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Reinventing the Wheel

MetroMedia Technologies develops mechanized billboard for Ford Motor Company.

They don’t call Detroit “Motor City” for nothing. Cars have been an integral part of the city’s culture since the first Model-T rolled off the assembly line more than a century ago. So when it came time for the city’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise, the world’s largest, one-day celebration of classic car culture, in August of last year, Ford Motor Company wanted to make a splash with its hallmark sports car, the Mustang.

Ford, via its advertising agency, Team Detroit, contracted with MetroMedia Technologies (MMT, mmt.com) in Chicago to create a one-of-a-kind, mechanized billboard featuring a Mustang with a spinning and smoking tire.

“They said, ‘We want it to do a burn out, we want it to start spinning and to start smoking and then shut down—wait a few minutes and then do it again so that it really attracts peoples’ attention,’” explains Ray Redmond, director of advertising and commercial sales for MMT.

The result—a 672-square-foot “Ford Mustang: Unleashed” billboard—was impressive, seemingly coming to life every three minutes, as the rear wheel began spinning, and smoke poured out from beneath the back.

“It’s almost like watching Big Ben going off,” says Redmond. “People would start to talk, you’d have a buzz—it was kind of viral sort of buzz, with people asking their friends, ‘Hey! did you see that Mustang billboard spinning?”

With only three weeks from design to installation, turnaround time for the project was a challenge for MMT.

“For this project, planning was huge,” says Redmond. “We had to get CBS Outdoor involved, our prop guy had to go out and do site surveys and get up on the board and do all the measurements. We had to have meetings with the agency and their creatives. Schematics and drawings were done that showed the actual billboard with the framing behind it to show where the mount for this motor and this fogger was going to go.”

Like any standard billboard job, the Mustang project began with a simple, two-dimensional graphic, in this case, an image of the car. Team Detroit’s designer provided MMT with Adobe CS2 files, which were output on flex vinyl using the company’s proprietary, drum-technology printer and “an automotive grade acrylic paint so it has a very wide color gamut, it’s also very durable and very long-lasting.”

In addition to the base billboard, “We also had to print out an extra piece of vinyl for the actual wheel itself,”says Redmond. “The same vinyl was used again, printed on a separate piece of vinyl that ended up getting applied to the disk that would spin.” CBS Outdoor installed the flat image
and, from there, the project took on a whole new level of complexity.

“When it came to installing the motor, the wheel that spun, the fogger, and all the machinery that went with that—we managed all that,” says Redmond. “The motor, smoke machine, and control box were all behind the billboard, so we had to know, even before the base vinyl went up, where the stanchions go, where’s all the framing on the billboard, etc. The motor couldn’t just mount to the back of the board, so we had to create a two-inch tubular frame that the motor was going to mount to, and then mount that to the steel frame of the billboard.”

The location of the hole where the wheel’s spindle came through to the back of the billboard had to be in an open area in order to avoid the motor and all the other mechanical pieces.

“We had to work with the agency when they were designing and laying this thing out to say, ‘Okay, the center point has to be x amount of feet up from the bottom of the board and x amount of feet over from the right, and it has to be dead nuts right there. So when they blow up the image, that’s where it needs to sit. All of that had to be planned ahead of time.”

Getting all the mechanical timing worked out was a challenge as well. The motor to power the wheel needed to be big enough to start the wheel and keep it spinning, and a brake had to be incorporated to stop the wheel after every one-minute interval in action. And the fogger, which added the illusion of a smoking tire, had to produce a believable quantity and density of smoke. Part of the challenge included being sure there was enough fogger material to last from mid-day Thursday through Sunday evening.

Ultimately, a 55-gallon drum of fogger material was mounted to the back of the board. “Not only did you have the framing that housed the motor and the fogger machine [behind the billboard], but you also had the tubes going from the fogger machine to this giant 55-gallon drum,” says Redmond.

Even the positioning of the car on the graphic had to be calculated up front. “We had to know which way the prevalent winds blow, because we needed the smoke to blow from the rear wheel out the back. If you look at the board, you can see that the front end of the car is on the left side of the board and the rear wind was on the right side of the board and that’s because the winds were coming from the west.”

The design of the moving wheel also had to be precise: “The wheel itself had to be on a disk that was a very thin carbonate, which mounted to an aluminum piece,” says Redmond. “When it spun, we didn’t want it to wobble and warble, and we didn’t want it to look like a pizza.”

The design team solved this dilemma by positioning the wheel close enough to the board to prevent it from shaking. “There was a flange that we had to mount right where the spindles were so that, as it spun, it didn’t lift the vinyl off the board or tear the vinyl in any way,” he says.

A lot of work went into the job, which was only on display for a long weekend. “The controller box that controlled all that has been used since for a variety of projects, but, for the most part, it was a one time gig,” says Redmond. “But we were able to take away with us the learning of how to make something like this work.”

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