Self-taught Cleveland man builds monster trucks and huge robots

Tim Willis Transformer and Dog Robots

As a kid, Tim Willis, 57, rode dirt bikes then entered motocross events. This interest quickly evolved from competing with dirt bikes into motorcycles, cars, demolition derbies and trucks. He started taking home parts from a junkyard more than 36 years ago and building a car in his living room because he didn’t have a garage. This set Willis on a trajectory that led to making monster trucks then into robots because he says, “Trucks were trendy. I wanted to work on something that gets better over time with no expiration date, something no one else is doing. Robots are high-tech, and I want to get a jumpstart on technology that can go anywhere.” His friend Pete had made a Transformer out of wood. Willis told him they should make one out of metal. He watched “The Transformers” and “Real Steel” then bought a toy Transformer at Toys “R” Us in order to visualize it. He gave the toy to a kid and began making his first robot. He works organically, only making a “kiddy sketch” for proportion then starts building.

He built a 16-foot-tall, 4,000-pound Transformer robot that can walk down the street and a 12-foot-tall robotic dog. He currently is working on a two-headed dragon that is on wheels and can be towed behind a truck. It has a 20-foot wingspan (made from rack shelving bought at HGR Industrial Surplus), a body 28-feet long and a 12-foot tail. Each robot costs about $120,000 in materials plus the labor and takes six months to build. He works on them from October through March for 18 hours per day, seven days per week.

For his livelihood, he has worked in a machine shop and owned Tim’s Wild Creations, a high-tech handyman company that would put together things that a customer bought and dreamed of building. For 23 years, he freestyled as the “clown” at Monster Truck shows to keep the crowd revved up. He did 43-44 shows per six-month season in the 1980s. He was paid $5,000 per show, and that’s where his capital came from. In addition, up until four years ago, he would enter his monster trucks into races where all competitors would put in a $500 entry fee, and the winner takes all. He says, “People spend money before they’ve got it. I put money away, don’t go out, live simply and don’t waste a thing.”

Now, he only woks on robots and is demonstrates his “hobby that went wild,” at many area events, including educational seminars, MOCA Cleveland’s Everything All at Once exhibition, St. Patrick’s Day parades, the Puerto Rican Festival, the Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy, the Cuyahoga County Fair, IngenuityFest and even a demonstration in front of St. Adalbert on E. 83rd St. to keep the parish open.

Willis considers himself a self-taught mechanical engineer and a fulltime showman. He works out of a fix-it shop on wheels that he takes to his shows and a shop in his garage. He shares that he is a vegetarian, does not eat sweets, smoke, drink or gamble. He says, “Life is about constant self-discipline for total control over my mind. Everything I do, I give it my all.” To that end, he is focused to the exclusion of all else on gaining more knowledge. He explains that he will work on a robot or truck and have a problem to fix that he can’t solve; so, he will go jogging or work on something else until the solution presents itself.

To date, he has invested more than $4 million in his hobby and passion and has made 28 monster trucks and robots. He still has 19 of them. For parts, he goes to auctions and HGR Industrial Surplus. He found HGR when a friend brought him to the showroom 15 years ago. Willis was so captivated that when his friend wanted to leave, he said to go ahead that he’d find a ride home. Willis says, “I love HGR. You can get everything there. I save here. A lot of times they have new stuff that you can get for ¼ the price.” He has bought the ramps to load his robots onto the trailer and all of the electrical circuit breakers and boxes for his shop from HGR.

If you meet Willis, his happiness is infectious. He has learned through hard lessons to do what he loves. His father, two sisters and brother died at young ages from a rare heart condition attributed to Marfan Syndrome. His step father was killed in a street shooting. That’s where the name of his monster truck team came from: The Homicide Team. But, he is sensitive to the message he puts out to youth. He clarifies that The Homicide Team is mechanical science in motion and that it was named in 1994 in honor of the Cleveland Police Homicide Unit for their thorough investigations and devotion to solving his step-father’s case and to inspire students to get a good education and become business- and career-oriented so they won’t be tempted to step into the streets. He quotes Albert Einstein, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” And, because he worries about the message he puts out in the world, he got rid of the homicide reference on his trucks. He also spent $10,000 repainting them from their trademark yellow, orange and red shades of dripping blood to shades of green for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, he has two robots, the Transformer and the dog, and two trucks in the parade.

Two-Headed Dragon by Tim WillisTwo-Headed Dragon Robot by Tim Willis

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