I’m a car buff, and have been since childhood. Over the years, I’ve owned muscle cars and Mercs, econoboxes, hot hatches and Jeeps and Mini Coopers — restored a Triumph TR6, and am just waiting on the day I can get another icon of my youth in my garage.
But one thing that wasn’t around back then is automotive programming on TV. Now, there is a whole network devoted to it (Velocity in the US), and any channel that draws guys (Discovery, History, CNBC, BBC America) is at least attempting to park something there to keep enthusiasts, hobbyists and just plain car shoppers tuned in.
“Top Gear” blew the lid off this genre, and seemed to peak about four years ago for me. I still like the British show, even in its current fluctuating reboot state. They’re still not there with host chemistry, and blood will be spilled before the LeBlanc/Evans dust up is settled. The American version never did anything for me (Anglophile, I suppose). They never got the chemistry right with the hosts, not one of them was somebody you’d like to have a beer and talk cars with. Narrow demo (they were all pretty much the same age), equally annoying.
The new BBC version is averaging one good segment per installment, which is all the old show ever did. They’ll get there, with or without Evans (or LeBlanc).
My interest in the Amazon series the previous cast have cooked up, “The Grand Tour,” is mostly due to the title. It hasn’t really lived up to that promise, I have to say.
The BEST thing “Top Gear” did was put those three in beaters they’d bought themselves and forcing them to drive through Africa/Vietnam/The American South/The Middle East, keeping them running as they did. The new “Gear” is attempting that, but Evans in particular seems to not get that buying a cushy, lightly-used Jag for a song makes for really dull TV. No character, no breakdowns, no fun.
I love Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” available online or streamed through Crackle. (UPDATE – Now on Netflix) It’s more about the comics than the cars or the coffee, but it’s a great vehicle (ahem) for Seinfeld to get together with his peers, talk about “the work” and chat a little about the classic car Jerry picks up the guest comic in. Margaret Cho he fetched in a zany Mazda Cosmo last week.
“Jay Leno’s Garage” is about another comic with a car Jones, and Leno is, if anything, more famous for his cars than even the Great Seinfeld. The show has multiple elements — celebrities, stunts, themes, etc. It predates Seinfeld’s show (it started on Youtube before finding a slot on CNBC), but feels like a bigger budget attempt to best it. Leno is affable and only occasionally insufferable (a knock on his later “Tonight Show” tenure), and the show is a winner with good segments on “investment collectible cars” and the like. He’s competitive, so if Seinfeld is picking up Obama in a Corvette, Leno is coming for Joe Biden in a Corvette. And the show is getting better, something I look for in a car series.
“Fantomworks” is a car restoration show that gives you a bit of “Here’s how people do this or that” to restore a car, and a lot more of its obnoxious host, Dan Short. The short-tempered Short has a bias for American muscle cars, though his Norfolk, VA shop handles almost anything. He comes off as a “type” any car owner or collectible car enthusiast will recognize — a jerk who looks down his nose, insults the owner and earlier work done on the car and high-handedly tells you the way it’s going to be. Southerners will recognize the bonus trait of wrapping himself in the flag (Norfolk’s a Navy town, so it doesn’t hurt him). Personally, if I show up at a car or boat business with too much of that, or Jesus fishes on its business cards, I run. There’s no bargaining or certainty of getting a square deal from guys like him.
“Dallas Car Sharks” (Velocity) has a little wheeling and dealing — cars bought at auction in Texas — a little restoration work and a lot of personality. Like too much reality TV, it’s pushed dealers into “character” roles — the idiot know-it-all, the cheapskates, the arrogant jerk who throws his money around, etc.
A lot of these programs (“Fast’N Loud” stands out) put a lot of effort into the “personality” side of things. It works to create branding and conflict. “All Girls Garage” and “Car Fix” and “Overhaulin'” and many others fail to stand out and try too hard to make stars.
The Canadian “Restoration Garage” is more my speed — civil, detailed, sentimental.
And I really enjoy “Chasing Classic Cars” even if it is a guilty pleasure. Host Wayne Carini has been in the collectible car biz/car restoration game since childhood. He’s a perfectly bland TV personality whose limitations are exacerbated by writers and editors who do him no favors. He doesn’t want to say what he paid for a car? Why? Are the sellers cheating the tax man? He has a habit of repeating, in narration, something he’s just said on camera, or vice versa. That’s TERRIBLE television, slack and sloppy and lazy. How lazy becomes obvious when the producer is interviewing this or that car seller. The quotes they pull from these inane chats repeat info we’ve already been given, or worse, state the stupidly obvious. “I saw this car, and I kinda liked it. So I bought it.” Yeah, and? Any TV news production vet would know they haven’t got “the money quote” in an interview that goes like that and could cajole something more revealing, more exciting, out of the seller/show organizer/vendor. Carini should push for an upgrade in that crew because they make this show dotty, old and dim. The quirky old mechanic Roger is the best thing about the “Chasing” and he’s not getting any younger. Try harder. Seriously.
Which brings us to a car-flipping/restoration show that is trying harder, and improving season by season. The British born/American transplant “Wheeler Dealers” buys cars cheap (TV camera crews and TV star leaning on a seller has to help), fixes them up and flips them. Minis and Jeeps and Rovers and Saabs and Porsches and Fiats and BMWs and Lambos and Dancing ponies. Oh my. There’s a lot of work that erudite and unflappable mechanic Edd China puts in to make these flips pay off, and for over a decade, the knock on the show was how it revealed the cost of the car, the cost of parts and paint, but labor was left out. This season, they’ve added that to their tally. This season, based on the first show, has Mike Brewer, a genial host given to a half-dozen catch-phrases, trite expressions and “Woaa–ho-ho-hos” behind the wheel, “getting me hands dirty” and pitching in on body work and repairs. My jaw dropped when he sat down, picked up a tire wrench and did the brakes on the 1968 Corvette they flipped in their 13th season premiere.
The shows retains its Britishness, even when they’re doing seasons of the series in the US.
Better still, they’re now including out-takes at the end of the show. Backyard mechanics are better served knowing that stuff goes wrong and profanities are tossed out when they do. Sometimes. It’s the best, and to me, getting better. Well done, “Wheeler Dealers.”
UPDATED: I can’t say “Wheeler Dealers” has missed a beat after Edd China quit. Ant Antstead is more of a “hot” (in your face, enthusiastic, energetic) presence than the professorial cool of Edd. Ant’s terrific, and checking out his old “For the Love of Cars” episodes makes him an endearing authority/mechanic.
I’m tracking what Edd does post-“Dealers,” and would gladly watch any show with him on it. Top tip? “Top Gear” could find a spot for Edd, a “Beaters Corner” that would cut back on the Supercar porn and cut into time from the re-engineered collection of hosts, but that chemistry isn’t dazzling, anyway. Chris and Matt’s fake rivalry and Rory’s “Just THRILLED to be here” aren’t the show’s selling points. Yet.