightly less power. The standard shifter is aboard to control the production five-speed automatic transmission and the car seems to react instantly on its oversize P275/35ZR20 Pirelli P Zero tires. In short, it's a very nice car.

The fun came in turning on the light bar and chasing down the Camaros. With the lights going and the Must...er, S281's engine roaring, we may have looked like bad guys. But we felt like heroes. Sort of. After all, no villain thinks he's the villain, does he?

Ratchet — Heroic Hummer
In the old cartoons, Ratchet was the Autobot medic and transformed from a vanlike ambulance. In the film, the ambulance is gone and Ratchet is now a rescue vehicle based on the Hummer H2. There were actually two Ratchets built for the production.

Built by Auto Motion Industries in Saugus, California, the movie Ratchet is basically a stock H2 with the rear two-thirds under a new steel shell. In fact, opening any of the access doors on the new sheet metal reveals the stock structure of the H2 is still painted in its original yellow. The suspension is also stock, except for the addition of airbags in the back to handle the additional weight. A set of huge BFGoodrich Krawler T/A rock-crawling tires on massive wheels add some height to Ratchet, but it's hardly a radical lift.

The massive front bumper and "Atlas II" nose guard come straight out of the Road Armor catalog and are installed unmodified. The rear bumper is also from Road Armor but has been widened and capped on either end with the same company's corner guards.

Much of what makes Ratchet work convincingly are details like the custom-built roof rack and graphics. But running a stock drivetrain, there's no reason to believe it drives much differently from a stock H2.

Ironhide — TopKick Warrior
Back in the '80s, Ironhide started as a minivan and has been upgrading ever since. After all, he's a warrior Autobot, and transforming a Chevy Uplander would have been too goofy. This latest incarnation starts as a thundering GMC TopKick pickup before becoming a defender of humanity.

The TopKick 4500 is not a traditional consumer product, but a 2-ton medium-duty truck. You know, the sort of truck that has a commercial bed on the back and the name of a business stenciled on the door. However, Monroe Equipment in Monroe, Wisconsin, has built a strong business around converting TopKicks into pickups by fitting them with the same beds used on the smaller Sierra 350 dualy. The Transformers picture car department started with two Monroe-converted TopKick 4500 crew cab 4x4 pickups as the base to build two Ironhides and cosmetically massaged them for on-screen duty.

Most obvious among the changes is the adoption of single wheels in back in place of the standard duals. This was accomplished with custom 20-inch steel wheels from Taylor Made Wheels in South Gate, California — the front and rear wheels are identical except they're mounted with the offsets reversed so the wheels are tucked in up front and stick out in back. The tires are 35-inch-tall Nitto Mud Grapplers.

Road Armor supplied the aggressive front and rear bumpers while the picture car department built the (rather flimsy) chrome sidestep bars and tall exhaust stacks. They also replaced the TopKick's huge side mirrors with those from a Yukon.

The TopKick's 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V8, Allison six-speed automatic transmission and suspension were all left stock. Also stock is the interior, which isn't seen onscreen. It's not easy to park, but it's one mean-looking Ironhide.

Optimus Prime — Big Truck, Big Heart
When Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, was first conceived way back in the '80s, he was a transforming semitruck. And for the Transformers film, he returns as...a semitruck. As scattershot as much Transformers character development has been through the years, Optimus Prime has retained the most consistent design and personality. In fact actor Peter Cullen, who was the voice of Optimus Prime through many of the cartoon series, returns to the role in the film.

While at times Optimus Prime has been a cab-over semi, in the movie he will be a conventional long-nose Peterbilt. Actually, however, while the two trucks built by the Transformers picture car department are based on mid-'80s Peterbilts, they have been "genericized" to remove all manufacturing markings and distinctive details. That makes getting the toys into production much simpler.

While heavily chromed pieces give Optimus some flash, it's the gorgeous purplish blue and red flame paint that is this truck's most outstanding feature. This is a classic hot-rod paint job done on a multiacre scale and it looks as good up close as it does on camera. Optimus may be the most dignified and respected of the Autobots, but at least in the movie, he's also the flashiest dresser.

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