MythBusters Recap: Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman Transform Transportation

by Alan Eggleston / February 8, 2015

This week on MythBusters, we left the world of special episodes – The Simpsons, Indiana Jones, the A-Team, and Video Games – and re-entered a world with which we are more familiar: busting everyday myths.

First up was the myth of the Frenchman stranded in the Moroccan desert in a lowly French Citroen 2CV automobile. His plight was dire: to use the paltry tools in the car to covert it into a motorcycle or sit it out in the desert.  He chose the former, supposedly successfully returning to civilization.

Their second myth was from newspaper photos showing a couple in the Far East who had converted bicycles into amphibious bikes using aluminum paddles and plastic drinking-water jugs to allow commuters to conveniently travel on land or on water without fuss or muss.

And so this week’s adventure began: MythBusters “Transformers” – No, not that Transformers.

The Citroen Transformation

Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman begin their mythbusting journey 6,000 miles away from where the original story is supposed to have taken place, test driving a similar 1967 Citroen 2CV through a cone-lined obstacle course at the Alameda Runway to verify the old car’s capabilities. Its top speed is 41 mph – in a drag race, it could do a half mile in 59 seconds, according to the show graphics.

The Citroen is a boxy but curvy vehicle looking something similar to a classic VW Beetle, but less winsome. Cute? If a dung beetle on wheels can be cute.

Adam explains that originally imagined by Frenchman Pierre Boulanger in 1935, the Citroen 2CV went into production in 1948 and between then and 1990 over 3.2 million were built. Its 425 cc engine putt-putts at only 12 horse power. (You might like to read a little history behind the 2CV – 2CV literally translates to “two horses”.)

Their test shows that the Citroen runs and is steerable and is suitable as a vehicle for their myth, so Adam and Jamie drive it out to a dry, hot, lonely place to replicate the experience. They look under the hood to see what kind of engine it has (not much to see here) and inspect it for disassembling it as the original driver would have had to do (still not much to see here).

With only the tools in the car – a hacksaw, some screwdrivers and C wrenches, bailing wire and duct tape – they begin.

Then they discover there isn’t much to taking the car apart. The engine hood slides off. So do the doors. The seats pull out easily, and the body lifts off as easily a shoebox cover. In just one hour, the car is down to the frame with the engine and steering wheel, gear shift and pedals. Other than unbolting the bumpers, they hardly touch a tool for the disassembly.

But will the conversion to a motorcycle be as easy? That’s the real test.

Jamie looks over the engine and the wheels, and discussing it with Adam, they agree that for simplicity they will leave the engine in place and moving the wheels to the center of the frame.

Here is where the show’s new graphics package really helps you to understand the science behind their builds. They show you that the front-mounted 250 pound engine, which is meant to drive two wheels side-by-side with a stable center of gravity, will make the conversion unwieldy to balance over the center of gravity with single wheels front and back.

Their plan of attack is to remove two wheels entirely (refitting one on the frame as a seat) and reattach one each front and back over the frame’s center line, with the back wheel underneath the motor’s output shaft, so when the output shaft spins it will turn the wheel. The only problem is, that means the wheel will turn in the reverse of its normal direction – and that means they need to drive the motorcycle in the opposite direction – the car’s front becomes the motorcycle’s back.

After three hours of cutting with a hacksaw and binding with bailing wire and duct tape, their Mad Max motorcycle takes shape. Adam gleefully points out that the groove in the back tire lines up perfectly with a spindle on the output shaft. Nice going, Adam.

With floppy clutches and dangly gear shifts and bailing-wire throttles, the makeshift motorcycle becomes a two-man operation, not exactly matching the original story. Remember, in the original myth, the Frenchman was alone. In this case, one person has to sit in front to steer and adjust the throttle (crimping a wire speeds up the engine, straightening that wire slows it down) and the other has to sit in reverse, facing the engine, controlling the clutch, gears, and brakes.

In the original myth the Frenchman created a tiller for steering, but Jamie thinks that might be difficult to use, so he refits the motorcycle with the Citroen steering wheel. It turns better right than left, but they haven’t even started the engine, let alone steered the bike in motion.

The first test is firing up the engine, and after a couple of turns, it starts right up. Then comes an actual drive.

Before a run with both Adam and Jamie sitting on the motorcycle, back-to-back, they decide to do a test run with Jamie sitting on the bike and Adam running along the side.

Run 1: The pace is slow and the ride is unbalanced. To keep some balance, Jamie has to ride side saddle, and he goes 30 feet.

Run 2: Jamie is in a little better control, but barely. Running alongside, Adam helps support the motorcycle from falling over, but with the motor on the back and Jamie riding side-saddle instead of along the center line, the balance is still off. It’s impossible to ride.

“It’s frustrating, because it’s so beautiful,” says Jamie. “This is the most beautiful thing we have ever built,” agrees Adam. But Adam also agrees, this is not the vehicle you would want to take you from deep in the middle of nowhere back to civilization. They badly need a Plan B.

The Citroen Transformation – Plan B

The Plan B turns out to involve consulting photos of the original converted motorcycle they’ve had in their possession all along but chose to ignore because they had heard the photos were fake. Because their own version failed, they will now try to replicate what they see in these photos.

Modifications for Plan B include replacing the steering wheel with a tiller (a steering mechanism not unlike you might find on a Radio Flyer Wagon) and lifting and reversing the engine, moving it mid-frame. This improves steering, plus moving the engine improves the motorcycle’s center of gravity, making it easier to balance. (In case you wonder what a Radio Flyer Wagon is, see some here.)

Since the MythBusters have already proven that they can convert a car to a motorcycle using basic tools from the car, this time they will use power tools to save time. And they no longer need to build out in the desert. They recut and reconfigure the motorcycle as planned at M5 (the MythBusters workshop).

Immediately, changing from a steering wheel to a tiller makes a dramatic difference in steering. “Oh my God, yeah!” says Jamie. “It’s significant.”

Out at the Alameda Runway again, it’s time to test the rest of the improvements.

Sitting over the center of the frame now, Jamie drives and Adam runs alongside. It’s an unstable start, but Jamie does drive 100 feet before tipping over, twice his previous best. Because they have reversed the direction of the engine in the rebuild, it means that they have reversed the direction of the output shaft and thus in which gear they can run the motorcycle: reverse. As a consequence, the motorcycle has limited speed, which isn’t enough thrust to balance the bike.

Adam takes his turn riding the bike. He rides for 150 feet before toppling over. He manages to jump off before it falls over and he realizes, if not for jumping off he probably would be caught under the weight of the motorcycle – not a good result.

At full throttle on the engine, the motorcycle manages to run at jogging speed at best, not enough to keep the bike upright and, therefore, it is undrivable.

MythBusters call on the myth: Busted.

The Bicycle Transformation

How do you ride your bike through the busy city shopping district, then cross the pond to the lovely park on the other side, without getting wet? According to photos MythBusters have on hand, you strap 5 gallon water bottles filled with air to your bicycle, convert the back tires to paddlewheels, make them able to go up or down for land or water, and ride wherever you want.

The question for MythBusters is: Is this real or were the pictures Photoshopped?

To test the myth, Adam builds his own based on what he sees in the photos. He converts a bicycle and adds eight jugs.

Back at M5, Adam first removes the rear of the bicycle frame and welds a wider version back in its place using the same braces he sees in the photos. Cutting paddles from aluminum sheet metal, Adam secures 12 paddles directly to the spokes of the rear wheel. The paddles will work similarly to those on a paddle boat to power the amphibious bike on water.

That was for powering the bike in the water, but Adam also has to keep it afloat.

To achieve that Adam uses 5 gallon drinking water jugs. Those he mounts to the steel frame of the bicycle with pieces of strap steel rolled in a machine called a “roll.”

Once again, the new show graphics come to our aid to explain the science behind the build.

Each 5 gallon air-filled jug has a lift capacity of 40 pounds. Eight jugs should provide 320 pounds of total lift capacity or buoyancy. Theoretically, despite all the added weight from the steel for both the straps and the bottle jug frame, the bike should stay afloat with both the rider and the rig.

Before heading to a real waterway, Adam and Jamie head to the Brisbane Community Pool for their proof-of-concept test.

Admittedly, Adam is at least 50 pounds heavier than the woman depicted in the photos. But dressed in shorts, T-shirt with sport coat, dark socks and tennis shoes, and of course, a fedora, Adam puts his transformed amphibious bike to the test.

Taking the test one step at a time, things begin smoothly. It floats – good. It paddles – great. It steers – even better. It moves ahead swiftly – looking fabulous. All goes well until Adam loses concentration, and then he falls over into the water. Unfortunately, once off the bike Adam finds he can’t remount it.

Analyzing the results, Jamie has some thoughts for improvement. First, it would be nice to use the bike without getting wet – no commuter would want to go riding and then have to change their clothes. Second, the pontoons weren’t very streamlined –  more streamlined pontoons would allow faster travel with less effort. And third, Jamie thought the steering could be improved. It was no Photoshop fake, but the design could definitely be refined.

So off to M5 Jamie goes to transform his own version.

The Bicycle Transformation – Plan B

Jamie uses the same bike frame as did Adam. He improves on the paddlewheel by increasing the number of paddles from 12 to 20 for more power and more control. He cuts the aluminum sheet metal into squares and fastens them to the back bicycle wheel, then remounts the wheel on the bicycle and with his adjusted frame, the transformed paddlewheel works fine.

For buoyancy, Jamie replaces the water jugs with a more high-tech solution, using hydroforming.

Here, the show graphics inform us that hydroforming uses water pressure to shape ductile metals like aluminum sheets into unusual but rigid shapes. Jamie wedges a piece of sheet aluminum between two heavy metal plates, one of which has a large almond-shaped hole. Once the plates are bolted together, Jamie hooks up a water hose and applies water pressure, and the aluminum bulges into a perfect almond-shaped bubble.

At the end of the hydroforming process, Jamie has eight almond shaped bubbles which he cuts to size and seals into four tuna-shaped pontoons, each having 110 pounds of buoyancy.

The tuna shape should make movement through the water easier with less effort and support easier steering. In addition, Jamie creates a telescoping rod for the back set of pontoons allowing for more stability. (And in Jamie’s estimation, his version is way cooler looking than the original – that has to count for something, right?)

With the build finished it is time to test Jamie’s version against Adam’s version.

Because of its diverse terrain, Jamie and Adam choose Horseshoe Lake in Fremont, California, for a head-to-head test. Horseshoe Lake offers a bit of pavement, some dirt roads, and a beautiful, placid lake – much of the terrain a commuter might actually encounter. (Horseshoe Lake is part of Quarry Lakes Regional Recreational Area, found here.)

First, however, Jamie must give his transformed bicycle a proof-of-concept test to ensure that it floats. He puts the bike in the water and lets down the front pontoons – good. Jamie spreads out the back pontoons – great. Then Jamie has one final mechanical improvement: an electric crankshaft that lowers the paddlewheel into the water – that works fine, too.

Jamie dons his usual dress white shirt, a life vest, long pants, sandals, and of course his signature beret, all commuter wear you wouldn’t want to get wet. His amphibious bike seems to be working fine. It pedals forward, and backward, even steers fine. But as with Adam’s test on his amphibious bike, there’s a hitch. Jamie notices one of his back pontoons is sinking – it must be leaking water! Soon, the bicycle sinks too much and Jamie topples into the water. Feel better now, Adam?

A quick fix of Jamie’s leaky pontoon later, Adam and Jamie are ready for their head-to-head contest. The rules are simple: With the pontoons raised as they enter the water, Adam and Jamie must lower the pontoons into the water, thus transforming their bicycles into amphibious bikes, mount them, and paddle across the lake to a buoy and back. The first one back has the best design.

Now Adam is quickest to get his pontoons into the water and get underway, putting him a full minute ahead of Jamie. However, once Jamie gets his pontoons into position and starts pedaling, his superior pontoons and greater number of paddles allow him to quickly catch up with Adam and pass him, then stay ahead of Adam by three or four minutes. Jamie goes on to win the race.

“Mine was more streamlined and it was easier to pedal,” explains Jamie. “I got more water up my butt, but I’ll settle for that.” Adam confirms that though his transformed bike shows that the version in the myth works, “Jamie’s was better.”

MythBusters call on the myth: Confirmed.

Some Afterthoughts

Cars were built easier to work with back in the 1940s through the mid-60s. That’s no myth, this show proved it.

Question: How did the Frenchman get so stranded in his Citroen that he couldn’t drive out in it but he could rebuild it into a motorcycle and drive it away? Although Adam and Jamie demonstrated they could transform a Citroen into a motorcycle, it left me wondering if there weren’t parts of the story unconsidered. (Potential plot hole?)

Question: Adam’s amphibious bike floundered in the pool, but they didn’t appear to make any modifications. How was it so stable in the head-to-head race later in the episode? (Plot hole?)

QuestionMythBusters did not show Adam and Jamie testing all of that terrain they talked about at Horseshoe Lake. Is this a plot hole or a continuity problem?

Question: In all the show openings so far, Adam seems to lead off the discussion, implying he comes up with the myths. Why doesn’t Jamie do the lead off once in a while? Jamie seems more of a leader type than a follower type.

It’s good to get back to good old myth-busting. An occasional MythBusters Special is fun, but the heart of the show has always been to explore myths or legends or cheats (like Photoshopped photos or tampered videos), and this episode really hit the spot.

If you missed the “Transformers” episode this weekend, don’t fret: It repeats next Saturday at 8 pm Eastern/Pacific Time, 7 pm Central Time, just before next weekend’s new episode.

Alan Eggleston A writer from the boomer generation, I was among the first Americans to grow up with television and even got my bachelors degree in broadcasting. My first professional job was working in a television station, working camera and then writing copy and promotions. A few years later I turned to writing for print and then adapted to the Internet. I love writing and I love good television and film - I hope it shows in my reviews.