Flight of the Beater Bee
By John Pearley Huffman, Contributor
Date posted: 06-10-2007
The guys from Paramount Pictures were freaked when we drove
the replica of the Camaro Concept
that's starring as Bumblebee in this summer's megamovie Transformers
. Scratching it, they assured us, was as good as a death sentence.
Letting us drive this 1976 Camaro, which shares the role in the film, was a little less stressful for them. "Go ahead," one member of the Transformers
Transportation Department told us. "It's just an old Camaro."
It's one thing for the makers of Transformers
to expect audiences to suspend their disbelief for a few hours and accept that there are robots from outer space that can transform themselves from ordinary vehicles into giant killing machines. It's something altogether different to expect those same audiences to believe that a teenager can afford a new '09 Camaro. So when Bumblebee, the "Autobot" hero of the film first appears, he is this clapped-out rolling turd — a '76 Camaro featuring every mistake a hot-rodder could possibly make. Later on, he becomes the '09.
But don't mistake this beater Bumblebee for a P.O.S. It may look like a trailer park reject, but it actually drives pretty well, plus it has a charisma all its own.
Looking for Lousy
Back when Transformers
was a cheaply produced cartoon instead of a big-budget, live-action summer blockbuster, Bumblebee was a cute yellow VW Beetle that changed into a robot nearly as cute and far less intimidating. For the film, the trick was to find a car that was affordable enough so that human hero Spike Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) could acquire it, and yet could transform into a robust defender of humanity's continued existence. That car also had to exude the humble, likable personality of the original Bumblebee.
And it wouldn't hurt if Bumblebee were a General Motors product.
"Originally, before GM was into it, I was pushing for Bumblebee to be a Super Bee," said Production Designer Jeff Mann
, referencing the classic Dodge Coronet-based muscle car of the late-'60s and early-'70s. "It was the obvious choice. Then GM came to town, so I picked the crappiest-era Camaro. But I didn't want body-color bumpers. It needed to have chrome bumpers.
"GM originally suggested a '69 for the trashy Camaro. But that was too on the nose. It would have been going from cool
to cool. Plus, any schmuck knows that there are no more trashy '69 Camaros. I wanted this to be the crummiest Camaro possible from the worst year possible that still had chrome bumpers. After all, theoretically the kid buys it for $4,000 and his friends give him crap about it."
Go back over the history of the Camaro
and the 1976 model stands out as just about the worst. There was no Z28 offered that year and the most powerful engine offered, a four-barrel-equipped 350, could only manage 165 horsepower. But it's still a second-generation Camaro, and that's still kind of cool.
Building a Better Beater Bee
While Saleen built the two 2009 Camaro Bumblebees from donor Pontiac GTOs, the three Beater Bee Camaros came out of the Transformers
picture car department working under Picture Vehicle Coordinator Steve Mann (no relation to Production Designer Jeff Mann). "We found all the old Camaros online," recalled Steve Mann. "One was in Palmdale, California; one from Whittier, California and the third in Oklahoma. They all cost less than $6,000 and one of them was less then $2,000."
All three cars were rebuilt and equipped with 330-hp GM Performance Parts 350-cubic-inch (5.7-liter) small-block V8 engines, topped by Edelbrock Pro-Flo electronic fuel-injection systems feeding Jegs 3/4-length tubular headers. Each also got a rebuilt Turbo-hydramatic 350 three-speed automatic transmission from CRC Transmissions feeding their stock rear ends. The suspension was rebuilt with an eye toward achieving that particular rake that practically begs cops to stop a car and search it for methamphetamines.
The point of the mechanical refurbishment was to ensure the old cars would withstand the rigors of filming without breakdowns and with adequate performance. It's the decoration of the Camaros that would help tell the movie's story.
The Right Kind of Disaster
Like everything else in a movie, nothing was left to chance in how the Bumblebee would look. Director Michael Bay and Production Designer Jeff Mann knew that the car would be yellow and likely have black stripes going in, but details like the mismatched Eric Vaughn Real Wheels in back and Cragar SS wheels in front were hashed out during the production design process.
"I think Michael wanted it to look like it had been attacked by an angry girlfriend," explains Jeff Mann. "We wanted it to be fun, but not totally garish."
The big challenge wasn't really the exterior — the pop-riveted cowl induction hood and fake rust were no-brainers — but the interior. "It really was an 11th-hour decision on the interior," said Jeff Mann. "Originally the cars had restored stock interiors. But Michael hated that. He said 'Make it more friendly and not a black hole.' So I just went for it. We had five days to turn that interior all around. We used Glide '65 Chevelle seats because Glide had them in stock and we had to do this instantly. We used AutoMeter Cobalt gauges in a Covan's Classic instrument panel from the Summit Racing Web site. A Grant steering wheel and a B&M ratchet shifter. Then we put together the color combinations and Michael blessed it."
Suitably aged, the '76 Camaro's interior is a riot of goofball and archaic car-building right down to its eight-track player. In short, it's wicked cool.
Better Than It Ought To Be
There's nothing surprising about how the Beater Bee works or drives. Of course the doors droop on their hinges — because the massive doors on all
second-generation Camaros droop. Naturally the rear end sort of bounces around if you hit a road divot — after all, that's a solid axle back there on leaf springs and air shocks. And if the car goes in the direction the driver intends for it to go, that has little to do with feel-free steering. But come on. Old Camaros aren't new Camrys
Turn the key and the engine starts instantly; there's no need to pump the accelerator pedal or pray for the starter to catch. The fuel-injected small-block idles like a Cadillac and the throttle is nicely progressive. It's loud, but it's the right
kind of loud, with an obvious V8 growl.
Give it enough gas and there's more than enough power to fillet the 275/60R15 BFGoodrich radials off their wheels one ply of rubber at a time. But this isn't a street-racing engine; it's an easygoing drive-it-every-day motor. And the car is likely quick enough to run, say, low 15s or high 14s in the quarter-mile. Sure, the vinyl covering much of the interior is marine grade and it takes two hands to work the heavily sprung shifter, but so what?
Going by conventional hot-rodding wisdom, this is exactly the sort of car we're not even supposed to like. And that makes it that much more lovable.
opens nationwide July 4.
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