Date posted: 06-03-2007
We knew what we had to do. Get the first photo ever of a 2009 Camaro doing a burnout — or at least a car that's a dead ringer for the 2009 Camaro doing a burnout.
So there we were last July near the set of Transformers, cruising along the roads surrounding an old aircraft hangar in Playa Vista, California. We were driving "Bumblebee," the Camaro that's the star of this summer's sure-to-be-blockbuster, looking for the perfect place to blaze the hides off its rear tires.
It's amazing that we even got permission. "A burnout?" one Paramount Pictures publicity person asked us. "What's that?"
Driving a Transformer
After lots of assurances that it wouldn't hurt their movie star except burn some rubber off the rear tires — and despite the agonizing trepidation of both the studio and General Motors — there we were cruising around Howard Hughes' old digs and shooting photos, trying to find the sweet spot where the light would perfectly catch the blue-gray haze.
With filming taking place so far in advance of production of the 2009 Chevy Camaro, getting the new Camaro into Transformers took massive cooperation between Detroit and Hollywood. The result of this effort is one of the most impressive automotive movie props ever built — a fully functional, fiberglass-bodied replica of the concept car first shown at the 2006 North American International Auto Show. It looks just like the concept car, only it's painted a better color and actually moves under its own power.
This is a movie prop, so it in no way necessarily indicates how the production Camaro will drive. In fact it has more in common with the just-discontinued, Aussie-made Pontiac GTO because under all that plastic there is a GTO — pulled straight out of GM's engineering R&D fleet. This feat is in itself nearly as impressive a feat of fabrication as any production car. And this car drives well. In fact it even did its own stunts.
Yeah, it's fake. But this car and its identical twin (movie companies can't wait around for a busted car to be fixed so there's always at least one duplicate) are great fakes.
Getting the Part
There are a shockingly large number of Transformers enthusiasts out there. Weaned on the original Hasbro toys and several television cartoon series, plus comic books, these boys (and they have been virtually all boys) spent the 1980s obsessed with the battle pitting Bumblebee and the other Autobots against the evil Decepticons. Of course, every one of these Transformers geeks knows that the original Bumblebee was a Volkswagen Beetle. But the movie Bumblebee is — purists be damned — a Camaro. Actually two Camaros — first a clapped-out '76 F-body that later becomes the '09 version.
"This is kind of a special movie in that the cars are characters," says director Michael Bay. "I wanted to find a special car and I have the best relationship with GM. They took me into their skunkworks and I saw this car. I said, 'That's the car.'" Not only did Bay know GM, since he has directed numerous GM commercials (he was also one of the first owners of a Chevy SSR truck), but also GM is unsurprisingly familiar with the film's producer, Steven Spielberg.
"I didn't hesitate and saw the opportunity," explained Steve Tihanyi, GM's general director for marketing alliances and entertainment. "There was really no hesitation. It was only whether I could deliver what he needed. We've done a lot of things together. This movie is going to be chock-full of product." With filming to take place throughout 2006, getting the two "Camaros" necessary for filming would take a stupendous effort.
General Motors is in the business of building thousands of vehicles every day. But when it comes to building just two of a type, well, that's not GM's gig. That's where Saleen Specialty Vehicles comes in. Yeah, it's that Saleen: the company that made its bones building high-performance variants of the Ford Mustang. But its facility in Troy, Michigan, where the Ford GT was assembled, is also one of Detroit's most respected builders of show vehicles, and it even already had some movie experience.
Saleen was hired by GM at the suggestion of Steve Mann, the picture vehicle coordinator on Transformers, who while doing similar duties on the 2005 film XXX: State of the Union, had worked with Saleen in creating movie-car versions of Ford's Cobra concept. But beyond that, Mann had also worked directly with Steve Saleen on 2003's Hollywood Homicide and, coincidentally, their daughters had been roommates for a year while attending USC. In short, Steve Mann knew what Saleen could accomplish.
Since the GTO with its 109.8-inch wheelbase is already about the same size as the Camaro Concept with its 110.5-inch wheelbase, the Australian-built Pontiac became a natural base upon which to build the two Bumblebees. But the GTO is built around a unitized structure, so Saleen couldn't simply drop a new body onto the chassis. "Basically it was reverse-engineered by our build team," explains Bryan Chambers, the director of production at Saleen. "We had less than 45 days to build both cars so it was a barn-burner."
To simplify, the bodies were chopped off the two 5.7-liter, LS1-powered GTOs while box frames of steel were welded up to compensate for the lost structure. Then a team led by Jon Zorn in Saleen's showcar body shop grafted on the GM-supplied fiberglass bodies that had been pulled from the same molds used to build the concept car.
Throw in an interior also formed with fiberglass pieces, a lot of detail components (like the composite hubcaps that make the huge steel wheels look like the alloys on the concept) and a couple gallons of gorgeous gold paint and the result is the car we're driving along the access roads outside the old Howard Hughes aircraft hangar.
The old Hughes hangar in Playa Vista has been a popular place for filmmakers to shoot for decades. It's huge and tall, so big that impressive sets can be built inside. Also it's just down the street from Los Angeles International Airport, so all the talented craft and trades people that make for a great movie can easily get to the site. Fortunately for us (including photographer Randy Lorentzen), the hangar is also surrounded by private roads that once connected the various buildings on Hughes' extended property. This is critical, since the Bumblebee Camaro is nowhere near street legal and doesn't carry any sort of registration for operation on public roads.
From afar the Bumblebee Camaro is simply gorgeous; the shape that mesmerized on the show stands looks even better in sunlight. Up close, this movie prop is even more impressive, despite plenty of fakery including plastic door handles that are supposed to look like metal and plexiglass side windows that don't roll down. This isn't some cheap splash of fiberglass done up by amateurs, but rather Corvette-quality resin and mat. Every piece of the body is perfectly formed, the panels fit to each other with precision and the paint is thick and luminous. It's not a production car, but it could easily pass for one.
Inside the cabin, fiberglass panels cover components that obviously have their origins in the donor GTO. For instance, the instrumentation is simply the GTO's gauges covered in new frames, while the seats come straight from the Pontiac. Most of the surfaces the driver touches are hard plastic instead of the soft-touch stuff found in production machines, but it's all been nicely shaped and beautifully finished. Impressively, Saleen has even managed to keep the GTO's air-conditioning system intact, for which I'm sure the stunt drivers were grateful while filming during the heat last summer.
The car starts instantly and falls easily into a familiar, throaty idle. The four-speed automatic transmission's shift lever has been modified from a GTO piece and it works fine. Get the car rolling and there's some road noise from the big tires since there's little sound-deadening material aboard, but there are only a few creaks around where the body is bonded to the frame.
The steering feels fine, the brakes seem to work fine and there was no real chance to find out how the suspension worked. But my guess is that it worked just as if it were still under GTO bodywork.
This is a miracle, because most movie cars are utter crap, clapped-out junkers barely mobile enough to roll across the movie screen and blow up spectacularly. They're incredibly lethal to drive, a mix of unpredictable dynamics and ongoing electrical fires. This Bumblebee, on the other hand, looks just about perfect and seems sweet-natured enough to do the morning commute. And when Justin Mann from the Transformers picture-car department got in it to do the burnout, it fried its tires like a seasoned street racer.
No muss, no fuss. Most important, thank God, nothing broke, so the movie crew didn't chase me down the street while waving ax handles. We might even still have a career.
This may not be the next Camaro, but if Chevy's lucky there will be some Bumblebee in every new Camaro it builds. Especially the ability to burn down those tires.
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