"God, that looks terrible," Mike McCubbin said when saw his first Transformer up close. Mike and his sons had ordered two of the giant autobots -- Optimus Prime and Bumblebee -- from a company in Thailand. They planned to stand one in front of each of their two body shops in Stillwater.
"I didn't like the kneecaps; they were ugly. I didn't like the doors; they were really cheesy -- they looked like they'd been run over by a semi," Mike remembered. "And the wheels on the back were nasty [not in a good way]. And the fenders were crappy, too."
Six months earlier, Mike had seen a similar Transformer outside a museum in Missouri. He was fascinated, not because the Transformer was cool (he'd never seen a Transformers movie) but because it was made of the same kinds of parts that he used in his body shop. Mike took some snapshots, and his sons suggested that he might want to build a Transformer himself. Mike decided that he didn't have the time, and instead ordered two from the same company that built the one in Missouri.
And he was disappointed. "I went back and looked at my pictures," Mike said, "and the ones I got from Thailand did look about the same. But, boy, there was a lot back then that I didn't notice."
Mike found himself with two gigantic Transformers that did not meet his body shop standards. So he went to work. For nine months he labored in a secret location -- grinding, welding, sandblasting -- while his sons ran the body shops. He took the Transformers apart and added internal bracing and beams. He ripped out substandard parts and fabricated new ones. He rebuilt legs, torsos, faces. At first he wanted to smooth out all the dents -- "I'm all about putting things in straight," he said -- but soon realized that battle-hardened autobots might have a few wrinkles. So he deliberately left some in.
Mike borrowed a crane to erect the two Transformers on Labor Day Weekend 2015. He was nervous. He had given some business associates a sneak preview of his autobots, and they weren't impressed. "They just didn't get it," Mike said. "They said, 'What does this have to do with your business?' And I said, 'Man, it's just neat!'"
Turns out, Mike didn't have to worry. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee were instant hits with the public. "We were stopping traffic," Mike recalled. "And all the critics came back around." Mike and his body shops were given an award by their local Chamber of Commerce, and Optimus Prime traveled as an honored guest to Oklahoma City's GEEKINOMICON in 2016.
As a tour guide, Mike remains refreshingly nuts-and-bolts. He doesn't care about the cultural significance of giant shape-shifting cartoon robots; he just wants to point out their transmission gears and oil pans. And he knows now that he could build a Transformer by himself if he wanted to, although his professional autobot standards would probably price him out of the market.
"I kinda miss working on them now," Mike said. "But when I got them up I honestly didn't want to see another robot in my whole life."