See how a little-known vehicle from The Empire Strikes Back came to life...and found a home in the world's biggest Star Wars collection.
Blink and you’ll miss it on screen in The Empire Strikes Back! On a list of the 200 top vehicles in the Star Wars saga, it wouldn’t make last place. I’m embarrassed that there’s not even an entry for it in the 1.1 million word Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia, which I co-wrote. And yet now it’s sitting, in all its amazing full-size glory, in the carport at Rancho Obi-Wan.
The “it” goes by several names: Rebel Personnel Transport, Flight Crew Shuttle, or as the three incredible (and just a bit crazy) guys who built it call it, the Rebel Troop Carrier. You may have seen it on display, or even sat in it, in the R2 Builders Club room at Star Wars Celebration V in Orlando, Florida in 2010. This is its story.
R2 builders Daren Murrer and Cole Horton, both of whom lived in the Cincinnati, Ohio area, knew that the Builders Club was planning a Hoth motif for Celebration V, the 30th anniversary of Empire. “Daren and I were looking for a prop to build for the Echo Base-theme of the Droid room,” Cole says. “After watching Empire looking for ideas, I finally noticed a vehicle that had been hiding in plain sight: the Rebel troop carrier.”
Conceding that the carrier is one of the most obscure vehicles in Star Wars, Cole adds, “Many fans are surprised to learn that it makes multiple appearances around Echo Base in Empire, can been seen briefly in the Home One hangar in Return of the Jedi, and was even painted onto the box illustration for the Kenner Rebel Command Center Adventure Set. Princess Leia refers to this kind of vehicle with her line, ‘All troop carriers will assemble at the north entrance’ just before the Battle of Hoth. And now it can be seen in the latest incarnation of Star Tours at Disney theme parks, just before boarding the ride.”
Still, some fans might recognize it best because of a widely disseminated Empire publicity photo taken on the set with most of the main characters.
But without really good photos, sketches or blueprints, Daren and Cole knew they were taking on a big challenge -- especially after they decided that the RTC had to actually move under its own power. They enlisted a third friend and R2 builder, artist Chris Reiff, who has worked on numerous Star Wars books.
The first item of business was to pick up a used Taylor-Dunn electric “personnel and burden carrier,” models of which are familiar sights around factories and airports. They are nonpolluting, operating off of six golf-cart batteries. They have a load capacity of about 5,000 pounds, a top speed of around eight MPH and can drive more than 20 miles without a recharge. The carrier itself is 10-feet long, but with the Star Wars modifications, it grew to 12 feet. It’s also 5-feet-wide, 4-feet-tall and weighs about 1,200 pounds, making it the largest single piece in the Rancho collection.
The builders used frame-grabs from Empire, figured out dimensions from those, and developed their own drawings and blueprints. They worked in their spare time for five months, starting by completely refurbishing the basic carrier and outfitting it with a lift system to clear obstacles (and help load and unload it from a carrier).
The Taylor-Dunn was transformed into the RTC using 220 individual pieces of cabinet-grade plywood cut on a computer-controlled router. If necessary, the entire body is removable. There are front, rear and interior lights and a four-speaker stereo system with CD and iPod inputs, ready to play soundtracks from the entire saga.
There’s something else very important to note. There’s no clear windshield, yet the front of the vehicle rises higher than most seated drivers. So there are front and rear-facing driving cameras and two video screens in the cockpit, which, along with the rest of the interior, was designed and dressed by Chris. The dashboard area uses such Star Wars staples as Visible V8 engine model kit parts (just like the “greeblies” that ILM model makers used for the original movies) and actual Vickers Viscount 700 aircraft reading lights, familiar to all R2 builders.
The RTC comfortably holds six people, and led the always much-anticipated grand droid procession at Celebration. And then it went into storage for three years while the guys figured out what they wanted to do with it. When they asked last year if Rancho Obi-Wan might be interested in it as a donation, I was nonplussed -- thrilled at the possibility but unsure if we could handle it. But one of the goals that Rancho general manager Anne Neumann and I always have is to make the museum more interactive, constantly adding and changing things. So we happily said yes.
Then practicalities intruded. How do we get it cross-country? Driving it on the Interstate clearly wouldn’t work. One early quote for trucking it was nearly $3,500. But Daren needed the space back and someone started talking to the guys about buying it. They much preferred to have it here so that fans from around the world could enjoy their handiwork and get a bit more immersed in the saga. Finally, they figured out a much less expensive way to get it delivered and Cole topped that by offering to donate the shipping fee.
The guys delivering it arrived at dusk. Darren had briefed them just enough to know how to power up the RTC to unload and move it into a temporary parking space. Texas Annie, being far braver than I, offered to take it for a spin and park it under the carport. That’s when we realized that we didn’t know how to operate the cameras and video screens. With three of us directing, however, she did a perfect job.
Our next step is to build a permanent shed for it next to the carport, follow Darren’s copious instructions on how to operate it (or convince him and Cole to visit us for some hands-on training!), and then hopefully use it on our Rancho pre-tour, where Anne shows the property and our chickens, and talks about Petaluma’s agricultural heritage. That’s going to be one heckuva ride!
Steve Sansweet, head of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm for 15 years and now fan relations adviser, is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and https://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan.