Presume, for a minute, you were sent on a mission to Mars. You'd probably want to bring a few items to make your stay more comfortable. Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, Slim-Jims, booze...yeah, lots of booze. Oh, and an indomitable off-road truck, too.
Ridley Scott's Jordan-based approximation of the Red Planet will be seen in The Martian, opening nationwide today. In the film, Matt Damon’s character must do without a great many things—his family, for instance. But NASA did remember to pack a Mars rover in his cache.
When Hollywood needs a truck that looks capable of tackling the rocky Mars-scape, it enlists the help of Balázs Szalay. He owns a team, supported by GM’s Opel division in Szalay’s native Hungary, that runs the Dakar Rally Raid. If you're not familiar with the Dakar, it’s notorious for being one of off-road racing’s most brutal slogs. So Szalay and his guys know how to build to a burly rig.
"The rover is actually great in the desert," he says. "In the movie plot, it gets stuck, so we dug a big hole and made it get stuck. But other than that, it was great and didn't have any problems."
Szalay built two rovers to an authentic NASA design, fine-tuning the suspension and mechanical components to work in the Jordanian desert. Each truck is powered by a 6.8-liter industrial-strength diesel harvester engine, and features independent suspension arms capable of traveling 16 to 18 inches each. A joystick controls drive-by-wire steering.
"It was really challenging to drive it the first time," Szalay says.
The Opel Dakar team may sound like an odd candidate for movie-car builds, Szalay begs to differ. Because production of The Martian was based in Budapest, his team was a convenient—and shrewd—choice for the job.
"We've worked for 20th Century Fox before, making other movies," he says. "We made all the trucks for A Good Day to Die Hard. When directors need live action shots, we can make extreme stuff for off-roading and big jumps."
The two Mars rovers were assembled in Hungary, Szalay says, then packed aboard a rather massive Russian cargo plane and flown to Jordan for filming. It may be a while before a truck like this actually ends up on Mars, but for the time being, this one already has flight time, NASA pedigree and Will Hunting’s fingerprints to its credit.
In Hollywood, you call that a blockbuster.