Written by: Debbie Earnston
Autobots vs. Decepticons.
The matrix of leadership.
If any of these sound familiar, then you have probably heard about or even watched Transformers on the big screen. Currently the 10th highest-grossing action film series based on the toys created by Hasbro and Tomy, the first five movies were directed by Michael Bay, including Transformers (2007), Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark of the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014), and The Last Knight (2017). (credit Wikipedia)
Fans across the globe have been inspired by the messages and special effects seen in each of the films. And some have taken their inspiration to the next level by purchasing (or even building) full-scale replicas of the now-famous vehicles, such as the popular yellow Bumblebee Camaro.
But this Pennsylvania dad took his love for one of the movie characters to a level no one else has been able to accomplish.
Joe Fiduccia has become the first person in the world to ever replicate a full-scale version of the Optimus Prime® big rig vehicle seen in Transformers: Age of Extinction. And he did it with minimal experience, no trucking backround, and a limited budget.
The Monroe County dad and business owner has always been somewhat of a hobbiest and hands-on kind of guy. After successfully building a replica of K.I.T.T. from the popular 1980’s television show Knight Rider, he began thinking about a new hobby project. But he wanted to step up his game to a level even he wasn’t sure could be accomplished.
“It wasn’t that I was bored, and I wasn’t looking for some kind of notoriety,” Fiduccia tells us. “It’s just that there are thousands of fan-built replicas on the road today from almost every movie and TV show you can think of. I wanted to do something that no one else has done yet.”
Fiduccia says he loves this iconic Transformers character and everything that character represents. So it became his new goal to build an Optimus Prime replica truck.
And simultaneously become the first fan in the world to do so.
Fiduccia and his family made the decision to tackle this endeavor late in 2015.
“I had been talking about it every now and then with my family for months,” says Fiduccia. “But the serious conversations took place at the dinner table late in 2015. Mainly we had to discuss the timeline it would take to build, and also the impact financially. But my wife and son were on ‘cautiously’ on-board.”
With his family’s unofficial go-ahead, Fiduccia’s first task was to obtain legal permission from Hasbro, Inc…the trademark owners of the Optimus Prime brand.
“I wasn’t about to take on an expense like this without their blessing,” he says. “The last thing I want is to have them terminate any further use of the truck after the build was complete.”
“I want to work with them. Not against them.”
So Fiduccia drafted a letter to Hasbo with his attorney, explaining his intended use of the truck. And in December of 2015, he officially obtained their approval!
Next up, because this iteration of Optimus Prime used a truck that was a brand new concept vehicle for Wester Star, Fiduccia was tasked with finding a Western Star dealer willing to spec out and build a new truck for him with the same base design.
“I probably reached out to at least 30 different Western Star dealers across North America,” Fiduccia explains. “I was upfront and honest about my intentions and what I needed. As a result most didn’t even give me the time of day. But I finally found a dealer who was willing to work with me.”
It took Fiduccia almost two full months of planning and negotiations with Western Star to plot out the specifications of the truck on paper.
“All we had were photos and videos of the original Optimus trucks that appeared in the film. We did not receive any detailed prints or measurements from Hasbro.”
“So using what we had, the dealer and I spent a lot of time attempting to get my replica as close to Optimus as possible from the factory, focusing on things like wheel base length, fuel tank size and position, cab sizing and style, and more.”
When the blueprints were finished and truck was getting assembled at the factory, Fiduccia shifted his focus to obtaining his Class A CDL.
Yes you read right – Fiduccia had absolutely zero experience in the trucking industry.
“A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I’m not a trucker by trade,” Fiduccia says.
Scheduling private lessons at the one school who was willing to give them, Fiduccia went through the same training and testing that any other Class A driver must complete. And after learning everything he needed to be safe on the road, he obtained his CDL. Which he claims was one of the most difficult things he has ever done.
“I definitely have a new respect for truckers and the complexities of what they deal with on a daily basis.”
With his CDL in hand, Fiduccia picked up his brand new 2017 Western Star 5700XE from the dealer in April of 2016. And for the first time, he was finally in the driver’s seat of what would soon become the world’s only fan-built replica of Optimus Prime.
From the beginning, Fiduccia realized his capabilities in taking on a build as complex as Optimus Prime were limited. And that in order to pull something like this off he needed help from the professionals.
So long before he obtained permission from Hasbro, Fiduccia worked out several deals with individuals who had the experience he needed to do the job. And on the same day he picked up the truck, Fiduccia started contacting the people who promised to help with the build.
That’s when the first real hurdle presented itself.
“I won’t name names, and I won’t bad-mouth anyone,” explains Fiduccia. “All I will say on the subject is that a lot of people made promises they didn’t keep. Looking back I honestly believe they didn’t think I would really go through with this.”
“I had the truck. I fulfilled my end of the bargain. I was ready to begin the build. My family had been preparing for my time away. I showed up at the doorstep ready to move. But instead, I was left with nothing but empty promises, a boatload of excuses, and a $200,000.00 semi. And that put me in a very difficult situation, very quickly.”
Fiduccia immediately entered what he calls ‘survival mode’. He started contacting fabrication and body shops across North America looking for anyone willing to help. Many of them were interested, but the timeline and cost involved was an important factor that most shops wouldn’t negotiate on.
“I knew it would probably be one of the biggest builds most of these shops have ever taken on,” says Fiduccia. “I needed to finish this thing in one summer. And I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap.”
“But I’m also no millionaire. Unlike the corporations who first created Optimus, I don’t have an endless supply of cash, nor do I have thousands of employees at my fingertips who can source the perfect builder. I’m a middle-class dad with a dream and a small bank account. So I had to pick up the phone and just find someone willing to take on this challenge. Someone who also understood the inherent risks involved.”
Fiduccia spent almost a month tracking down anyone who would take his calls. Eventually his efforts paid off, as he finally located a small fabrication shop in New Jersey that agreed to help make his dream a reality.
Though Fiduccia had already done several modifications on his own since he picked up the truck, work “officially” began on converting his Western Star to Optimus Prime late in June 2016.
He brought the truck to a shop in NJ where it stayed for most of the summer. Day and night, and sometimes very early into the next morning, the team worked tirelessly to create a mirror image of the truck seen in Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Again, using nothing but photos and videos of the original trucks they located on the internet.
The first few weeks of the build went relatively smoothly. The rear fenders started taking shape. The running boards were masked out. The roof fairing was off and ready to be cut down.
Things were looking up as work on this Optimus Prime replica was finally underway.
But the build itself wasn’t without its fair share of challenges.
“Tempers flared at the shop on occasion due to the overwhelming magnitude of the build,” explains Fiduccia. “Things started spiraling out of control very quickly, both in the timeline and in costs. Complicating things further were the 3rd party vendors who heard about the build and wanted to be part of it, coming in with their offers.”
“They pitched a good sale. However most of them fell way short of our expectations, causing nothing but another hit to my wallet along with more headaches and issues.”
But Fiduccia did his best to be proactive and to keep the progress moving in a forward direction.
Realizing the limitations that started to arise with the core team of builders, he resumed his search for more help.
Fiduccia was successful in finding a highly-skilled craftsman who molded and CNC-cut the alumimum emblems and various body components such as the hood vents and the running board exhaust tips. He also found a company in Pennsylvania who built the six stacks from the ground up, and took care of chroming all of the custom parts.
All-told more than 25 people, not including the individuals or companies who failed to deliver, were involved in bringing this creation to life.
Fiduccia exclaims “I can’t even begin to tell you how many man hours went into this thing. The stacks alone had over 450 hours among 10 people. But no matter what was going on or where, I wanted to be part of the build. So the entire time I was right there to help.”
“I would work tirelessly for 12-18 hour days most of the summer, sometimes 30 hours straight. Because I would never ask anyone to bust their ass for a job, paid or not, if I wasn’t willing to put in that same effort.”
By the end of September 2016, his fan-built replica was finally road worthy. Fiduccia and his team still had a lot of work to do, but his semi was at the point where fans would instantly recognize it as Optimus Prime. So Fiduccia began a tour with his truck across parts of North America and Canada over the next several months.
But his first stop was home – where he would finally show his wife and son the fruits of his labor.
“They really hadn’t seen the truck since I took it to the shop back in June. They saw pictures, but not the real thing. So I wanted them to be the first ones I unveiled it to. Plus I couldn’t go anywhere until my son had a ride to school in Optimus Prime.”
Since getting his now-completed replica back home, Fiduccia has made stops at several comic conventions, indoor car and truck shows, and even a children’s hospital. Fans who see the truck are given an opportunity to get up close and even sit inside for photos while talking with like-minded Transformers fans.
What’s even better is that he takes the time to make personal visits to children’s homes along the way to various destinations. Something the two original trucks used in the filming don’t typically do.
“I consider this a replica truck that was built by a fan, and built for the fans. It gives me great joy to bring Optimus into the driveway of a young boy’s home. To be able to put him the driver’s seat for photos. To pick him up from school and make him an instant celebrity for a day. To give him the confidence and inspiration he might need to pursue his own dreams.”
“It’s enough to get me all emotional. And I am not typically an emotional person,” boasts Fiduccia.
Throughout his travels, Fiduccia has met thousands of Transformers lovers. Some are fans of the truck, and some are not. But he says for the most part, people still respect and appreciate what he has done and the good things he now does for families with his replica.
Fiduccia also mentioned the three most common questions people ask:
1. “Does the truck transform?”
2. “How much did it cost?”
3. “Why did I build it?”
And his answers are always the same:
1. “Optimus is a robot in disguise. He’s not supposed to transform.”
2. “A life savings and a second mortgage.”
3. “To inspire my son to never give up on a dream, and to never be afraid to try…even at the risk of failure.”
Fiduccia now travels with his replica truck whenever he can, sometimes with his family, in an effort to continue bringing the fans an experience like no other. He says it’s still only about 85% done, and has been bearing the brunt of the huge financial burden on his own. He has also experienced several problems with some of the fabrication work that he continues to deal with and repair as needed, and as time & money allow.
Despite any troubles he faces though, Fiduccia remains determined to keep Optimus on the road for the fans…and for his son. But he has also come to realize the immense costs associated with owning and maintaining a rig of this size. And with his family at the point where they are now living month to month, he is unclear as to how much longer he will be able to keep Optimus on the road.
“Whenever we make stops or personal visits, we do ask fans for a minimum donation to help keep us going. And we really appreciate the support everyone has shown us from the beginning of our journey. I feel like I am slowly building a tribe that has banded together for the common good.”
At last check, Fiduccia had been working hard trying to obtain sponsorship from Hasbro to aid in these trips, and to help generate even more buzz for the newest 2017 film Transformers: The Last Knight.
But at the time this article was written, Fiduccia had not received any praise, accreditation, or even a ‘job well done’ letter from Hasbro, Paramount, or film director Michael Bay. He did however get a chance to speak with the original Optimus Prime builders and the Optimus stunt driver for all five films. He also placed his truck side-by-side with one of the two original trucks in May 2017. You can see that video below.
“That was cool they took the time to chat with me. I feel like the more I get out there, the more connections I’ll make. And hopefully one of them will lead directly to the sponsorship help I need.”
But Fiduccia says that no matter what happens, he is proud of his accomplishment and hopes it has a meaningful impact on his son’s life.
“In the end, I did this for my son,” explains Fiduccia. “I did this to show him that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. So if that means I have to be in debt the rest of my life in order to inspire him to pursue his own dreams, then so be it.”
We encourage you to follow the Fiduccia’s and their continued journey with the world’s first and only fan-built replica of Optimus Prime online. You can discover more about their journey and even request them for an appearance at your next show by visiting their website – www.OptimusIsHere.com.
On their YouTube channel specifically, Fiduccia has also documented their journey and the original build with dozens of videos for the fans to enjoy.