Rosenbauer Truck 'More Than Meets the Eye'

It's not unusual for Hollywood movies to feature fire trucks. It is, however, unique to have an apparatus with a speaking role starring in a summertime blockbuster.

"Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon” features a crash rescue truck built by Rosenbauer America at its Minnesota factory.

The main character of the film is Sentinel Prime, a Rosenbauer Panther 6x6 Aircraft Rescue Firefighting vehicle (ARFF) in disguise, and an Autobot in its transformed state. Its personality and voice are lent by actor Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek's Spock fame.

Creating Sentinel Prime

For the uninitiated, Transformers is based on a Hasbro toy line of warring alien robots called Autobots (the good guys) and Decepticons (the bad guys). The principal characters of the toys, comics, animation films and now movies, are ordinary looking trucks and vehicles that "transform" in to the weapon-wielding, warring alien beings. They travel among the mere mortals on Earth as unassuming trucks, like 18-wheelers, military tanks and even a Chevy Camaro.

Hollywood producer Michael Bay wanted a new character for his latest Transformers movie and decided Rosenbauer's ARFF had a "tough but sexy appearance," and was sufficiently handsome to pull off a starring role in the Dark of the Moon movie.

At 10 feet wide, 40 feet long and nearly 12 feet tall, the Panther, as Rosenbauer calls him, was certainly beefy enough for the leading role, and is one of biggest Hollywood stars to hit the screen.

Rosenbauer representatives were initially skeptical about the proposal when an assistant from the film company called up Western Regional ARFF Sales Manager Marty Huffman in March 2010.

"Marty was so excited about the opportunity that he agreed to their proposal, which included spending thousands of dollars to repaint the Panther, before he asked me if it was okay," said Steve Reedy, General Manager of Rosenbauer America's ARFF division, based in Wyoming, Minn.

Changes to the Original ARFF

During the initial contacts, movie producers said they had looked at a number of truck manufacturers and liked the Rosenbauer Panther best, but thought the color would never do. Federal regulations require that ARFFs be painted specific colors and in specific patterns, usually bright lime green. They said it would have to be red over black to work for the role they had in mind.

Rosenbauer still wanted to make sure the film company was trustworthy. After all, they were asking for the use of an apparatus with a price tag of at least $800,000 and the time of engineers and company employees - not something to be committed without some assurances.

Reedy said Rosenbauer contacted General Motors, the maker of the Chevy Camaro which "starred" in a previous film as a reference.

Assured that the deal was legitimate and that even the toy maker, Hasbro, was top-shelf to deal with, Rosenbauer decided it was an opportunity not to be passed up.

"We contacted the folks from Bay films and committed our Panther for the role in the movie," Reedy said. "The timing was perfect because we had just finished testing this new Panther. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] requires that new prototype vehicles or major prototype components for existing vehicles be tested prior to release."

Getting the Panther to the right specifications to meet the filmmaker's requirements proved to be a challenge.

Reedy said Rosenbauer representative soon found that working with the production company was "like working with a fire truck purchasing committee." Paint chips were sent back and forth and finally the colors were chosen.

But the paint was not the only change required for Sentinel Prime’s alter ego transformation.

"Bay Films had very specific ideas about how the truck was to look and we got her repainted, changed light colors [from red to blue] and tinted the windows REALLY dark," said Huffman.

Initially unclear whether the character was going to be a good guy or a bad guy, Rosenbauer was pleased to see that Autobot graphics were to be affixed to Sentinel Prime, meaning that he was going to be a good guy. No plot spoilers here.

Sentinel Prime in Action

Once Rosenbauer had completed its transformation, a film stunt driver and an assistant film producer traveled to Minnesota to check out the "star."

"They spent a few hours in the driver's seat and went over the entire vehicle with our service and production team," Reedy said.

With the transformation complete, so to speak, it was time to ship the beast to the first set in Chicago. Bay Films didn't want the "character" revealed in transit, so they did the best they could to conceal the behemoth by strategically covering the logos and other tell-tale signs that it wasn't an ordinary ARFF.

The stunt drivers then learned, first-hand, the maneuverability of the Panther.

"It can be difficult to drive a pickup around Chicago, let alone a truck of this size, but the professional drivers did it and did it well," Reedy said.

Other filming locations were Detroit, Washington, D.C., and around Los Angeles.

Sentinel Prime, in its Autobot mode, appears briefly in the official movie trailer, but that's about the only place one can view the character outside of the movie theater.

Rosenbauer doesn't have license to Sentinel Prime, nor can it distribute the Autobot's image. Official teaser photos have been released, but none of the "transformation" of Rosenbauer's Panther into Sentinel Prime are immediately available.

The Future for Sentinel Prime

In addition to lending the Panther to the film crew and movie, Rosenbauer granted license to its vehicle design and trademark to Hasbro for the toy production. A toy replica of Sentinel Prime hit the stores in May and the toy manufacturer estimates that 300 million of the toys will be sold. Each box prominently displays Rosenbauer and its trademark "R."

"It's a great toy and comes in three different sizes," said Reedy, while acknowledging the Rosenbauer engineering staff consulted with some 10-year-olds to transform the toy from Sentinel Prime to the Panther. "We have heard that the Transformers are huge with collectors in Japan and we anticipate Sentinel Prime will join others as a major collector item," he said.

Rosenbauer retained ownership of the Panther used in the filming and once it was completed, it got the vehicle back. Since the movie's opening on July 1, Rosenbauer has been showing it locally around Minnesota, complete with its authentic battle scrapes and scratches from the film set explosions. It's been in parades and Rosenbauer was planning to have the apparatus on display in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

Its long-term fate isn't clear but with it's a price tag it might be a little expensive to keep as a souvenir.

"It has been a great opportunity and a pleasure for us to work with Bay Films and the Hasbro Toy Company," Reedy said.

"I am very proud of our staff and their ability and desire to build quality firefighting vehicles," Reedy said. "It has been fun for me to watch the involvement and ownership our employees put into every vehicle they manufacture, especially the Sentinel Prime Panther."