Jun 052014

To those of us possessing a passing understanding of the term “trilogy” it came as a bit of a surprise when Michael Bay confirmed that he was on board with and beginning development on a fourth installment of the Transformers movie franchise (though it appears someone has apprised him of that error). The result will defile movie screens later this summer and, no doubt, rake in obscene amounts of money (and it is entirely fair to note that some of that money will be mine).

Lost in this somewhat dubious future, however, is a little bit of history: 2014 also marks 30 years since the debut of the original Transformers animated series here in the U.S. We already know how Bay will commemorate the occasion: an orgy of violence and explosions, accompanied by a healthy dose of not-so-subtle implication that most of those watching don’t understand the true meaning of self-sacrifice and inner strength (traits which, by the way, we can apparently learn through close observation of John Voight), and topped off with a light sprinkling of gratuitous boob bouncing and casual sex references (the just reward to those young men who do know the aforementioned virtues).

To some of us, though, this is not the Transformers we grew up with. Through the relentless violent pounding of modern movie-making, the old sense of simple imagination has gotten lost since ’84. I could spend hours detailing each affront, but I would rather take a moment and talk a little, not about what is wrong now, but rather what makes those early cartoons so great to me, even as an adult.

It’s the cars, stupid

Let’s be honest here, despite the growth of the human element, everyone goes to see these movies for the Transformers themselves, and one thing we can expect from Bay’s next outing is a bevy of cool cars. Indeed, trailers show such notables as the Bugatti Veyron, Lamborghini Aventador and Pagani Huayra. Omnipresent, of course, are the GM vehicles — Bumblebee in concept Camaro guise, the Corvette Stingray, the Hummer H2, etc.

The downside is that all the vehicles featured are there because big bucks were paid to assure high visibility. Though there is undeniable cool factor, product placement still reigns supreme, especially in the GM-dominated Autobots. In the early/mid ’80s things were a bit different. The animators and toy designers behind Transformers wouldn’t have dreamed of designing one of their characters around an average (or even above-average) American car. This was partially because all the characters were conceived in Japan, but mostly because American cars in the ’80s (as well as the decades both preceding and following) were, for the most part, awful. Whatever the case, the Asian origins of the series didn’t preclude the use of several European models as character vehicles, nor the use of the much more interesting American trucks and military vehicles. One thing is for sure: the criteria had much less to do with who paid what to get their product drawn on screen — and that made the vehicle choices much more interesting.

Since I am a car guy, I have decided to celebrate 30 years of awesome by looking back at two of the lesser-known characters in the first two seasons (before things got… weird… on the vehicle front) and talking a little about the cars that made them come to life for me. Why focus on the also-rans? Well, everyone can identify the original Bumblebee in yellow VW Bug form, Hound’s Jeep, or the somewhat more obvious Dinobots. Beyond those, though, there are some remarkably curious choices for vehicles and characters here. At least, I think so anyway.

The mad scientist

WheelWheeljackjack — Lancia Stratos

The Stratos is an odd car choice for any character of any kind. To be fair, it enjoyed considerable success as a rally car in the ’70s, and its exclusivity and Italian heritage should combine to make it a desirable supercar alternative to Lambos and Ferraris of the time. The Stratos, however, was (and still is) known as much (if not more) for what made it quirky as what made it great. Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond of Top Gear rank it among the greatest cars made by one of their favorite automakers, for instance, but spend as much time talking about how uncomfortable it is, and how everything is in the wrong spot, as how wonderfully it handles and how pretty it is. By the time the first episode of Transformers aired it was also out of production for ten years, and becoming more obscure by the moment. An odd choice, then, for a fresh new show.

Upon closer inspection, though, it is the perfect vehicle choice for the Wheeljack character. Wheeljack is quirky — he speaks with an accent that is an odd mix of Minnesota and New England, but his mouth doesn’t move. Rather, his jowls light up in time with his voice. He is, however, probably the most capable Autobot — part scientist, part mechanic, part inventor. While not a doctor, he is usually called on to repair the others, and is even knowledgeable enough to construct the Dinobots with the help of his companions. His lab on Cybertron is the stuff of gearhead dreams — full of spare parts and experiments in various states of completion. As the bio on his action figure package states, though, he is “his own worst enemy. Often injured while experimenting with new weapons.” His personality pairs well with the Stratos, then: equal parts bemusing quirk and technical marvel.

The narcissist

TracksTracks — C3 Chevrolet Corvette

Hm. Didn’t I just get done talking about how the makers of this show would never use an American sports car? Yep. And more to the point, by the end of its run the third generation Corvette was one reason why many so doubted America’s ability to build a quick, sporty car anymore. There were probably copyright issues with using the then-brand-new C4 ‘Vette, but if you’re stuck depicting an older model, why not one of the truly cool ones? The original Stingray, for instance, would have brought a better vehicular personality, in my opinion. Why choose what was, even then, the weakest Corvette offering ever? In fairness, in the context of time, the late-model C3 was undoubtedly viewed differently than its reputation now. Still, this is a vehicle choice I never understood given how many other options there were for this character.

And the Tracks character is certainly one that demands its fair share of discussion. He is narcissistic and vain to a fault. Those traits alone, when combined with the American car body, point to a certain bias on the part of the character developers. However, the addition of his Boston Brahmin accent, obsession with his own decorations and pretty finish, and his inability to relate to fellow Autobots led to an ongoing debate regarding his perceived sexuality (an assessment that is not helped by the fact that he randomly sprouts wings and flies around, some might say, like a fairy). That’s probably reading a bit too deep in to what is, ultimately, a character in a children’s cartoon, and most “reputable” online sources conclude that there really is no obvious evidence, one way or the other. It is fair to say, however, that Tracks is a startlingly multifaceted character for such a secondary role — probably more multifaceted than the vehicle form he so admires in the storefront reflections as he drives past.

Those are just the first two that spring to mind for me. There are certainly others (I didn’t , for instance, take on any of the Decepticons). I’d be interested to hear yours.

This post originally appeared on Frankasaurus.

May 112013

Automotive companies have made waves in recent years with retro inspired styling.  All of the major American brands introduced one or multiple models that paid homage to styling from the 60s and 70s.  These cars give buyers from older generations a gateway into their pasts with modern versions of models from a simpler time, while also giving younger buyers a taste of the fast muscle car era.

What is interesting about the retro styling movement is that it’s limited to automobiles only.  Clearly there is an emotional attachment to our cars and the isolated nature of the automotive retro movement is proof of that.  The retro movement didn’t show up in any other form of consumer transportation, from motorcycles, to boats, and so on.  In fact, this retro styling movement did not show up in any other form of, well…anything.  Think about recent releases of other products in other industries.  From homes, to home appliances, to all forms of computers and electronics, to furniture, and so on, we didn’t see any real “throwback” trend.  The goods we were buying continued to get sleeker and more modern looking and feeling.

Now coming back to cars, I know some may say that perhaps the Chrysler PT Cruiser started the modern automotive retro styling movement.  I think they would be right.  After all, it was introduced in 2001.  But really, who cares about that awful throwback hearse anyway?!  That’s why this discussion is centered on the faster, flashier cars that better defined the retro styling movement.  This brings me to what is arguably the peak of this movement, and one of my favorites, the introduction of the 2005 Ford Mustang.

2005 Ford Mustang

Courtesy of Serious Wheels

This generation Ford Mustang ushered in an era of precise retro styling working in perfect harmony with current day technology.  It is really an automotive engineering marvel.  It closely replicated the styling of the late-1960s Mustang while adding a few aerodynamic cues, better fuel economy and better reliability.  This allowed the car to have mass appeal across generations of buyers and fans.  Men and women alike fell in love with this release of the Mustang.

That same year Chrysler released the 300 and the following year the Dodge brand released the Charger.  This was good for them because it helped boost sales within these brands, but was actually a little irrelevant considering the competition wasn’t promoting a retro styling movement in the full size sedan segment.  Think about it, did you see Cadillac taillight fins make a comeback?

It took until 2008 for another automaker to answer the call of the retro styled Mustang.  Dodge answered with the release of the Challenger, followed by GM finally reintroducing a retro styled Camaro in 2010.  All of these cars followed a similar retro styling philosophy to Ford with the Mustang.  Only issue here is that the Challenger and Camaro were three and five years too late, respectively.

Fast forward to the end of 2009 and we see that the Mustang was refreshed as a 2010 model, showing some curve while attempting to preserve the essence of the retro styling.  It is retro with a Euro-Japanese twist.  Clearly Ford starting transitioning out of the retro styling movement almost as quickly as it went in.

2015 Ford Mustang conceptualized

2015 Ford Mustang conceptualized, courtesy of Edmunds’ What’s Hot

The 2015 Ford Mustang has been conceptualized, and the departure from the retro styled late-1960s throwback is becoming even more evident.  Ford designers are taking the Mustang in a different direction, sleeker while keeping a strong presence.  It looks ready to go up against anything Europe has to throw at it, but the real question is whether the average buyer will be into it.  Regardless, if the Mustang defined the peak of the retro styling movement, then here in this case it is also marking the end.

This entry was first posted here on April 12, 2013.

Oct 192012

When I think retro styling, the 2005 Ford Mustang immediately comes to mind. It kicked off a new generation of coupes and sedans from the Chevrolet Camaro to the Dodge Charger. But if we really look back at the retro movement, another auto maker is responsible for really getting it started. This week’s Car of the Week pays tribute to that auto maker that comes from and is inspired by what’s going on across the pond. I give you this week’s Car of the Week:

2002 Mini Cooper


Retro Euro styling + BMW backing = Huge Success!! OK, enough with my math geek-ery, let’s talk about the car already. When the Mini Cooper was introduced, it was the hottest car going. And why not? It was retro sexy AND you could get it for under $17,000. Even 10 years later it still starts at under $20,000. Back then it turned so many heads that chiropractor billing was notably up in 2002! (OK, not really) If the price tag wasn’t enough, the base model got gas mileage in the upper 30′s. That may have not been as big a deal in 2002, but I’ll tell you I’m thinking about it these days with gas back at $4.00/gal. A pre-owned Mini Cooper is looking like a fun stylish daily driver for 2012.

About the Car

The 2002 Mini Cooper was available in one body style, the now iconic hatchback. Two engine configurations were available, a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder and a supercharged version that added approximately 50 hp. Three transmission configuration options were available, a 5-speed manual or a CVT automatic on the base model or a 6-speed manual on the supercharged model.

Whether you were looking for awesome fresh retro styling, utility or just some fun out-of-the-box, the Mini Cooper was, and continues to be an attractive (and affordable) option. I’m thinking about adding one to my “collection”. What about you?

Other Resources

Wikipedia: the original Mini (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course)
Wikipedia: Mini under BMW (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course)
Motoring Alliance: the friendly Mini Community 
Road & Track road test of the 2002 Mini Cooper
Motor Trend road test of the 2002 Mini Cooper

Chuck can be followed on Twitter @ChuckWhatTheF where he tweets about cars and other things “dudebros” are talking about.

Some photos in this article are freely sourced from Google. If you take issue with the usage of any image, please contact us and we will remove it.

Apr 042012

When it comes to cars, Americans love their tradition. Ours are some of the oldest carmakers in the world, with the rich histories of OldsmobilePontiacPlymouthAMCEagle and Mercury adding to the culture of their parent companies.


Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a little; maybe we have killed off more car history in the last 25 years than we have created. The fact remains, though, that America is the source of some of the greatest continuing nameplates in automotive history – the Mustang and Camaro, the Chrysler 300 line, the Corvette, the Charger and Challenger; the list goes on for quite a while.

But it’s not just the American companies that have long-lived, historic nameplates. The Honda Civic has been around the U.S. market for 40 years (it was introduced in ’72 as a ’73 model). The Toyota Corolla, introduced in 1968, is even older. It is a similar story with regards to their larger siblings, the Accord and Camry. These cars have been with us for so long that the names, and the cars themselves, it seems, have become beloved.

Or have they?

Last year, Toyota put out a press release detailing its upcoming 2012 Corolla. Included with the usual self-congratulatory descriptions of the car’s features was the following line: “The Corolla’s design, created with input from styling studios in Turin, Italy, strikes a sporty profile.”

Predictably, that quote was greeted with something bordering on raucous guffaws by the automotive world. The folks at Jalopnik had a particularly tongue-in-cheek reaction that I found thoroughly amusing. All joking aside, though, this does raise an interesting question from a communication perspective: if these cars have come to a point where their makers are reaching this deep to make them appear to be something that they clearly are not, simply to make them interesting, might it be time for a reboot?

2012 and 1973 Civics

Let’s take a moment and reflect on what these cars were and what they have become. The 2012 Honda Civic is roughly the same size as a Honda Accord sold 20 years ago, and more than 10 inches longer and 600 lbs. heavier than a similar Civic of 1988 vintage. Those disparities only grow the farther back we go. Similarly, the Corolla has grown in size and weight to match the Camry of 20-odd years ago – some 600 lbs. heavier and 7 inches longer than the “same” Corolla was in ’88.

So these are pretty clearly not the same cars that they were even two decades ago, let alone at their introduction. Why, then, do their makers continue to cling to the same old maddeningly incremental updates to the same old cars with the same old names? Why do they try to paint them as something they are not in order to make them look interesting?

Year after year the Civic, Corolla, Camry and Accord are all top-10 sellers in the American market. Is it the name that carries the weight? If so, why would automakers like Toyota feel the need to try to paint that name in an unreasonably flattering light?

Honestly, I think that Honda and Toyota don’t really know what they want cars like these to be anymore. In an effort to be everything to everyone, they have become, boring, soulless hulks, lacking the personality that once made their namesakes so interesting and attractive to car buyers.

I think it’s time to reconsider continuing model lines like these; time to toss out the old and tired and see where some new blood and new ideas lead you.

What do you think?