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Spevco Produces Trailers That Mushroom into Magic

Since last September, Bank of America's Down Under Tour 2000 has been traversing the nation's roads. It started in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It will finish in Los Angeles on Sept 17 - more than a year later.

Two Kenworth T2000s pull what appear to be two 53-ft electronics vans painted with a black base and Australian Aboriginal drawings in subtle tones of brown, rust, tan, and green. Just about everywhere they go, intrigued people come up to the drivers and ask, "Exactly what is it you're hauling?"

"They go down the road as mild-mannered tractor trailers," says Craig Tharpe, vice-president of production and engineering for Spevco Inc, "and then, on site, they deploy into a rather large exhibit."

That would be putting it mildly. Because four hours after the drivers reach their destination, one of the trailers is turned into a 57-ft tower with a 30' by 45' theater that seats 90 people and is equipped with air-conditioning and surround sound. And in less than a day, 158,000 lb of equipment is turned into a mesmerizing Australian experience featuring a replica of the Sydney Opera House, a climbing wall that simulates Ayers Rock, an Aboriginal art exhibit, a retail store, and a sports pavilion that serve as a tribute to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

The world is going to Australia for the Games. Spevco Inc is bringing Australia to America.

Raves from Debut The trailer design was the brainchild of Tharpe and a team of engineers at Spevco, an innovative company based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that has become one of the leaders in producing mammoth versions of the toys and the cartoon, "Transformers," that have captivated children.

This isn't the biggest or most technologically impressive project designed by Spevco (Special Events Vehicles and Creative Operations). It produced the Winston Thunder Theater (which, at 25' by 50', is described by Spevco as the world's largest mobile theater) to make 32 yearly stops on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit. It also produced a 25th-anniversary replica of Disney's centerpiece castle. But it is the most ambitious project in the sense that in addition to designing the trailers,

Spevco also installed all the audio-video links and has been transporting the exhibit all over the country.

Ever since the exhibit debuted on "The Today Show" from New York's Rockefeller Plaza, people have marveled at the mechanical design that allows a few trailers to become a mini-theme park and multi-sensory experience.

Spevco based the trailer on a 53-ft platform, over which a floorless van is raised and lowered much like a dump body. The van shell is made of a frame of square and rectangular tubing to which the aluminum skin is bonded. The bonded skin provides a smooth surface while providing the strength needed.

The van shell hides the mechanical parts of the exhibit during the travel mode. Once the trailers arrive at the site, a 20-station hydraulic system of cylinders raises the entire structure to stand on the back of the trailer, creating a 57-ft Olympic flame tower that serves as the center of the exhibit. The sides of the trailer then fold out into a staging area to create a 30' by 45' theater with inclined seating for 90 people.

Tharpe uses Parker hydraulics, with a Manapac system that allows stacked modules on the manifold and a 180-degree PSI manifold pressure with a 16gpm pump. An 85-gallon reservoir provides the fluid as the tower and stage extensions are raised.

An Evolving Company On the second trailer, two double-folded panels (10' by 40') are hydraulically articulated to form a horizontal platform that is 28' by 40'. Their extensions fold out again to form a 37' by 40' platform that serves as the base for the Opera House, which is a double-walled inflatable with inner-liner baffling that will allow it to withstand a 30-mph wind.

How it all uncoils and then folds up without becoming a tangled mess is perhaps something only Tharpe and his engineers truly understand. But he downplays the technology. He says his biggest challenge was precisely duplicating the Aboriginal artwork without misrepresenting it or violating the sanctity of the indigenous culture.

Spevco was founded by Marty Tharpe, Craig's brother, in the early 1970s as an auto body shop and custom car-painting business. Marty Tharpe started restoring vintage cars and building replicas and then was hired by RJ Reynolds to work on a custom-painted trailer. It gradually evolved into event marketing, which has taken off in recent years as companies have seized upon the idea that "total-experience marketing" could be taken directly to consumers. Spevco now has a fleet of about 25 trucks traveling the nation at any one time and has worked with some of the nation's most prestigious names, including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, General Motors, Sony, Burger King, Audi, and Canon.

Since 1993, the company has doubled its work force (to 100 employees) and its revenues (to $16 million).

More To Come This is Spevco's fourth project with a trailer shell that stands up and transforms into something much larger and more sophisticated. The company will unveil four more in 2000, including a trailer for Sara Lee in support of its "Just My Size" product line and another for US Tobacco.

"It's our own little design, and it works," says Joe Patrick, manager of Spevco's on-road operations. "We're pretty proud of what we do."

Says Tim Flavin, director of sales and marketing: "There are other people that do mobile marketing, but what we do is transform vehicles. That's our forte. Craig and his crew really do work miracles with it."

Flavin says this project was "very accelerated" to meet the needs of Bank of America, an Olympic sponsor - a one-year tour that would end three days after the Opening Ceremonies in Sydney. Only nine months after they started the design - with 60 employees working 13,000 man-hours -they had the trailers finished and ready to tour.

Getting the Aussie Spirit One of the highlights of the exhibit is a multi-sensory stimulator that gives visitors the visual, audio, and kinetic experience of an Outback airplane ride, followed by a parachute into white-water rapids and a wrestling match with a crocodile. Just to make the whole thing more authentic, native Australians serve as ambassadors who greet visitors and guide them through the experience. They do everything but fire up a grill and toss a shrimp on the barbie.

The project has piqued the curiosity of Tharpe. He has always wanted to visit Australia. Now he really wants to. "I'm ready," he says. "I think it's real intriguing."

While the exhibit has been a success, reaching as many as 15,000 people per stop, Spevco's staff sometimes wonders if the Kenworth T2000s aren't just as much of a hit.

"Makes us jealous," Flavin says. "We've spent months and months building these trailers, and then when we get the executives onsite, all they want to do is climb up in the T2000 and see what that looks like. That is really true. They are very attractive and very reliable and they fit very well with the image we try to portray." o'

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