In a few years, when those new Star Wars movies come out, I'm looking forward to taking my son. Because I want to hear his conversations with his friends as he tells them he's been to R2-D2s house. In Irvine. Nice place, very clean. Where he lives with another droid, and drives in a cleverly modded Honda Element.

I'll explain. This past weekend, I took Otto to meet one of his big heroes, a famous, hardworking robot known as R2-D2. Of course, this wasn't the "real" R2-D2, noted actor (Star Wars series, and I think he played an early ATM in Annie Hall) but rather a near-perfect duplicate built by a local member of the R2 Builders Club, Victor Franco (no relation to the Spanish dictator).

If you're not familiar with the work the R2 Builders Club do, it's pretty easy to comprehend: they build droids. Inspired by the R-series astromech droids shown in the films, group members have been producing insanely accurate and detailed droids for years. It's no longer even fair to say they're making replicas — many are now building entirely new droids that have never been seen in the films, based on the fictional design properties of the movie droids.


The movies showed four main types of R-series droids: the familiar R2, the clear-domed R3, the coneheaded R4, and the motivator-blowing R5. Other Star Wars materials have pictured and described R6, R7, R8, and R9 types of droids, and members of the group have built examples of every one of these. It's crazy and geeky and impressive in the same ways we in the car geek community are, just a different subject.

That said, there's still a lot of crossover between the R2 building community and the car-loving community: there's the attention to details most people would miss, the love of machinery, and there's even some parts crossover. For example, Victor's R2s use a very automotive-friendly 12V system, and the motor for the head/dome rotation is, of all things, a Saturn windshield-wiper motor.


For some reason, the wiper motors used by Saturns have the ideal torque/power setup to work really well rotating droid heads. The power is transmitted to the dome via a skateboard wheel in a very simple and clever setup. Saturns are getting harder to find in junkyards, so these are becoming pretty valuable in the droid-building community. Plus, Jawas always seem to get to them first.

Victor has built an R2-D2 and an R5-D4 (that can be converted into a second R2, if needed) and both are fully remote-controlled, mobile, light-blinking and noise-making wonders. The droids are full of carefully-machined aluminum parts, complex resin castings, micro controllers, batteries, and beefy wheelchair motors to propel it all.

Victor takes his droids out to children's hospitals, parades, and the occasional (Lucasfilm-approved) commercial, but loading the 150+ lb droid into and out of a car is a tricky proposition, even if it's in a car that actually has room to accommodate it. When Victor started building his R2, he had just bought an Infiniti G35 — only to discover almost immediately that it would be completely inadequate for his droid-transport needs.

He sold the Infiniti, and bought a Honda Element, which, with a few very clever modifications, became an ideal droid-hauler.

First, Victor removed the rear section of floor panel and replaced it with a plywood and pipework unit that both holds the droid's feet in place and provides a support structure for the winch.

The electric winch is a crucial part of the system, allowing Victor to safely lift the R2 into the Element by himself. To power the winch, Victor installed a special jack in the rear of the Element that connected directly to the battery. He had to do it this way instead of using a normal 12V plug because the winch needs the full 30 amps from the battery, and a 12V socket can't support that.

With the winch plugged in, the R2 can be lifted into the car via a purpose-built hook inside the body of the droid. The system works really well, and speaks well to the versatility of the Element, too. Maybe if Honda was more aware of their use as droid transport and offered the winch system from the factory, they'd still be making them today.

The R2 building community and the car-gearhead community are two strangely similar groups, and while there's not a huge amount of overlap, I suspect there maybe should be even more. I think both groups have a lot of interesting things to show one another, and I bet there could be some pretty fantastic combined projects.