When Hot Rod entered the stage, the fandom was kind of divided in their response. It was 1986, and the animated spectacle Transformers: The Movie went up in theaters. One of the shocking revelations here was that our beloved Optimus Prime actually died in the movie, causing 10-year olds across the world a collective trauma. While Prime passed the torch of leadership to Ultra Magnus (see below), the one who would eventually end up with Autobot leadership was Hot Rod, transforming him into the larger, more powerful Rodimus Prime in the process. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Optimus Prime plus Hot Rod equals…
Well, here´s my first problem. Even as a child, I sensed that the name “RodIMUS PRIME” somehow tried to invite us children to accept this new guy as our new favorite in Optimus´s place. My dad had told me the meaning of Optimus Prime´s name, so the new guy´s name just seemed silly. I knew what a hot rod car was so it seemed to me that “Rodimus” was simply a pun on “Optimus”, using a car name, and Optimus wasn´t called “Truckimus Prime”, was he? So how could this guy, with such a lousy imitation, not to say parody, for a name be the new leader of the Autobots? I didn´t buy it…
Above: Hot Rod´s original G1 toy, an if “car feature-less”, still admittedly pretty handsome bot
My second gripe was with the character design and the toy itself. One of the aspects I loved the most about Transformers was that they disguised themselves as human-built vehicles, and that elements of these vehicles were visible in their robot modes; Optimus´s iconic windshield chest, Prowl´s Datsun grill chest and car door wings, the F-15 jet intakes on Starscream´s shoulders, his cockpit chest… This was sorely missing with Hot Rod. First, I didn´t know what his car mode was supposed to look like, but it didn´t seem like an actual, real-life car. Second, very little of the car´s “anatomy” seemed to be visible in his robot mode. Sure, he had some exhaust pipes on his arms, and his spoiler seemed to resemble some kind of Dracula-esque collar, but these were details on an overall featureless body, which in my eyes just might be a regular person in some kind of suit or armor.
Above left: The Original Rodimus Prime toy. Right: The high-forheaded, baggy-eyed old man Rodimus was never up my alley
Further, Rodimus got two toys, one for his original incarnation, “Hot Rod”, and one for his transformed, new self, “Rodimus Prime”. While the first one somehow looked good on its premises (which I wasn´t too fond of), the second one was a real disappointment. First, its car mode looked like the original fake-car rebuilt into a motorhome. The “trailer” part of the car was detached during transformation and turned into some kind of battle station for Rodimus Prime himself, another shameless reference to his superior predecessor. Second, I hated the face sculpt of the toy, it looked like Rodimus was constantly peering, with big bags under his eyes, and his body was as human-like as ever.
Above: Floro Dery´s concept art for Hot Rod and Rodimus Prime for the 1986 movie
As for the anthropomorphism, it was apparently a conscious move. Hot Rod, like the rest of the new characters in Transformers the Movie, was designed by Floro Dery, the Filipino artist who earlier refined and provided character models for the Transformers cartoon TV-series. Possibly in a move to make Transformers even more identifiable, he chose (/got instructed?) to make the new characters more anthropogenic than before, to the degree that they might (in my opinion) fit better into the Masters of the Universe franchise. Dery himself has prided himself on making the Transformers franchise more accessible and lasting through these designs, but to this day I have a hard time getting past the “guy in sci-fi suit” feeling I get from looking at the original Hot Rod.
Above: The admittedly badass Classics Hot Rod and Dome Zero, the concept car his new alt mode is based on
However, my disinterest/dislike of as well as Hot Rod as a toy and character, has somehow been alleviated by two developments in later years. First, in 20XX, as part of the “Classics” sub-line, “Rodimus”, a toy that was a neat re-imagination of the original Hot Rod toy, was released. While the car mode was very similar to the original one, it turned out that this time it was actually based on a real life car, the unproduced Dome Zero concept car. Suddenly, Rodimus´s car mode seemed much more legitimate, as well as his anthropomorphic design as a robot, since the relative lack of “car parts” on it was a natural consequence of the car´s own design. Suddenly, Rodimus design was pretty cool…
Above, left: Rodimus as captain of the ship The Lost Light, as seen in IDW Comics. Right: Spikiness taken a tad bit too far?
Second, in later years the publishing company IDW Comics has been a major producer of new Transformers lore. While I will likely spend a whole post on their contributions in the future I can say that it is comic series like “Autocracy” and “More Than Meets the Eye” that finally made Rodimus a complete, fleshed-out character to me. In this incarnation, he both has elements of the original impulsive Hot Rod who often go out of his depth, and the older, wiser Rodimus Prime. He was even given a quite tragic backstory that makes his narcissistic and seemingly reckless features a bit more forgivable, and even likable. Today, I think he is a nice complement to, rather than lacking replacement for, Optimus Prime, and their interaction with each other is especially interesting. Once being a cheap substitute for the great Optimus in my eyes, I today consider Rodimus a natural, enjoyable and even indispensable part of the vast, rich Transformers universe. Sometimes, first impressions don´t last!
Upon closer examination, he is indeed pretty cool…
Thanks to TFWiki for the pictures!