Do you remember why the Transformers were Transformers? The real answer is of course because that was the only way to sell the toys. But, the real-deal in-universe reason the Autobots and the Decepticons transformed into other things was for protection; a kind of camouflage that allowed these alien robots to live on Earth without getting hassled too much. Clever. But there’s a larger question we’ve been thinking about the robots in disguise since 1984: Does Optimus Prime cover more ground running on his robot legs or rolling in truck mode? This is a serious question, folks.
First of all, we need to set some parameters. For the purposes of this, we’re only talking about Optimus Prime from the 1984 Generation 1 Transformers cartoon, and we’re excluding certain elements of even that cartoon for one simple reason: around the time of 1987 animated bonanza known as Transformers: The Movie, it was casually established that all the Transformers — Autobot and Decepticon alike — could just fucking fly in the air whenever they wanted. That’s b.s. logic.
In earlier seasons of the show — prior to the movie — this wasn’t the case. How do I know this? Well, because the Autobots were depicted using jetpacks to fly, while the Decepticons had the corner-market on being able to fly because so many of them turned into planes and helicopters. Initially, the word “Autobot” literally implied robots-who-turn-into-automobiles. In other words, the Arielbots were not part of the OG Transformers line-up, and the ability to use flight on Earth to traverse distances was one huge advantage that the Decepticons had over the Autobots. This is why, in the first season, nearly every conflict in the show had to be within driving distances of Autobot headquarters. Convenient!
Okay. So, we got that out of the way. Onto our big question.
Let’s start with some basics. What do we know about Optimus Prime’s top’s speed when he’s in truck mode? Cursory googling will tell you that a 2008 Mack Truck has a top speed of about 81 miles per hour. That means, I could outrun Optimus Prime right now in my Subaru Forester if I needed to, which, I gotta say, makes me feel like I have the touch a little bit more than old Optimus.
Still, should we assume Optimus in truck mode had the same top cruising speed as an Earth-based semi-truck? I mean, on Cybertron, before the Autobots crashed into Earth, they all transformed into hovercraft looking cars, meaning, Optimus’s truck mode was something the super-computer known as the Ark created for him. Again, the idea behind the Transformers’ non-robot-modes was created so they could be disguised among Earth objects and vehicles. So, even if we assume an Energon-powered Optimus Prime in truck mode could go faster than a diesel-powered “real” Mack Truck, it seems like Optimus would go the speed limit most of the time, simply to avoid getting his cover blown as a truck.
But, what about when he’s standing tall as a red-and-blue version of the Iron Giant? Huh? How fast can Optimus Prime run? And how much distance could he cover with those long robot legs? Most sources agree that Optimus Prime is about 22 feet tall when he is standing up. This makes him slightly taller than Northern Giraffe, which can get up to 20 feet tall. These kinds of giraffes can run about 37 miles-per-hour, and, are considerably less top-heavy than Optimus Prime. Which, kind of makes you think that Optimus would run slower than a giraffe, which, is kind of a bummer?
Then again, comparing Optimus Prime to a giraffe doesn’t seem fair, really, so let’s consider a different giant animal. In the Transformers offshoot Beast Wars, a different version of Optimus — named Optimus Primal — transformed into a robot gorilla. Now we’re getting somewhere, because the best animal comparison for Optimus Prime in robot mode is probably a giant gorilla, like King Kong. In most Kong films, the bad boy monkey of Skull Island is about 25 feet tall; which is why he looks relatively small on the top of the 1,250-foot-tall Empire State Building. So if we use Kong as an animal stand-in for Optimus, the question becomes this: can King Kong run faster than 80 miles-per-hour? Jurassic Park makes you think a T-Rex could run after a jeep doing roughly 60, but in reality, a T-Rex probably only could run about 45 miles-per-hour. At best!
So, could Kong do better than T-Rex? Depends. 2017 Skull Island Kong was pretty speedy, but other versions seem like they’re in the 45 miles-per-hour range, too. So, for the sake of argument, if Optimus Prime weighs about the same as Mack Truck (80,000 pounds) that puts him a little lighter than Kong, who is probably about 120,000 pounds. Either way, if we agree Kong can do about 45 miles-per-hour, it seems like Optimus could maybe do a little better than that considering he has longer legs and weighs slightly less.
Still, unless Optimus Prime is made of super-light metal alloys from Cybertron (which is totally possible, we just don’t know how much those weigh) then it seems like even running at top speed on his 10-foot-tall robot legs, he still would not cross the 50-miles-per-hour line. Meaning, that yes, even doing 60 in truck mode would beat his top running speed.
In Transformers: The Movie, Optimus Prime famously dies and the new leader of the Autobots is Hot Rod, who becomes Rodimus Prime. Hot Rod’s car mode was loosely based on a Lamborghini. And, because Lamborghinis can usually do about 200, it’s very clear that the second leader of the Autobots could easily outrace the first. This doesn’t mean Optimus Prime wasn’t the greatest heroic giant transforming robot of all time (he totally was.) It just means that if he wanted to race you right now, you could easily outrun him in a super-lame car. And the biggest takeaway of this is that every time Prime said “Autobots! Transform and roll-out!” literally all the rest of the Autobots were probably doing like 20 miles an hour just to avoid not making Optimus look bad. I mean, even a VW bug can do 90.
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