The Making of Tow-Mater
When Pixar Animation wanted to get some actual vehicles made, based on the cartoon cars in its new hit movie Cars, the studio turned to Eddie Paul. Eddie’s first film cars were the 36 hot rods that he built – in two weeks – for the movie Grease. Pixar wanted just three vehicles built to use at the Cars premiere and on a road trip to promote the film.
Mater the tow truck (a.k.a., Tow Mater) was the “bait.” Pixar knew that Eddie badly wanted to build the lovable hillbilly hauler. The studio said he could have the job if he first built race car Lightning McQueen (which Eddie made from a Trans Am) and female lead Sally Carrera (which Eddie made by shortening the wheelbase of a real Porsche).
Eddie got the cars done on schedule and the tow truck project started. Pixar sent images of the animated tow truck, which Eddie scaled up to full size. He then found a big-block ’77 Chevy dually pickup with automatic transmission went to work. The frame was shortened by two feet to give the truck the right proportions. The rear end had to be narrowed by about a foot. Also, a few of the rear spring leaves were removed to achieve a softer ride.
Duplicating the mouth of the animated Mater was a problem. Eddie finally moved the radiator inside the cab. This allowed room for Mater’s crooked buck teeth. Roll bar tubing was used to carry the water to the radiator in the cab.
A wrecker bed was made from steel, and the truck cab was made from ¼-inch thick ABS plastic using a system that Eddie’s company developed to build cars for the movie Taxi.
The job started by changing the animation files to CNC design data, which was loaded into EPI’s custom router. The machine then carved wooden forms to the exact shapes of the fenders and doors of the movie car.
After 10 hours, Eddie’s designers brought the wooden form to a 4×8-foot vacuum-forming table. They clamped a large sheet of plastic in place and heated it for about 10 minutes until it got soft. Then, the soft sheet of plastic was lowered over the wooden form and the vacuum was turned on to evacuate all the air and pull the panel into shape.
After going through the vacuum-forming process, the part was cut out and attached to the truck using rivets and a special epoxy glue. The seams were filled with body filler and sanded into proper shape.
Vehicles in the Cars movie have “eye-lid” windshields with white “corneas” and colored “irises.” The windshield for Tow Mater was made from clear acrylic and had a vinyl wrap added to the outside by Ape Wraps. This allowed the driver to see out, although people outside the truck could not see in.
Throughout the movie, except in one flashback sequence, Tow Mater looks old and rusty. Eddie Paul had to replicate the truck’s time-worn look. He did this with a special “aging” paint. A few dings and dents were added in precise locations using a torch and hammer. Tow Mater was built in about four or five weeks. The project consumed about 20 sheets of ABS plastic, six sheets of steel and six gallons of SEM paint.
Disney is now offering a podcast on the building of the life-size vehicles. You can download it for free from the Apple iTunes website or you can see it on Eddie’s website at www.epindustries.com.
Customs By Eddie Paul is the automotive division of E.P. Industries Inc., which specializes in fabricating custom cars, rods, trucks, restorations and motorcycles. The company also fabricates motion picture stunt vehicles, show vehicles, props and special effects under extreme deadlines for major Hollywood film and television studios. E.P. Industries has built vehicles for 15 major productions and is currently in pre-production vehicle design phase for a 16th project – the 2007 Fox film Used Guys. Eddie Paul also produces a series of how-to DVDs and videos and has written four how-to books.
John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.